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Housing, rental vouchers, outreach: Can NYC fix its homeless crisis?

Advocates and service providers weigh in on possible solutions

Mayor Bill de Blasio participates in the city’s annual HOPE count in 2016.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

In recent years, the number of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness has reached record highs. According to the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, 62,590 people were sleeping in the city’s shelter system in December 2019. That number is a significant uptick from January 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office; at the time, according to the Wall Street Journal, there were, on average, 47,918 people sleeping in shelters.

Meanwhile, during the last Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) count, conducted by the city’s Department of Homeless Services in January 2019, there were 3,588 individuals sleeping on NYC’s streets.

Things didn’t get to this point overnight: A recent report from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Councilmember Stephen Levin notes that the de Blasio administration “inherited a homelessness crisis,” with decisions made by his predecessors—particularly former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg—leading to a major increase in the number of homeless New Yorkers. The former implemented “punitive” measures, such as punishing people for sleeping on the street, and making eligibility requirements for shelter and subsidies more strict; the latter, meanwhile, kept up those stringent rules while cutting funding for vouchers and subsidies.

Since taking office in 2014, de Blasio has made attempts to stanch the crisis, notably through his administration’s five-year “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” plan. The core goal was to completely eliminate the use of “cluster sites” (which are plagued with violence and security issues) by 2021, and commercial hotel facilities by the end of 2023. And according to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), some progress has been made: Since 2017, it has closed more than 200 shelter sites, opened 33 borough-based shelters, and reduced the number of cluster units from around 3,600 to 1,200.

But, as the City Council’s report notes, “homelessness has become an accepted reality that the City treats as a crisis to be managed,” rather than solved entirely. Phasing out cluster sites and opening new shelters (an effort that has been met with fierce opposition in neighborhoods like Park Slope and Billionaire’s Row) can help, but according to service providers and advocates for New York City’s homeless, there is more to be done.

“Homelessness is a complex, multifactorial problem, and it requires a complex set of rules to respond to it,” says George Nashak, executive director of nonprofit Care for the Homeless. “There is no single solution to homelessness.”

Affordable housing

“We can’t solve homelessness without addressing the affordability and stability crisis,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless. Even though the de Blasio administration has ambitious goals to address the dire need for affordable homes in the city, advocates question whether it’s doing enough to create truly low-income housing.

The de Blasio administration’s Housing 2.0 plan calls for creating or preserving 300,000 affordable homes by 2026, but so far, the city has only hit 147,933 units—putting it less than halfway toward that goal, according to city data. Of the units that have been created, just 25,199 have been set aside for extremely low-income households, or those whose annual income is under $28,830/year for a family of three; 36,054 are for very low-income households, or those with an annual income of $48,050/year for a family of three.

The City Council’s report emphasized the “supply-side imbalance” in New York City’s housing market, and suggested that the supply of housing units should be increased across all income levels. “Although New York importantly recognizes the right of individuals to have shelter, the City must operate with the goal of such shelter being temporary,” the report reads. “Permanent, affordable housing should be the hallmark of the City’s plan to address homelessness.”

One of the ways in which the de Blasio administration is addressing that need is providing financing to nonprofit developers to acquire former cluster site buildings, rehabilitate them, and turning them into permanent affordable housing. In 2019, the city did this with 17 buildings and announced it would transform an additional 14 sites into housing for 200 homeless families.

And recently, the City Council passed legislation that advocates view as a major victory: The bill mandates developers of rental buildings with more than 40 units to set aside 15 percent of their units for homeless individuals, which is anticipated to create 1,000 new apartments per year. Routhier says the bill “will help expand the availability of affordable housing for homeless New Yorkers in perpetuity.”

Supportive housing and shelters

Supportive housing—affordable homes that provide on-site support, meals, and mental health care, among other services—is one of the best ways to address the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers, according to advocates and elected officials. But the current number of supportive housing units doesn’t come close to addressing demand, according to Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker and current CEO of Win, a nonprofit that runs shelters throughout the city.

“The needs are clear; the resources are not responsive to the needs of those we serve,” says Quinn. “It’s like having a hospital, where you know 80 percent of the people have a particular disease but that hospital doesn’t have a unit to serve and treat that disease.”

The city has worked to develop supportive housing since the 1990s, and in 2015, de Blasio announced NYC 15/15, a program to create 15,000 new units over the course of 15 years; and so far, as of 2019, the city has awarded 4,304 of supportive units to service providers through that program, DHS says. Statewide, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also wants to develop 20,000 units of supportive housing, which he announced in 2016; 5,000 have been funded as of November 2019.

Outreach and safe havens

Homeless individuals sleeping on the streets may have difficulty entering the traditional shelter system because of “barriers to entry,” as Brenda Rosen, CEO of Breaking Ground, a nonprofit and outreach service provider, puts it. Some struggle with severe mental illness; others would also rather sleep outside than in violence-plagued city-run shelters.

For those individuals, outreach teams offer “safe havens,” or transitional housing that does not have the strict admission requirements (proving eligibility, a curfew, etc.) of traditional shelters. DHS says that there are approximately 1,800 “safe haven” beds throughout the city, a number that has tripled since 2014. There are also more than 500 outreach workers, who are tasked with helping homeless individuals transition to an inside location (a shelter, hospital, housing, or a safe haven).

Last summer, the city launched the NYPD Subway Diversion Program, in which transit cops offer referrals to services to homeless individuals found to be violating the subway system’s rules (lying outstretched, for instance). But the program has been criticized by advocates, City Council members, and even transit officers themselves for criminalizing homelessness. And according to Gothamist, data on the program shows that in 60 percent of cases, individuals chose a summon over accepting services.

Instead, Routhier says, the city should move away from having NYPD officers engage with individuals first and rather have trained social service providers, while investing on more safe havens or low-threshold shelters.

Legal services and emergency assistance to avoid eviction

In 2017, the de Blasio administration and the City Council significantly expanded free legal services to low-income NYC tenants facing eviction as part of the Right to Counsel law.

Ever since, evictions in the included zip codes have decreased by 29 percent, according to a Community Service Society study. Overall, efforts to provide legal counsel in housing court to low-income tenants have contributed to lowering evictions citywide since 2013 by over 40 percent, according to the de Blasio administration.

Given the program’s success, the City Council is now looking to expand the law’s income eligibility requirements; and other cities in the country have followed suit with similar legislation.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s rental assistance program, City Fighting Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS), allows some families in shelters and families at risk of homelessness to pay 30 percent of their income on rent, while the program pays for the difference.

However, families leaving shelters and using the CityFHEPS vouchers have often been unable to use them because the values are capped at $1,580/month for a three- or four-person household, according to Win, and they’re unable to find an apartment priced at that level in the current NYC rental market. Several nonprofits are currently advocating for increasing the maximum allowed CityFHEPS rent to the federally-mandated fair market value in the city, which is $1,951/month for a two-bedroom or a household of three to four individuals.

Coalition for the Homeless, along with other advocacy organizations, is pushing for a statewide rental assistance program called “Home Stability Support,” currently in the State Senate’s finance committee, which would replace the city’s voucher system and use federal and state funding to increase the value of vouchers to fair market rent. According to Routhier, the homelessness crisis overall is “not solvable without the assistance of the state and the federal government.”

Prevention and after care

Helping homeless New Yorkers leave the shelter system and find permanent housing isn’t the end of their journey; according to Quinn, there must be more resources for after care, or linking a formerly homeless person with a social worker or case manager to help them transition and stabilize.

As part of its Homebase program, the city does provide some of these services, which include case management, tenant/landlord mediation, and short-term financial assistance. But more could be done; in 2019 alone, almost one in five adults, 1 in 10 families with children, and 1 in 20 adult families returned to a DHS shelter within a year, according to the City Council’s report. That study suggested aftercare services the city already provides should be expanded to include single adults (it’s currently geared toward families with children), and should be evaluated for further improvement.

The city and service providers need to “make certain that we’re disrupting the cycle of homelessness,” says Nashak. “Once someone goes through an episode of homelessness and is placed back in housing in the community, we need real after-care that would help them from becoming homeless again.”