The Policies and Politics of Sheltering

(CHELSEA NOW) John Mudd, May 6, 2017 — I was riveted by my new read while stepping onto the E train one early winter morning in 2015, and was completely unaware of my surroundings, when I was assaulted by the smell coming from the sleeping homeless huddled from end to end on the subway benches (see Homeless Train to Nowhere). The stench was so intense I nearly heaved; the scene forever seared in my memory. My shock was not brought on by the homeless per se, but by the assertion that we are the “greatest nation on earth!” How can we accept such a notion when homelessness is still alive and well, with us far from finding a solution?

I am of the belief that we’ll find solutions, as long as there is a collective effort working towards those solutions. There are so many agencies dedicated to improving the human condition, and there are many people that want to see care given to those in need. What’s clogging the wheels of progress then? The answers may be in the policies, procedures, resources, services, and the human condition itself. Wherever the answers may lie, we need to keep asking the questions in order to make any progress.

Beth Hofmeister is a Staff Attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project; she fights for the homeless and those bordering on homelessness. It was in her office that I received an education about the shelter services, those who are being sheltered, and its policies and politics. After giving me the daunting details and statistics, she explained the challenges that await us.

“There are approximately 60,000 homeless in New York City,” she told me. “The NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) census does not include the religious, youth, and domestic violence shelters, nor do they count the street homeless — if you add another 10,000 to this figure you may be closer to the actual homeless count.”

The 60,000 people that are in DHS associated shelters in New York City can be checked on the DHS website census. As of April 2017, there are over 36,000 adults, 3,837 of which are women — down from a recent count of 5,000 — living in the shelter system. The number of children has decreased. Families who are residing in shelters will increase in the summer. The overwhelming street homeless, encampments, and panhandlers reflected our 2016 record-setting year, and perhaps our growing inequality. In spite of the lack of available housing, the homeless were not floundering on the streets for lack of outreach.

I am told, and I have heard and seen as much, that you can reach out to 400-plus people who are living on the streets and place only three of them in a shelter. It’s a process requiring patience and persistence — a homeless person may not get in the first time, but they may the 10th time. Some homeless would rather brave the pouring rain, sweltering heat, or chilly nights before entering into some of the shelters.

There is an agreement among many, that some shelters, like The Armory, are scary and even dangerous places. Most homeless complain about privacy and security. I’ve already heard three separate complaints about Ward’s Island in my limited homeless outreach experience. In Parnell’s words — a homeless person I spoke to living on the streets of Manhattan — “It’s a prison mentality.” In August 2016, CBS 2 News took a camera inside the New Dawn shelter — it did not bode well for the city’s shelter management. They found mold, roaches, and mice — and there are plenty of other reports on shelter conditions; most came to light around the beginning of 2016.

“Homeless [people] have a right to shelter, but not to quality,” said Hofmeister, who gets calls every day about vermin-infested shelters. She also pointed out that the conditions are not being overlooked and are improving. “The city and state continues to focus on inspections and repairs of building and safety violations… . The city has cleared hundreds of thousands of violations in the shelter system in 2016 alone.”

She tells me it would be impactful if we raised the standards of the shelters. New York City sets the standards (and regulations) for the shelters. Raising the standard is talked about all the time, but it’s difficult or nearly impossible to move forward. There is no legal precedent to force the bar to be raised. The battle for change would likely begin with the City Council for city-based changes. I asked what the difference would be in the city-based changes versus state changes. Can the city operate autonomously on some rules and not on others? Hofmeister answered, “This is a complex administrative law question, but the city and state share different licensing and oversight responsibilities depending on the issue at hand. These responsibilities are also shared by various city and state agencies.”

Hofmeister’s prescription: “If you have a movement across businesses in this geographical area [Midtown], you can make a difference.” So with a consortium of city and business leaders, along with the city of Buffalo, whose officials are on New York City’s side (they have similar issues with homelessness) we should have a wave big enough to make some changes. And what is change without the support of the people? Another action plan comes to mind: Build an online petition amassing signatures to support legislative moves.

Other homeless agencies (Urban Pathways, Breaking Ground, Housing Works, Rescue Mission, Bowery Mission, Bowery Residents Committee, Coalition for the Homeless…) are providing other options and pathways to permanent housing for the homeless.

There are 764 (nearing full capacity) Safe Haven beds and small studio apartments, which are being used by single homeless adults. You don’t have to go through the shelter system, DHS, to get into Safe Haven. A Safe Haven bed can be had through BRC, Bowery Residents Committee. Clients need to qualify for placement in an available Safe Haven bed. Difficult clients have been accepted.

Coalition for the Homeless believes “that affordable housing, sufficient food, and the chance to work for a living wage are fundamental rights in a civilized society.” The not-for-profit homeless service agency will not do outreach (but will make an exception for persons with mobility issues) they do intake at their location. They would rather focus their resources on those who have taken the first step to leave the streets. The company monitors all the single shelters, and have started monitoring family shelters. Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director, Giselle Routhier, told me that their homeless counts “include DHS shelter, Safe Havens beds, stabilization beds, veterans beds, criminal justice beds, and HPD family shelter.”

“Our numbers do not include faith-based shelters or people that spend the night in chairs at drop-in centers. These fluctuate pretty significantly on a daily basis.”

New York City leads in the homeless indices (Los Angeles is a distant second), and the majority seem to be right here in Midtown Manhattan. Hofmeister points out that Midtown’s homeless come from many places, whereas in other communities such as Harlem, the homeless might be from that community.

Urban Pathways’ Darlene Reddish suggests that some homeless make trips in from New Jersey, where “no panhandling rules” are enforced, to make their money. Good for New Jersey — but they’ve only succeeded in pushing their problem elsewhere.

There are many contributing factors that bring the homeless or near homeless to midtown Manhattan: The homeless gravitate toward the comforts of the transportation hubs: Port Authority, Penn Station, and Grand Central. Through sheer numbers of travelers, the homeless can find some sympathetic donors to their plight, and by their account it’s a warmer and safer place to be. There are a number of services including a methadone clinic, needle exchange, and parole board, as well as shelters around the Midtown area of Manhattan.

Harshest of weather will have many homeless seeking shelter throughout our transportation system. Teenage homeless use the nickname “Uncle Ace’s House” for the A/C/E trains, which are used most often for shelter by many of the homeless, because of its longer uninterrupted train routes. Generally, the runaway homeless population in New York is defined as being between the ages of 16-21. Many of the homeless youth come from the five boroughs of New York; some are from New Jersey and Connecticut. Most youths are kicked out of their homes for various reasons as opposed to leaving. Identity issues combined with teenage hormonal strife makes for volatility; 40-60 percent of the population identify as LGBT or gender non-conforming. Most of their services are based Uptown. Covenant House is located in Midtown.

Hofmeister’s clients are mostly families, employed and relatively stable, with kids that are in school. Family units are housed in an apartment space. Intake is necessary. Hofmeister helps to secure shelter for families through what can be a difficult eligibility process. They need to have a two-year housing history with the city’s shelter. The city runs the largest part of the shelter system. Families will be in “scatter sites,” in which DHS will rent apartments or hotels. Half the hotels at JFK are used by DHS.

I wondered how convenient those hotels/apartments are. Are the homeless, as they are already mired in seemingly impossible circumstances, further disadvantaged by being exiled to an outpost void of resources?

Only 40 to 45 percent of families are accepted. One month 165 families showed up for shelter in one day, with only 66-74 persons accepted, it left potentially 99 persons to fend for themselves by doubling up, sleeping on trains, or worse.

Upon hearing that, I envisioned a door slammed in a mother’s stunned face. She is helplessly lost as to where to go, a child cries in one arm, and another, tired, cranky, and hungry child tugs on the other. It’s like a horrible Christmas tale.

Domestic violence cases are easiest of all the homeless systems to contend with, as placement is immediate. Phone intake is available. Emergency pickup is available. The shelters that are set aside for people caught up in domestic violence struggles are usually full; domestic violence victims can be temporarily placed and moved from DHS shelters when an opening comes up. However, some regulations are pushing people out into the streets, such as the domestic violence policy: If you and your partner are associated with domestic violence, it will exclude you from getting into shelter as a family. Usually the family will choose to live on the street rather than live in the shelter alone. This puts them in a more stressful situation.

Hofmeister says, criteria loosening is needed: “Come in and we’ll figure it out.” Human Resource Administration (HRA) runs a domestic violence shelter. HRA and DHS are separate agencies sharing the same administrative work and are managed by Commissioner Steve Banks. Hofmeister is advocating for many changes and Steve Banks is accessible; she is in talks with him regularly. However agreeable, things take time to change. Banks’ boss is the mayor. Other priorities may need to come first.

Advocacy needs to be proactive. Helping people out of the shelter system and into permanent housing is good business sense, as well as the humane thing to do. City Primary Links vouchers are there to help people make the leap from a shelter to an apartment. Moreover, advocating to keep people in their apartment with subsidies from the city and state reduces homelessness and costs. If citizens were given a subsidy to stay in their current apartment, it would save costs on legal action, storage fees and moving costs, and the amount of money the city has to pay for people going into the shelter system, which is estimated around $3,000 per month (and is on the rise).

Mayor de Blasio has increased the number of housing court lawyers, which has decreased evictions by 24 percent. There is a “Housing Court Answers” table in the housing court lobby that will answer questions and help anyone from getting evicted. The Home Base program through DHS will help keep people in their apartment, even those having trouble paying rent with a substantial pay rate. It is understood that the shelters are expensive. Why not circumvent the disaster rather than deal with the aftermath?

Then there is the matter of housing. Beth explains, with a solid base to build upon, life can be restructured. Permanent housing revives hope, opens the door to possibilities, and saves costs. 

The Home Stability Support (HSS) could be a game changer. The funds currently paying up to 3,500 per month to keep families in welfare hotels could be redirected to pay up to 85 percent of prevailing rent rates — with municipalities making up the difference. It would save thousands from homelessness and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars a year.

The wheels of progress seem stuck in the mud. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that allocates funds for supportive housing has been over two years in the making. The state wants a 421a tax exemption program in exchange for signing off on the (MOU). 

Coalition for the Homeless, Giselle Routhier clarifies, “The MOU has to be negotiated and signed by all three legislative parties.” They have been lobbying the Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders to act on this.

Marc Greenberg, Executive Director, Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing (IAHH), confirms the governmental drag, “The governor [Andrew M. Cuomo] has put forward a proposed revised 421a tax abatement deal, which is being reviewed by the state legislator, mayor, and others.”

Greenberg, as part of the Right to Counsel NYC coalition, “[We] gained a commitment from the mayor and City Council  to pass intro 214a to establish a right to legal representation in housing court (for tenants up to 200% of the poverty line) which could save as many as 10,000 households a year from unwarranted evictions.” 

Beyond the HSS, MOU, and 214a lobbying, “…the next policy we are trying to organize around is to raise the ‘shelter allowance’ statewide [an effort initiated by state Assembly member Hevesi]. This could be a game changer.”

Alas! Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders announced on April 7, 2017 in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 state budget:

The FY 2018 Budget continues funding for the state’s $20 billion comprehensive, five-year plan for affordable and supportive housing to ensure New Yorkers who are homeless or at risk of homelessness have safe and secure housing. The Budget includes $2.5 billion in funding to advance the creation of 100,000 new affordable and 6,000 supportive housing units.

I feel as if I’ve learned a lot, and know so little at the same time. Daunting, but still possible, fitting the pieces together for a solution is within our capacity — we are too many and too smart not to. 

Source: The Policies and Politics of Sheltering |