Thursday, June 9, 2011 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

FACT VS. SPIN:  Federal Housing Programs and NYC Homelessness

Bloomberg administration officials keep spreading the falsehood that Federal housing programs are not available to help homeless New Yorkers. The reality is that Federal housing aid, though scarce, IS available -- and is proven to reduce homelessness.

As we've noted many times before, the major homeless policy error of Mayor Bloomberg's administration was its decision more than six years ago to cut off homeless New Yorkers from priority access to Federal housing programs like public housing and Section 8 vouchers. These programs had successfully helped tens of thousands of homeless families move from shelters to stable homes under previous NYC mayors, and cost far less than municipal shelters.

Now, with the end of the flawed Advantage program (one of several failed time-limited subsidies the Bloomberg administration had used to replace the successful Federal programs), Mayor Bloomberg and City officials are making a disastrous policy even worse.

Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg has decided not to provide ANY housing assistance at all to help homeless families move from shelters back o the community -- the first time since modern homelessness began three decades ago that a NYC mayor has had no plan to re-house homeless children and families.

To defend this misguided policy, as we noted last week, the Mayor and City officials are making the outrageous, and outrageously false, claim that housing subsidies somehow case homelessness -- sort of like saying that food causes hunger and medicine causes illness.

But administration officials are also making the false claim that Federal housing programs are simply not available to help homeless New Yorkers. A week ago the New York Times reported:

[Coalition for the Homeless] has pressed the Bloomberg administration to give homeless people preference for public housing and vouchers for Section 8, a federally financed subsidy program using private housing, as previous administrations had. The administration said that was not feasible, because the Section 8 program had a waiting list of 125,000 people and public housing had a list of 144,000.

Back in April, responding to the Coalition's State of the Homeless 2011 report, City officials said much the same thing to multiple news organizations like WNBC News:

But the Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond defended his agency's performance, disputed the report's findings and called the proposed solutions "unrealistic."

"The coalition is proposing an outdated solution," Diamond said. "The idea of getting more funding from Washington, considering what happened recently with the government almost shutting down, is just not going to happen."

So, while we haven't rolled out our "Fact vs. Spin" blog feature in quite awhile, let's revive it to examine the administration's claims:

• THE SPIN: Bloomberg administration officials claim, as DHS Commissioner Diamond recently wrote to shelter providers, that the City "cannot count on federal housing assistance to develop a complete strategy for shelter residents."

• THE FACTS: Under four NYC mayors, from Koch through Giuliani and even Bloomberg in his first term, Federal housing programs were the City's primary tool for helping homeless families move from shelter to stable, permanent housing. And they were enormously successful.

As we showed in our State of the Homeless 2011 report, from FY 1990 through FY 2001, the City used public housing and Section 8 vouchers to help well over 50,000 homeless families move from municipal shelters to their own homes - and only a fraction ever returned to shelter. And the average number of homeless families in municipal shelters each night during that period (5,916 families) was more than one-third LOWER than it's been (9,058 families) since Bloomberg officials started using time-limited subsidies like Advantage.

• THE SPIN: Bloomberg administration officials claim that Federal housing programs are not available to help homeless New Yorkers.

• THE FACTS: There is also no question that the Federal programs ARE available. During the last City fiscal year, the City placed 5,544 households into public housing and assisted an additional 7,523 households with Section 8 vouchers -- virtually none of them homeless.

The reality is that NYC's vast public housing system (more than 180,000 apartments) and large supply of Section 8 vouchers (there are approximately 100,000 current Section 8 voucher holders in NYC) have natural turnover, meaning that as tenants move out or pass away, apartments and vouchers become available for other needy households.

Turnover in these programs exists regardless of year-to-year changes in Federal funding, though economic downturns do result in a lower turnover rate. However, funding for the Section 8 program is more sensitive to annual appropriations, although the FY 2011 Federal budget recently finalized fortunately resulted in no reductions to the Section 8 budget.

Thus, whether or not homeless New Yorkers get access to Federal housing resources is not a matter of them not being available -- it is a policy CHOICE on the part of the Mayor.

• THE SPIN: As the excerpt from the recent NY Times article shows, City officials have been claiming falsely that long waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers make it impossible (not "feasible") to assist homeless New Yorkers.

• THE FACTS: This is a claim that City officials absolutely know to be false.

Even before the drastic cutbacks to Federal housing programs during the Reagan administration, the unfortunately reality is that there has never been sufficient housing assistance for every household that qualifies for aid. Thus, the City of New York, like every other city in the country, has had to ration its scarce Federal housing resources by targeting the families and individuals most in need.

That is one reason why the waiting lists for both public housing and Section 8 vouchers are not "first come, first served"-style waiting lists. In fact, applicants are assigned a priority classification depending on their circumstances and needs, and some applicants (for example, domestic violence victims and intimidated witnesses of crimes) are granted a higher priority.

Thus, even though there have been more than 100,000 applicants on both waiting lists for decades, not every applicant has the same chance of actually receiving Federal housing aid. Who does and who doesn't are a matter of public policy CHOICE by various NYC mayors. And, as noted before, previous NYC mayors chose to include homeless New Yorkers among the groups with the highest priority.

Currently, the highest priority for both the public housing and Section 8 waiting lists is: "Referrals from the New York City Department of Homeless Services" and other social services agencies. (The priority classifications and other application procedures can be found on the New York City Housing Authority's website, in its annual plan, here.)

So the only reason homeless New Yorkers are not receiving Federal housing assistance is...because the NYC Department of Homeless Services no longer refers them to the appropriate waiting lists. And this is because Mayor Bloomberg and his administration CHOOSE not to do this.

• THE SPIN: Unbelievably, on its own website the NYC Department of homeless services recently stated that it is a "MYTH" that "Federal housing programs reduce family homelessness."

• THE FACTS: The reality is that three decades of academic research and experience have conclusively proven that Federal housing programs REDUCE family homelessness. As Jill Khadduri, a respected researcher and former Federal housing official, wrote in a 2008 research review:

"An extensive body of careful research has demonstrated that housing vouchers are critically important both for preventing families with children from becoming homeless and for helping those who do enter the shelter system to leave it for permanent housing and not become homeless again....For families who do become homeless, housing vouchers are an extensively tested and demonstrably effective tool for moving to permanent housing and remaining stably housed." (Emphasis added.)

It is enormously troubling that Bloomberg administration officials either reject or ignore the overwhelming evidence about the success of Federal housing assistance in reducing homelessness. And it is further insight into the purely ideological roots of the administration's failed approach to the problem of homelessness.

But most of all, it's one more reason for New Yorkers to advocate for proven, reality-based, and solutions-oriented homeless policies -- before we see an even larger wave of homelessness in the near future.



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