City Councilmembers and Advocates Urge the City to Provide Better Assistance to Homeless Families

Last week, at the City Council General Welfare Committee’s first hearing of the year, advocates urged the new administration to improve the lives of thousands of homeless families and children in the city by implementing housing-based policies.

The February 27th hearing, which focused on the conditions and operations of DHS family shelters, was called in response to The New York Times’ five-part series, “Invisible Child.” The series revealed the decrepit and hazardous conditions of Auburn Family Residence, a city-run shelter in Brooklyn.  In a move lauded by the Coalition and others, the City recently announced that it would relocate over 400 children and their families from this facility and the Catherine Street shelter to either permanent housing or other more appropriate shelters. While this was certainly a welcome decision by the administration, there are still thousands of other families enduring similar dangerous and unhealthy conditions in many other shelters across New York City. These outstanding issues, as well as the urgent need to provide families with housing-based assistance, were addressed at the hearing.

Andrea Elliott’s article, “At Council Hearing, Calls for New York to Offer Homeless Children and Families More Aid,” which ran in The New York Times the following day, highlights the main points discussed:

Members of the City Council pressed the de Blasio administration at a hearing on Thursday to complete a proposal for rental assistance to New York’s homeless and demanded improved services for more than 22,000 children living in city shelters.

With the homeless population at record levels, the city has failed to provide sufficient help with housing, medical care and transportation to keep homeless children in the same schools, homeless advocates, council members and service providers said at a hearing of the Council’s General Welfare Committee.

“For children to spend half their lives in that environment leaves an indelible impact on them,” the committee’s chairman, Stephen Levin, said. “They deserve, frankly, much better than that.”

Half of all homeless children experience anxiety, depression and withdrawal, and roughly a third suffer from asthma, while few of those children take needed medication, according to testimony from several organizations.

The need for housing subsidies and priority referrals to New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing waiting lists were the focal point of the hearing. Even though DHS Commissioner Taylor did not provide a specific plan of action, he stated that housing-based policies are being considered and promised to collaborate with advocates:

Gilbert Taylor, the city’s new homeless services commissioner, vowed at the hearing to change the tenor of a historically adversarial relationship between the city and homeless advocates, saying, “There’s real power in dialogue.”

In his testimony, Mr. Taylor said that Auburn and Catherine Street could not be closed because of the demand for beds in the shelter system, which has a 1 percent vacancy rate. More than 400 children and their families will be transferred to other city shelters or into permanent housing while the city spends more than $13 million to renovate the facilities, which will become adult family shelters offering job training, he said.

There are three primary causes of family homelessness in New York, Mr. Taylor said: eviction, domestic violence and overcrowding. “Thinking about ways we can improve life outcomes for children, particularly children who are in the shelter system, is at the forefront of my agenda,” he said. “I’ve always said you can’t help them unless you help their families.”

Advocates have urged the city to reinstate a version of the rental-subsidy program that was canceled in 2011 after the state withdrew its portion of the funding.

When pressed for specifics on the city’s plans, Mr. Taylor demurred, saying that various policies were under consideration. Mr. Levin pushed back, saying that “it’s crunchtime” and that the city must finish its rent-subsidy proposal in the next two weeks, ahead of the state’s budget deadline.

Speakers offered a range of recommendations for improving the shelter system, including raising wages for shelter staff to reduce burnout and financing outreach to the most vulnerable populations, like former foster-care recipients and families with a long history of homelessness.

Advocates fiercely criticized the previous administration’s use of apartments as temporary shelter. These “cluster sites” and hotels house a majority of families, with the city spending more than $3,000 a month to house each family in buildings that could otherwise be used as affordable housing, Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless said.

The Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society submitted joint testimony listing the multiple hazardous conditions in City shelters, particularly with regard to the use of cluster-sites and hotels, and calling for the administration to reinstate housing-based policies. The testimony is available here.