Daily News Op-Ed Touts Bloomberg’s Misguided Approach to Homelessness

A July 22nd NY Daily News op-ed is the latest effort to promote the meager findings of a recently published study of the City’s controversial Homebase program. The piece – authored by Rosanne Haggerty, the head of Community Solutions (and former head of Common Ground) – paints a completely misleading picture of NYC family homelessness and, most troubling, entirely ignores proven housing-based solutions.

Haggerty has done admirable work creating permanent supportive housing for homeless single adults living with mental illness and other special needs. That’s why it’s such a shame that she does not champion housing-based solutions for family homelessness, especially given the vast wealth of research and evidence supporting those solutions.

As she has over the past 11 years, Rosanne faithfully echoes the PR strategy of the Bloomberg administration and she uses her ink here to greatly exaggerate the study’s findings of the City’s Homebase prevention program. You may recall the controversy when this study was launched, as elected leaders, advocates and many academics protested the ethically-questionable construct of the study, because it denied homeless prevention assistance to some 200 vulnerable families (the so-called “control group”) seeking help from the City.

The study found that families who received Homebase services only stayed in shelter an average of 22.6 fewer days over a 27-month period than families denied such services, with an estimated savings to the City of only $140 per family. But the op-ed attempts to portray these paltry results as far more significant.

Haggerty’s op-ed completely misrepresents the causes of family homelessness, and as a result, utterly ignores the proven, permanent-housing-based solutions to the problem that have historically generated real, significant and quantifiable savings to taxpayers.

For example, the op-ed claims that, “While the causes of family homelessness are often straightforward — usually a one-time financial crisis — the solutions can be vexingly complicated.” But in reality, the opposite is true.

To begin with, research and first-hand experience show overwhelmingly that the causes of family homelessness are not “usually a one-time financial crisis.” In fact, researchers like the acclaimed anthropologist Anna Lou DeHavenon and others have found that families turning to the NYC shelter system come most commonly from evictions due to insufficient incomes to pay apartment rents; doubled-up or severely overcrowded housing; fleeing domestic violence; or housing with serious health and safety hazards.

Indeed, a respected Vera Institute study (PDF) commissioned by the Bloomberg administration itself in 2005 confirmed these findings. In interviews with more than 300 homeless families, it found that in the years preceding their time in the shelter system, two-thirds had suffered job losses, more than 40 percent had suffered evictions and more than 40 percent had suffered loss of public benefits. One in five had been victims of domestic violence.

Thus, the causes of family homelessness are not rooted in a “one time financial crisis,” but rather long-festering housing affordability problems confronting an increasing number low-income New Yorkers each year, as well as the ranks of many women fleeing unsafe homes.

Perhaps most shocking and disappointing is Ms. Haggerty’s claim that the solutions to family homelessness are “vexingly complicated.” In fact academic experts ranging from Jill Khadduri to Marybeth Shinn to Dennis Culhane have found – in numerous research studies – that permanent housing assistance, including public housing and Federal Section 8 housing vouchers provide the best hope for homeless families to escape homelessness AND remain stably housed. Khadduri summarizes the research as follows:

“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.]

And Shinn, in her paper “Ending Family Homelessness: The Evidence for Affordable Housing,” also summarizes the wealth of research on this topic:

“This paper reviews research showing that homeless families are far more similar to other poor families than to homeless adults without families, but they do not have the resources to secure housing. It examines patterns of shelter use and returns to stable housing and shows that housing that families can afford is sufficient to end homelessness – or to prevent it – for most families. Extensive research demonstrates that housing subsidies solve homelessness for the majority of families.” [Emphasis added.]

Indeed, the Bloomberg-commissioned Vera Institute study (see link above) arrived at the same conclusion:

“Across all cohorts and follow-up periods, those families exiting to subsidized housing exhibited the lowest rates of reentry. Subsidized housing appears to be associated with better protection against shelter return than exiting to one’s own housing, other destinations, or unknown arrangements.” [Emphasis added.]

Ultimately, the most misleading passage of the op-ed is the claim that “the rehousing options available to these families have remained limited and flat.” In fact, the Bloomberg administration cut re-housing options to zero by systematically removing permanent housing subsidies from homeless families. Indeed, the front page of last week’s New York Times featured Mireya Navarro’s examination of this misguided policy shift – an amazing article about poor New Yorkers’ desperate search of affordable housing assistance like public housing:

Officials favor groups of applicants [for public housing] in order to further policy goals. Some, like victims of domestic violence, are given priority. Others, like working families, are preferred because they can pay higher rents and also help diversify the projects so they do not segregate the poor.

Those with a high priority can jump the line and may get an apartment in as little as three months. Others will wait years — with little if any prospect of getting off the list.

In 2005, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took away preferences for homeless people staying in city shelters, arguing that the policy was an incentive for them to enter the shelter system in order to obtain public housing more easily.

As a result, the number of homeless families who enter public housing from shelters dropped to about 100 last year from an average of 1,600 a year before the policy changed, according to city figures. [Emphasis added.]

As we’ve noted many times, the NYC Independent Budget Office has found that restoring homeless families’ priority access to public housing would both reduce family homelessness AND save nearly $15 million in taxpayer dollars spent on the shelter system – far greater savings than those claimed by the Homebase study.

Finally, Ms. Haggerty argues that, “If we’re serious about resolving this crisis, we cannot afford to wait for new affordable housing.”

Put simply, New York City’s next mayor will confront an unprecedented homelessness crisis due to the failures of Mayor Bloomberg’s policies.  S/he can and should immediately marshal every affordable housing resource available to successfully tackle the problem of family homelessness. And while prevention programs – including legal services for low-income tenants NOT provided by the Homebase program – should certainly be part of the mix, the next mayor does not have the luxury of ignoring the overwhelming research and historical evidence affirming the efficacy of housing-based solutions. Indeed, the futures of a record 21,000 homeless girls and boys and their homeless parents hang in the balance.