On January 1st, Andrew Cuomo took office while 40,000 homeless New Yorkers, including nearly 16,000 children, will bed down in New York City's shelter system. Thousands more homeless men and women sleep in our freezing streets.
Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression, a crisis that is the result of the recession, New York's chronic lack of affordable housing, and years of failed policy decisions by the city and state. But Governor Cuomo can reverse this tide of destitution by reinstituting the proven, cost-effective solutions he himself laid out in a groundbreaking report during another period of rising and seemingly intractable homelessness.
Eighteen years ago, the Governor served as Chairman of a commission - now referred to as the "Cuomo Commission" - set up to study the homelessness crisis during Mayor David Dinkins' administration. His landmark report laid out much of what has become widely-accepted wisdom of homeless policy. Cuomo's report helped close New York's mass-scale "congregate" shelters, which bedded as many as 1,000 people together in cramped, unsanitary, and often dangerous conditions. Cuomo also boldly argued that moving the homeless into stable, permanent, and supportive housing could effectively reduce the homeless population - and potentially save taxpayer money.
The dirty secret of homelessness policy is that we know what works. Dozens of studies since the Cuomo Commission, plus the experience of cities across the country, have proven Cuomo right: by transitioning homeless Americans into housing that they can afford and giving them the support and the services they need, hundreds of thousands have successfully rebuilt their lives.
Unfortunately, New York's former Governors have too often ignored Cuomo's tried-and-true recommendations. Governors Pataki, Spitzer, and Paterson all abdicated the state's critical and legally-mandated job of ensuring the effectiveness of New York City's homelessness policy. Each looked the other way as Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg moved away from Cuomo's proven findings in favor of failed ideas that have exacerbated homelessness and simultaneously wasted taxpayer dollars.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City ended the longstanding and remarkably successful practice of giving homeless families priority for scarce federal housing support ("Section 8 vouchers") and for apartments in New York's large public housing system. Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of formerly homeless families and individuals had used these two routes to successfully transition out of city shelters and into permanent homes.
Instead, the Bloomberg administration closed off priority access to federal housing programs in favor of "Advantage," a city-financed program of short-term rental subsidies with unrealistic, one-size-fits-all time limits and onerous requirements that disqualify more than four-fifths of the current homeless population - including many gainfully employed homeless families and individuals. New data on the Advantage program this December revealed that over one-third of the program's participants end up seeking shelter again when their rental subsidy runs out. Fully a quarter wind up back in shelter. In essence, the city's main program to help people leave the shelter system has become an expensive revolving door back to homelessness, even for the few people who qualify.
New York's taxpayers are victims of Advantage, too. By failing to use successful housing programs largely paid for by Washington, and by driving too many families back into the costly shelter system financed by City and State taxpayers, the Bloomberg administration has exacerbated both City Hall and Albany's budget deficits while doing nothing to mitigate the suffering of those trapped in homelessness.
Governor Cuomo now has the power to get New York's homeless policy back on track. Programs like Advantage are supposed to be overseen and approved by State regulators in Albany. But under successive Governors, Albany bureaucrats have rubberstamped nearly every change in the city's homeless policy - even when the city's own data clearly demonstrate the failure of its flawed approach.
By restoring the State's role in New York's homelessness policy, the Governor Cuomo will have an enormous opportunity to use the proven methods he championed and pioneered. Mr. Cuomo knows how to do it - after all, he wrote the book.
Mary E. Brosnahan
As we go to press, Governor Cuomo just released his budget, which eliminated $35 million in funding for the City's flawed Advantage Program. Given that this program costs NYC taxpayers more in the long run, we applaud the Governor's fiscal acumen and hope the Bloomberg Administration seizes this opportunity to restore section-8 priority for homeless New Yorkers.
Published in Safety Net, Winter 2011