The City Council’s Fair Share Bill is Unfair to Homeless Families

New Yorkers understand that homelessness is a serious problem: 93 percent say it is a very serious (69 percent) or serious (24 percent) problem, according to a May 2017 Quinnipiac University poll. We notice that there are more people on the streets and we feel compassion for them. We know when more needs to be done and how to distinguish the difference between intelligent solutions and misguided policies. Another Quinnipiac poll in November 2016 showed that 93 percent of New Yorkers feel sympathy for those who are homeless and 73 percent of us feel New York City is doing too little to help our neighbors without homes.

Today’s Read: The City Council’s Fair Share Bill is Unfair to Homeless Families

As rents in the city continue to soar while renter incomes remain stagnant, more and more New Yorkers are left with no option but to apply for shelter with the NYC Department of Homeless Services. Unfortunately, the City has often faced local opposition to opening new shelters to accommodate the near-record number of homeless men, women, and children. In an attempt to placate community concerns around the siting of such facilities, the City Council released a report and introduced a package of legislation in early March to change the City’s process for siting shelters and other municipal facilities, under the so-called “Fair Share” rules originally introduced in the 1989 City Charter revisions.

The bills would create new barriers to the siting of facilities serving vulnerable New Yorkers, and would even prohibit the opening of such facilities in some communities altogether without making it easier to site them in other neighborhoods. This would impede the City’s ability to fulfill its moral and legal obligation to provide shelter, and would foster discrimination against people with disabilities in violation of Federal law. The Coalition and other organizations have been voicing united opposition to this “Fair Share” package for several months because it is far from fair to homeless families.

Rather than creating additional obstacles to siting shelters, elected officials and community members should redirect their energy toward advocating for solutions to homelessness that can reduce the need for shelters in the first place.

Shelly Nortz, the Coalition’s Deputy Executive Director for Policy, summarized the main problems with the Fair Share package in an op-ed for City & State:

The proposed changes are fraught with harmful provisions that would hamper the city’s ability to fulfill its legal and moral obligation to shelter homeless individuals and families. Even if prompted by well-meaning objectives, the amendments could also unintentionally foster discrimination against those with disabilities – which would violate Federal Fair Housing laws and jeopardize the city’s federal affordable housing funding. The bills would also require the disclosure of sensitive information about the target populations served in various facilities – a violation of the privacy rules that protect victims of violence, people with disabilities and those with AIDS/HIV.

The notion of distributing shelters proportionally throughout the city sounds innocuous enough. But the Council’s proposed “Fair Share” package would be far from fair for homeless families and New York communities.

First, there are immediate practical implications: At a time of record and growing homelessness, the bills would make it nearly impossible to open new, urgently needed shelters in many neighborhoods – without making it any easier to open shelters in other places, and without the additional resources the city would need for more expensive properties. With the shelter system facing a chronic capacity crisis, any delay or restriction in opening new shelters would just force the city to rely on more costly and remote hotels. And if shelters were to be blocked altogether as proposed, it could send us back to the dark days when dozens of families slept each night on the floors of government offices, or even on the street. That would be a cardinal violation of the city’s duty to provide safe shelter for homeless men, women and children, and one that would directly contradict what New Yorkers expect of their elected officials.

Second, is the deeper problem: The impact of the proposals. The mayor’s plan to open new shelters is a long-overdue attempt to keep newly homeless families as close as possible to their communities of origin. This would enable kids to stay in their neighborhood schools without long trips, help parents stay close to their jobs and help homeless families maintain contact with friends, kin, clergy and other social supports in their communities. Continuity in their own neighborhoods can potentially shorten a family’s shelter stay and reduce the trauma of homelessness for their children.

It makes no sense to pander to the vocal critics of shelters and mental health facilities when New Yorkers actually support creating them. In the May Quinnipiac poll, 73 percent said they support building 90 new city shelters – by great majorities across all boroughs, races, ages and genders. And a majority in every borough (57 percent city-wide) would support building a new shelter near where they live. Our policies should be crafted in a way to best help homeless families, not to appease a vocal minority motivated by NIMBYism.

The best solution, of course, is fighting homelessness itself. Despite the myth that the problem is intractable, the Council and mayor have already seen success in preventing evictions and protecting tenants by making sure they have access to help with rent payments and arrears as well as legal representation in housing court. We understand that some community members feel their neighborhoods are overburdened by the Mayor’s plan. Regrettably, by planning to reduce the number of people in shelters by a mere 2,500 people during the next five years, the city has missed a golden opportunity to help far more people leave shelters for homes of their own.

Read the full op-ed here.

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