Today’s Read: Johnson Unveils ‘Holistic, Long-Term’ Plan to Tackle City Homelessness Crisis

Coalition for the Homeless staff and elected officials stand in front of City Hall for a press conference

With record numbers of New Yorkers sleeping in shelters and thousands more bedding down on the streets and in the subways every night, the homelessness crisis demands bold solutions. On Thursday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled a sweeping new plan to address homelessness at a press conference on the steps of City Hall, joined by Council Member Stephen Levin and many homeless New Yorkers, advocates, and service providers. Speaker Johnson’s report, called “Our Homelessness Crisis: The Case for Change,” is the culmination of more than 18 months of consultations with stakeholders and advocates, including the Coalition for the Homeless.

The multifaceted report includes 90 policy recommendations under six categories: Prevent Homelessness; Increase Pathways to Permanent, Affordable Housing; Support Our Unsheltered Neighbors; Support Our Sheltered Neighbors Experiencing Homelessness; Integrate Housing and Homelessness Policy; and Long-Term Vision. Among the top recommendations is for the State to finally pass Home Stability Support, a statewide rent subsidy program that would raise voucher levels and help more New Yorkers avoid homelessness or move out of shelters.

Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier praised the Council for tackling the homelessness crisis with the urgency and attention it deserves:

“Coalition for the Homeless commends Speaker Johnson for developing this comprehensive and thoughtful plan, which acknowledges the root cause of homelessness: a lack of affordable housing. The plan’s recommendations are strong and include a comprehensive mix of expanding access to housing, preventing homelessness, improving emergency shelter systems, and increasing resources for homeless New Yorkers living on the street. We strongly echo the Council’s call for Albany to pass Home Stability Support, which would help thousands of vulnerable families across New York State move out of shelters and into homes of their own, and prevent evictions and other causes of housing instability that drive record numbers of families to seek shelter every year.”

Samar Khurshid wrote about the Council’s plan for Gotham Gazette:

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Thursday released a plan that he said takes a “smarter, more strategic, holistic, long-term” approach to addressing the city’s homelessness crisis, seeking to end what he called the siloed policies of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and calling for more funding from the city and state to both help homeless individuals find permanent housing and prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“This is, without exaggeration, a humanitarian crisis in the wealthiest city in the United States of America, and the time has come for urgent action,” Johnson said at the steps of City Hall, standing with advocates from non-profit organizations that provide services to the homeless and Council Member Stephen Levin, who chairs the Council’s General Welfare Committee with oversight of homelessness.

But while he gave the mayor some credit, Johnson critiqued the de Blasio administration for effectively siloing homelessness from housing and not offering an overall plan to meet the real needs of the city’s most vulnerable. “That makes no sense,” he said, emphasizing that housing and homelessness are two sides of the same coin and proposing that the city create a new position of deputy mayor for homelessness and affordable housing (there is currently a deputy mayor for housing and economic development while the deputy mayor for health and human services oversees much of the approach to addressing homelessness).

“All of us know what ultimately solves homelessness is simple. It is housing,” said Nathylin Flowers, a homeless activist who said she will turn 74 in March and will have spent five years living in shelter. Flowers famously confronted de Blasio over his housing policies in 2018 while he was working out at the Prospect Park Y.M.C.A., to which he was dismissive. “That’s all we need, housing,” she said.

Johnson noted that the city has massively increased spending on homelessness – the first budget passed under Mayor de Blasio spent $954 million on the Department of Homeless Services, while the mayor’s latest budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year allocates more than $2.1 billion towards the agency. “Blind spending will not solve the homelessness crisis,” Johnson said.

One of the major steps Johnson said would immediately reduce the homeless population would be to increase the value of rental subsidy vouchers for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness from the current maximum of $1,580 to a fair market rate of up to $1,951. He largely placed responsibility for this measure on the state, calling on the Legislature to establish the Home Stability Support program proposed by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi of Queens. The program would create a new statewide rental subsidy, but has so far been opposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Coalition Testifies on NYS Executive Budget 2020

Graphic representing the number of people sleeping in NYC shelters each night under Governor Andrew Cuomo, 2011 to present

On Thursday, Coalition for the Homeless presented testimony to the Fiscal Committees of the New York State Legislature on the NYS Executive Budget Proposal for Human Services 2020. As legislators enter budget negotiations, they face an unprecedented homelessness crisis: Nearly 253,000 New Yorkers were homeless in the 2018-2019 schoolyear, staying in shelters or doubled-up with friends or family. This number, which does not even include the thousands of New Yorkers who bed down on the streets each night, exceeds the populations of every city in the state with the exception of New York City. Since Governor Cuomo took office in 2011, homelessness has worsened – fueled in large part by the withdrawal of State resources for a housing subsidy program, a years-long delay in funding and initiating a new State supportive housing program, and inadequate pre-discharge housing planning for people being released from State prisons.

Shelly Nortz, the Coalition’s Deputy Executive Director for Policy, recently spoke about the urgent need for the State to take action on addressing homelessness in an interview with The Capitol Pressroom. Specifically, she called for more investments in permanent supportive housing and the need for a new statewide rent subsidy program called Home Stability Support (S.2375/A.1620), legislation introduced by Senator Krueger and Assemblymember Hevesi and co-sponsored by 35 Senators as well as 125 members of the Assembly.

The Coalition’s budget testimony further reiterated the scale of the crisis and the need for bold solutions, including Home Stability Support (HSS) and additional capital funds to spur supportive housing development:

Home Stability Support

HSS is a rent supplement designed to help individuals and families receiving public assistance remain housed when they are at risk of displacement due to eviction, hazardous conditions, or domestic violence, and also to help those who are already homeless obtain and retain stable housing.

Critical to the design of the program is that these groups – those who are homeless and those at risk of homelessness – be helped simultaneously. This is the best way to ensure that the costly shelter system can become smaller as the number of families and individuals receiving subsidies grows. An estimated 80,000 households would benefit from receiving HSS subsidies once fully implemented.

To place this in context, just over 229,000 households receive Federal Housing Choice Vouchers in New York State, but the waiting lists for this assistance are largely closed. HSS could increase the number of households receiving long-term rental assistance by about 35 percent.

The FY2020 Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City is $1,951, but the public assistance shelter allowance for a typical family of three is only $400 per month. HSS would require New York State to supplement these inadequate shelter allowances up to 85 percent of the Fair Market Rent. Localities would have the option to cover the additional amount needed to bring maximum rents up to 100 percent of Fair Market Rents as may be needed given local market conditions.

HSS supplements would be considerably less expensive than the $71,624 annual cost of emergency shelter for each family in New York City. As NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer projected in 2017, HSS could reduce New York City’s shelter population by 80 percent among families with children and 40 percent among single adults in a decade, saving New York City about $316 million in its tenth year through foregone shelter costs and streamlined services.

The State has largely left localities to fund shelters and preventive services on their own in recent years, so the State’s investment in HSS would represent a long-overdue course correction. All levels of government must work together to tackle homelessness.

Supportive Housing

We are pleased that Gov. Cuomo provided additional funds for more supportive housing in his Executive Budget proposal, but, honestly, it is far too little given the dire situation we are seeing on the ground. We strongly urge the Senate and Assembly to provide a capital appropriation to support all of the remaining supportive housing units originally announced in 2016.

Given that supportive housing placements for single adults in New York City are at an all-time low, even as the shelter census rises, it is literally a matter of life and death for the most vulnerable New Yorkers facing homelessness as well as serious mental illnesses and other disabilities. They demand our compassion and immediate attention.

Gov. Cuomo promised these neediest of New Yorkers 20,000 units of supportive housing in 2016, of which only 6,000 have been funded. Please, ensure that this budget contains a capital appropriation for the remaining 14,000 units so that the sponsors and investors can get this vital housing into production. We do not need to remind you that it will cost less to build it now than it will later, in both dollars and, more importantly, human suffering.

The full testimony can be read here.

Coalition Testifies on NYPD Subway Diversion Program

In addition to the record number of people in the New York City shelter system every night, thousands of homeless New Yorkers sleep on the streets and in the subway system. New York City has a legal right to shelter, but some people end up on the streets after having accessed the shelter system and finding that it did not meet their needs or was unsafe for them. People living on the streets also report that the bureaucratic shelter intake process is too intrusive or complex for them to manage, among many other reasons they cite for avoiding the main municipal shelter system. Unfortunately, rather than expanding access to the low-threshold safe haven shelters and permanent housing that people on the streets want and need, Mayor de Blasio has increasingly relied on police to address street homelessness.

In June, Mayor de Blasio announced the launch of the “NYPD Subway Diversion Program,” which was framed as a way to offer services to homeless people in the transit system in lieu of contact with the criminal justice system, by allowing them to vacate transit summonses as long as they agree to meet with outreach workers. However, Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates immediately expressed concerns that the program would further criminalize homelessness through useless summonses and by coercing people into accepting services that are ill-suited to meet their needs. Our fears were soon confirmed by the firsthand accounts of people who were targeted for summonses, and further reinforced when we received an email from an anonymous group of NYPD Transit Bureau officers who decried the discriminatory nature of the program. We have documented some of these examples and the NYPD letter on a new website, DiversionIsCoercion.nyc, launched in collaboration with Human.nyc this week.

On Tuesday, January 21, Coalition for the Homeless, Human.nyc, The Legal Aid Society, and other groups held a rally to oppose the criminalization of homelessness and call for an end to the Subway Diversion Program. Giselle Routhier, the Coalition’s Policy Director, explained:

“The NYPD’s misguided new policy will only serve to further criminalize homeless New Yorkers through useless summonses. There is no criminal justice or policing solution to homelessness in New York City. People avoid services and shelters for a variety of legitimate reasons, the most important being the shortage of safe, welcoming shelter beds and permanent and supportive housing. Reducing the tragedy of people taking makeshift refuge in transit facilities and on the trains requires giving them somewhere better to go – not using the police to chase them in circles.”

Following the rally, Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society presented testimony to the New York City Council’s Committee on General Welfare and Committee on Public Safety regarding the program:

Mayor de Blasio’s subway diversion program was launched in June 2019, framed as a way to offer services to homeless people in the transit system in lieu of contact with the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, this has not turned out to be the case. Based on the first-hand reports of homeless individuals, it appears that the program has served only to increase unwelcome contact with NYPD officers while adding a counterproductive element of coercion to outreach by using summonses to force those individuals to accept transport to a shelter, regardless of whether or not they intend to stay there.

We have witnessed several examples of police explicitly targeting homeless individuals for infractions that are commonly made by riders who are not homeless – including taking up more than one seat or placing their bags on an adjacent seat – removing those individuals from the subway, and in some cases handcuffing them. This is a direct violation of Local Law 71 of 2013, which prohibits bias-based profiling due to a person’s housing status or other protected characteristic.

The Coalition for the Homeless, The Legal Aid Society, and other advocates have consistently raised concerns with the subway diversion program since it was first announced last summer. Our fears were confirmed on November 12, 2019, when we received an email from an anonymous group of NYPD Transit Bureau officers who wanted to decry “the blatant discrimination against the homeless in the NYC subway” as a result of the program. In partnership with Human.nyc, we have created a website called diversioniscoercion.nyc to disseminate the NYPD officers’ letter along with other documentation we have compiled of the subway diversion program in action. As our documentation shows and the NYPD whistleblowers wrote, “The Diversion Program that is being advertised by the Mayor as helping the homeless can be nothing further from the truth.”

Increased policing is not the answer to homelessness. People who experience these interactions say they find them to be humiliating and unhelpful, at best. Deploying police officers in this manner only serves to increase the mistrust that trained outreach workers work so hard to overcome. And again, the program fails to offer what homeless individuals truly need to get off the streets: permanent affordable housing, with services for those who need them.

The full testimony can be read here.

Photo collage featuring people on the steps of city hall at a rally
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