Anatomy of a Smear Campaign

Despite record and rising NYC homelessness, Bloomberg administration officials refuse to acknowledge their failed homeless policies. So instead they’re attacking their critics, including homeless advocates.

Homelessness in New York City has soared to all-time record highs – and it’s continuing to rise. As we recently noted, between April and May the number of homeless people crowding municipal shelters each night rose 2 percent to nearly 43,800 people, including 17,600 children. And there are signs that the summer surge in families seeking shelter will shatter even those alarming records.

How have Mayor Bloomberg and administration officials responded to this worsening crisis? Well, the Mayor has NOT agreed to the proven plan to target Federal housing assistance to homeless kids and adults – a plan supported by the New York City Council, Speaker Christine Quinn, academic experts, advocates and service providers.

Instead, this week Mayor Bloomberg and administration officials attempted to blame the problem on a non-existent “flood” of “out-of-towners” flocking to municipal shelters. And even before that, administration officials have spent an inordinate amount of time attacking homeless advocates in the news media and other public settings, and spreading false stories about advocates and the demise of the Advantage program.

In June, the NY Daily News, for instance, reported on our State of the Homeless 2012 which using City data – documented an all-time record in NYC homelessness. In the report, NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Deputy Commissioner for Communications Barbara Brancaccio ignored evidence of the worsening problem and instead leveled false attacks on Coalition for the Homeless and the City Council:

DHS spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio called it “outrageous” that the Coalition criticizes the stats after it “aggressively advocated to end the city’s successful Advantage rental subsidy program.” The group had previously found fault with the condition of many of the buildings that accepted the subsidy.

The report recommends that the administration consider proposals backed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She wants to move shelter residents into public housing or use federally funded Section 8 vouchers, as past administrations have done. She also proposes creating a new rental assistance program.

“The record homeless rates in New York City cannot continue to go unchecked,” the 2013 mayoral hopeful said.

Brancaccio was critical of that approach, calling it “irresponsible and unrealistic” because the Section 8 and public housing is “unavailable.”

Shortly afterwards, in a Wall Street Journal article about formerly-homeless Advantage families returning to the shelter system, NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond launched similar attacks, even more aggressively:

Mr. Diamond criticized advocates for the homeless, blaming them for the program’s demise. Mr. Diamond said advocates lobbied against the program in Albany as the city was asking lawmakers to maintain the funding.

“The responsibility for why the program ended sooner than we would have liked does not lie with the city of New York,” Mr. Diamond said. “The advocates have failed the ones who…lost the subsidy, and I think that was very unfortunate.”

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst for the coalition, acknowledged that he and other advocates believe the program was flawed, but “the idea that we wanted the Advantage program to end and be replaced by nothing at all is absurd.”

“The city had made a promise to these families that it would pay two years of rental assistance to them,” Mr. Markee said. “To break that promise and pull the rug out from under them was unconscionable.”

Diamond has repeated these false attacks in other public settings, including New York City Council hearings. And in a detached-from-reality speech at a May 3rd policy forum at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. In his remarks, Diamond repeatedly called for a new “consensus” on homeless policy – without acknowledging that the only entity speaking against the current public policy consensus is the Bloomberg administration. Diamond also called for a “new public discussion” and dialogue about homeless policy – and then failed to engage in any discussion whatsoever with the policy experts and advocates present at the forum.

The simple truth is that Mayor Bloomberg and administration officials have no one to blame for NYC’s record homelessness but themselves. At the risk of taking the administration’s absurd attacks too seriously, it’s worth recalling a few salient facts:

• Andrew Cuomo’s administration eliminated State funding for the flawed Advantage program in the governor’s 2011-2012 executive budget, released in January 2011. Neither Coalition for the Homeless nor any other advocates lobbied the Cuomo administration to make that cutback. Indeed, on the day the Governor’s budget was released, Coalition staff were caught flatfooted when we heard the news.

• During subsequent negotiations on the 2011-2012 State budget, Cuomo administration officials told Bloomberg administration officials repeatedly that the City would have to use its own housing resources – including Federal housing programs like public housing – to address the problem of worsening homelessness. At a February 2011 State Legislative budget hearing, NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Acting Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin publicly urged the City to do just that:

SEN. KRUEGER: …[S]ince the homeless numbers are skyrocketing, these programs [the Advantage program] aren’t working very well anyway. Are there any alternatives that the Governor is proposing to do something about the fact that our homeless rate is skyrocketing and the programs we have in place aren’t working?

COMMISSIONER BERLIN: …We are prepared to work with the City to see how we can facilitate the discharge of individuals into more supportive and permanent housing arrangements. We also would encourage the City to look at some of the policies that they have put in place that have de-linked the shelter system and City housing resources.  [Emphasis added]

• During this period, the Coalition consistently pressed the Bloomberg administration, as we had long urged them to do, ever since Mayor Bloomberg cut off homeless people from Federal housing assistance back in 2005: To utilize permanent housing resources that work to reduce homelessness. At the same February 2011 State budget hearing we testified (PDF):

A far better solution would be to reopen the doors of public and subsidized housing in New York City to homeless people – doors that were closed five years ago by a Mayor who clearly does not understand how to solve homelessness.

It is time for the City to stop experimenting with theories and stick with what we know works: Priority access for homeless households to Federal subsidies and public housing. New York is the only municipality I know of that bars priority access to valuable Federal housing resources for its homeless population – others pave the way as best they can because they know that people will be stably housed and not return to costlier shelters. Perhaps an enlightened change in City policy will be forthcoming in the absence of State funds for the bad experiment that the Advantage program has become.

• Neither the Coalition nor other advocates ever called for eliminating the Advantage program with no alternative to replace it. As we had since 2005, we continued to urge State and City officials to reinstate Federal housing resources. Both research and experience has shown this approach reduces homelessness at less cost to taxpayers.

• In April 2011, once the State eliminated funding for the Advantage program, the Bloomberg administration made a fateful and harmful choice. It eliminated all housing assistance for homeless families in shelter and continued its refusal to utilize Federal and City housing resources. This tragic situation continues to today. Second, administration officials chose to immediately terminate rent subsidies for thousands of formerly-homeless Advantage households – children and adults who’d been promised up to two years of rental assistance.

• The Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates condemned this harsh decision and we worked actively with Advantage families and the Legal Aid Society to challenge the City’s actions in a class-action lawsuit. Although the State’s highest court ultimately ruled against the plaintiffs, a series of temporary court orders protected thousands of vulnerable families from immediate eviction for nine months.

Now, amidst record-high homelessness, Mayor Bloomberg seems determined to divert attention away from his overt culpability by launching absurd attacks on advocates or blaming “out-of-towners” who are “flooding” the system. But the reality is that New York City’s historic homelessness crisis is getting worse every day, with more and more children bedding down each night in municipal shelters – and the Mayor has apparently decided not to do anything about it.