Coalition Testifies on Supportive Housing and Outreach

On Monday, December 14th, the Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society presented testimony to the New York City Council’s Committee on General Welfare regarding supportive housing and outreach to unsheltered individuals.

One of the bills discussed at the hearing, Intro. 2177, would prohibit police involvement in outreach to unsheltered homeless individuals. Coalition for the Homeless has long decried the criminalization of homelessness, noting that the presence of police officers in outreach erodes the trust that is essential to helping people move indoors. In her own testimony, Coalition for the Homeless Shelter Specialist Cynthia English drew upon her personal experiences of living on the streets over the course of six years to powerfully convey why this legislation is so important:

When police patrolled the streets doing the “sweeps” that were so prevalent during that time, they were a profound source of terror to the homeless community. In my specific case, I was terrified at the thought of being locked up and would immediately go into a state of panic upon seeing them. After my first arrest, which was (I believe) for “resisting arrest,” I was completely traumatized.

I was arrested 30 times for minor and often trumped-up offenses. These were all chance meetings on my part – no one in the community ever called the police to have me removed as an emotionally disturbed person, a threat to the community, or for committing any crime against property or persons.

I can tell you that through my own experience and my many interactions over the years with those who are still experiencing street homelessness, I am not alone in my fear and distrust of the police. Under ordinary, non-violent circumstances, the people interacting with individuals experiencing street homelessness should be mental health professionals and advocates who are trained in de-escalation techniques and can speak directly to the needs of those who have mental health issues, and who can offer them real resources.

The presence of the police during these interactions often promotes distrust of the other professionals involved and gives the homeless person the perception that they are going to be locked up even if they’ve done nothing wrong and the intention is to provide assistance. We don’t need police presence to accomplish this, and outreach teams might actually be more effective without a police escort. I probably would have left the streets sooner but for the trauma of my many police interactions.

The tragedy of thousands of New Yorkers sleeping on the streets and in shelters underscores the urgency of creating more permanent supportive housing, which pairs the stability of affordable housing with on-site support services. As we explained in a recent Daily News op-ed and a press conference with the Campaign 4 NY/NY Housing, supportive housing is a key tool in the fight against homelessness. The homelessness crisis – which is now regularly breaking new records – demands that Governor Cuomo fulfill his promise to fund 20,000 units of supportive housing statewide.

Although supportive housing is a vital resource, we continue to encounter problems related to both the application and placement processes, as well as the level of services tenants receive once they are in a supportive housing program. The Coalition’s testimony this week detailed many issues related to the application process, eligibility criteria, and placement logistics when people apply for supportive housing. We also testified in support of Intro. 2176, which would create a bill of rights to inform supportive housing residents about laws and requirements that currently apply to the housing in which they reside. As we testified:

Many people living in supportive housing apartments are not aware of their tenancy rights or the rules applicable to their program. It can be difficult to ascertain which regulatory schemes in the patchwork of supportive housing programs govern a particular building. Supportive housing residents often do not know where to turn when their tenancies are threatened or when they need help with various program requirements. As the City and the State work to increase the supply of supportive housing, it is important to ensure that residents are fully informed of their rights and know where to obtain assistance when they need it.

Therefore, we fully support Intro. 2176, which will create a bill of rights for supportive housing residents. This bill will provide a much-needed uniform information resource for individuals moving into and currently living in supportive housing, including information about tenants’ rights, the regulatory and financing schemes for the unit, and relevant points of contact for any problems an individual living in supportive housing may encounter.

The full testimony can be read here.