City Leaders Focus on Shelters and Siting with Too Little Focus on Housing Solutions

Faced with record homelessness, City leaders announced two separate plans this week in an attempt to grapple with the crisis. Mayor de Blasio unveiled a new homelessness strategy on Tuesday, which marks a shift to borough-based shelter siting to better serve homeless families and individuals in their home neighborhoods. Through this new model, homeless New Yorkers won’t be uprooted from their schools, workplaces, medical appointments, and crucial social supports when they lose their homes. The Mayor plans to accomplish this by phasing out the costly practice of sheltering New Yorkers in hotels and cluster-site apartments, replacing them with 90 new traditional shelters.

Despite the obvious stabilizing benefits of sheltering families and individuals close to their communities, a package of legislation was introduced by the City Council on Wednesday to change the City’s “fair share” process for siting shelters and other municipal facilities that would potentially move them away from their social supports. Specifically, Intro. 1491 would prohibit the City from opening new shelters in community districts that are designated as “highly concentrated” with shelters, without making it easier to site facilities in other areas. The Council proposals, although maybe well-intentioned, pose significant hurdles for shelter siting and could impede the City’s ability to meet its legal and moral obligation to provide sufficient shelter capacity for all homeless New Yorkers.

The Coalition and other advocates expressed their concerns with the Council’s fair share proposals in a Politico article by Brendan Cheney:

Catherine Trapani, the executive director of Homeless Services United, an advocacy group representing nonprofit shelter providers, said, “the solutions they have come up with don’t make it easier to place programs where they need to placed. They only make it more challenging to open programs at a time where we desperately need capacity.”

Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, echoed that and said the Council’s plan, “would result with the city not being able to comply with its moral and legal obligation to provide shelter to those in need,” with a worst case scenario where families and individuals are relegated to the streets if there’s not enough capacity.

Judith Goldiner, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Civil Law Reform Unit, argued the Council’s proposal could brush up against federal law, which she said “prohibits localities from making siting decisions which have a disparate impact on people based on either race or disability.”

Since shelter residents are more often people of color and many are people with disabilities, Goldiner thinks that by restricting where shelters could be sited, there could be viable litigation under the Fair Housing Act.

The debate about siting shelters too often distracts from the more vital priorities of preventing and reducing homelessness through housing solutions. Although it is imperative for the City to ensure that shelters are appropriate and close to social supports, the best way to minimize the trauma of homelessness is to quickly move families and individuals out of shelters and into permanent housing. Mayor de Blasio’s new homelessness plan establishes a too-modest expectation: a reduction in the shelter population of 2,500 people in the next five years. This unambitious goal is particularly baffling given that the Mayor has repeatedly refused to fully utilize affordable housing resources, such as NYCHA public housing, at a scale to meet the record need. In response to Mayor de Blasio’s plan, the Coalition for the Homeless released a statement from Policy Director Giselle Routhier:

“We applaud Mayor de Blasio’s announcement that the City will finally strive to live up to its legal and moral obligation to provide decent shelter to all homeless New Yorkers and will address decades of neglect and mismanagement of the shelter system. Well-designed and properly staffed shelters located in the same communities as the displaced families themselves would be a tremendous improvement over the current system that relies far too much on expensive and inappropriate cluster sites and hotels.

“More important than improving the quality of shelters is reducing the need for them. What New Yorkers need from the Mayor is a bold and comprehensive plan to tackle our homelessness crisis by providing access to truly affordable housing and by better utilizing federal resources like public housing and Section 8. Mayor de Blasio could immediately and dramatically reduce the number of homeless families by simply increasing the number of NYCHA units for families in shelters from 1,500 a year to 3,000.”

In addition to providing more permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, the City and State must further invest in preventing homelessness before it begins. The State is a necessary partner in tackling homelessness. Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support proposal, for example, would establish a statewide rent subsidy for public assistance households facing eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous conditions. The State must also immediately sign the memorandum of understanding to release the bulk of the funds set aside in last year’s budget for affordable and supportive housing. The year-long delay in releasing nearly $2 billion is unconscionable at a time when historic numbers of people languish in shelters and on the streets.

Providing safe, appropriate shelter close to community supports is a necessary component of stabilizing homeless families and individuals and putting them back on the path toward permanent housing – but without robust commitments from both the City and the State to prevent homelessness and provide sufficient housing resources, we will only see more shelters opening in communities across the city.