Experts Discuss Causes of and Solutions to Record Homelessness

On April 4th, a panel of experts discussed Homelessness and Housing in New York State as part of the Warren M. Anderson Legislative Breakfast Series sponsored by the Government Law Center at Albany Law School. Shelly Nortz, the Coalition’s Deputy Executive Director for Policy, moderated the discussion. Topics included the economic and political roots of mass homelessness and highlighted programs that can help stem the tide, such as permanent supportive housing and the Home Stability Support rent subsidy proposal.

Shelly expressed concerns about the current political climate and threat of Federal funding cuts for programs helping the most vulnerable people. She explained, “The advent of modern homelessness started coincidental with two dynamics. One was deinstitutionalization, when there were very large numbers of people with psychiatric disabilities discharged from State institutions to communities without adequate housing. And the second was a massive reduction in Federal housing assistance and throwing people off the public benefits rolls” during the Reagan era. “So we live with that legacy today,” she said.

The situation is particularly dire in New York, and Shelly called for bold solutions to the record crisis: “The State told HUD that we have 19,000 more individuals entering homelessness than exiting homelessness every year. That’s an unsustainable rate of growth, and it is what produces this dynamic. We can’t keep on doing the same thing that isn’t working well.”

Kevin O’Connor, Executive Director of Joseph’s House & Shelter, detailed the various factors that have given rise to record homelessness in New York State, emphasizing that the growth in homelessness mirrors the growth in income inequality. “Homelessness is a macroeconomic problem. It is not a personal responsibility problem. And yet we’ve been treating homelessness as a personal responsibility almost from day one. Our jobs are to help these individuals: To get them sober, to get them to take their psychiatric meds, to make them have better decisions, to retrain them in employment, to teach them how to read, to get them identification, to have them make better decisions and relationships. All of that just contributed to an increasing number of people ringing our door. Business is booming in the homeless industry because we’re ignoring the root cause. … We’ve had a steady erosion in entitlement programs – social security and disability, welfare, general relief, subsidized housing – that went hand in hand with that obscene trajectory in income inequality. We’ve had changes in tax codes that incentivized wealth through property investments that had a direct impact on the cost of rents in all of our communities.”

Kevin O’Connor explaining the relationship between income inequality and homelessness.

As a result of these various structural factors, more and more New Yorkers have fallen into homelessness – not just single adults, but also families and working people. Kevin summarized, “This net is getting wider and wider.”

Instead of piecemeal efforts to address homelessness, advocates voiced support for Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi’s Home Stability Support plan to create a statewide rent subsidy for public assistance households facing eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous conditions. Ray Burke, a staff attorney at Empire Justice Center, said HSS arose out of a need to tackle homelessness on a larger scale: “This is a statewide issue, and so we started working on Home Stability Support with Assemblyman Hevesi and our colleagues at other organizations, recognizing that we need to learn the lessons of these shelter supplement programs and just try to push a bigger, a bolder solution for what is a large crisis.”

Assemblymember Hevesi added that Home Stability Support is a fiscally sound way to reduce homelessness: “[Comptroller Scott Stringer] estimated that over 10 years, if you phase this program in, you’re going to drop the number of children and families in shelter by 80 percent and the number of single adults in shelter by 40. And at the same time, you were going to be saving the City $300 million over 10 years. So the policy seemed sort of like a financial no-brainer for the City.” Although the program was not included in the State budget passed in April, Assemblymember Hevesi said the proposal has “widespread support for next year,” and he will work with advocates to continue to push for its implementation.

The panel also discussed supportive housing, which offers the stability of a permanent home along with on-site support services for people with mental illness or other special needs. Nancy Chiarella, Executive Director of CARES, Inc., explained the efficacy of supportive housing in breaking the cycle of homelessness, saying, “This is not a new model, if you will, but the research continues to come out of how effective it is, both in helping the lives of those living in the housing but also saving funding that can be targeted to more proactive things in the community.” Fortunately, the State budget, which was approved days after the panel discussion, finally released funding for the first 6,000 supportive housing units of Governor Cuomo’s 20,000-unit commitment.

A recording of the full panel discussion can be viewed online here, and Community Legal Education materials are available here. Learn more about record homelessness here, and about supportive housing here and here.