How to Help Homeless Families: Permanent Housing

With 15,328 families – including 23,000 children – sleeping in NYC shelters tonight, many New Yorkers and organizations have endeavored to understand how we arrived at such a crisis, as well as how to reverse the trend. In the past few weeks, the Family Homelessness Task Force and The Bassuk Center have released reports in response to Mayor de Blasio’s own report, Turning the Tide on Homelessness, including recommendations about how to address family homelessness. While the Family Homelessness Task Force report contains several important recommendations to prevent homelessness, improve shelter conditions, and help families maintain housing after they leave shelter, it missed the opportunity to make the case for an accelerated, more aggressive housing plan needed to substantially reduce the shelter census. The Bassuk Center report failed to grasp the fundamental causes of record family homelessness in NYC: The revolving door that resulted from the flawed, short-term rent subsidies known as the Advantage program, and the “lost decade” when the City denied homeless families priority access to permanent housing placements.

The Bassuk report attributes the rate of return to shelters to a perceived lack of social services in NYC shelters, rather than to the dearth of affordable housing and the flaws of the Advantage rent subsidy program. In 2005, the Bloomberg administration made a devastating policy choice when it ended all permanent housing placements for homeless families and instituted a series of flawed, time-limited housing subsidy programs, the last of which was called Advantage. The program abruptly ended in 2011 when the State eliminated its share of the funding and the City cancelled it. With the end of Advantage, for the first time in NYC history, there was no way for families to exit the shelter system. An astonishing 63 percent of families who moved into housing with Advantage subsidies (and who did not transition to a permanent rent subsidy) ultimately returned to the shelter system. Over 10,900 families became homeless again as a result of this policy failure: A huge revolving door that fueled the massive increase in family homelessness between 2011 and 2014.

The result of these extremely flawed policy decisions was a veritable “lost decade” – a period between 2006 and 2014 in which on average 3,548 fewer homeless families per year received stable housing placements, resulting in an accumulated deficit of 31,935 fewer Federal housing placements before the de Blasio administration reinstated the permanent housing priority for homeless families. Predictably, in the absence of any way for families to secure permanent housing, the shelter census ballooned and the number of families cycling through the system skyrocketed during that time. The Coalition examined this lost decade and reiterated the need to make up for the deficit in both a January 2017 briefing paper and in our State of the Homeless 2017 report.

While arguments can be made for improving the conditions and services in shelters, it is flawed logic to attribute recidivism principally to the lack of shelter services rather than to the structural flaws of the Advantage program and the absolute lack of permanent housing placements during Bloomberg’s latter terms.

In order to appreciably reduce the number of homeless families, we must bring the City’s permanent housing response to homelessness to a scale that matches the record need and compensates for the accumulated deficit in housing placements that arose during the “lost decade.” Specifically, the City must increase stable housing placements in NYCHA and HPD to 5,500 per year for families, as well as 5,000 rent subsidies and supported placements for single adults, and create a new capital development program to finance construction of at least an additional 10,000 units of affordable housing for homeless households over the next five years. In order to alleviate the suffering of the near-record number of homeless families, it is imperative that the City commit to housing solutions that will enable these men, women, and children to move out of shelters and into homes of their own.

If you agree that housing is the answer to homelessness, please sign our petition calling on Mayor de Blasio to increase the number of public housing placements for homeless families from 1,500 per year to at least 3,000.