Jobs vs. Homes

New DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond, an architect of harsh Giuliani-era welfare policies, wants more homeless families to work — but fails to recognize that housing affordability, not joblessness, is at the root of record NYC homelessness.

In an article in today’s New York Daily News, Diamond – Mayor Bloomberg’s recently appointed commissioner of the NYC Department of Homeless Services – talks about wanting to push more homeless families to find employment:

The new homelessness commissioner has a message for needy New Yorkers who sleep in city shelters: Get a job!

Seth Diamond, the boss of homeless services, wants struggling families to look for work as soon as they enter the shelter system, something he says providers haven’t emphasized enough.

This is not the first time that Diamond has espoused this “work-first” rhetoric. When he was appointed DHS commissioner, he told the New York Times that he plans “to import more of the work-based philosophy that dominates the city’s welfare agency to the homeless services system.”

The problem, of course, is that Diamond is commissioner of homeless services, not jobless services. The Bloomberg administration’s embrace of a “work-first” approach to homelessness is not only deeply unrealistic — it ignores the fundamental fact that record NYC homelessness (particular among families) is a housing affordability issue, not a jobs issue.

It also ignores the fact that that Mayor Bloomberg’s own FY 2011 Executive Budget proposal includes sharp cutbacks to shelter-based employment programs, as the Daily News noted:

The proposed city budget erases employment specialists at 13 family shelters next year – and slashes another $1.1 million in job assistance for the homeless.

Leaving aside even the overwhelming reality that New York City has double-digit unemployment and that tens of thousands of New Yorkers can’t find work, the “work-first” approach is radically at odds with the realities of homeless New Yorkers’ lives.

Here is only one example of how Diamond and the Bloomberg administration are ignoring the fundamental reality of NYC homelessness:

Back on April 15th, Commissioner Diamond’s predecessor, Robert Hess, testified at a New York City Council hearing that the typical homeless family assisted by the City’s Work Advantage program earns $9.00/hour and works 32 hours/week. That translates to monthly pre-tax income of around $1,150, or an annual pre-tax income of around $15,000.

At the same time, DHS places the typical Work Advantage family into an apartment with a monthly rent of $1,100. And the City cuts off their Advantage rent subsidy after one or two years.

So, let’s do the math. The typical working Advantage family makes $1,150/month, and their rent is $1,100/month. That leaves, um, $50/month to pay for food, utilities, carfare, clothing, etc. etc.

THIS is why so many Advantage families are returning to shelter. THIS is why the City’s proposed changes to the Advantage program will make a flawed program even worse.

And THIS is why the administration’s “work-first” rhetoric is so divorced from reality.

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