The Bloomberg Administration’s Misguided New Rules Demanding Shelter Payments from Working-Poor Home

As the New York Times reported this past weekend, the Bloomberg administration has implemented a new policy requiring homeless families with employment income to pay for some of the cost of shelter. If they do not comply with the misguided new rules, the policy states, the City will eject homeless children and families from emergency shelter.

Today New York State Assemblymember Keith Wright led a press conference denouncing Mayor Bloomberg’s policy and announcing new legislation that will put a halt to what the Assemblymember described as the “punitive” new rules. Wright, who chairs the Assembly’s Social Services Committee, was joined by New York State Senator Daniel Squadron, vice-chair of the Senate’s Social Service Committee, who is co-sponsoring companion legislation. Several New York City elected officials also attended the press conference, including Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and City Comptroller Bill Thompson.

Thompson issued a statement saying, “Taking a portion of a family’s limited income as rent is quite simply counter-productive. The more families pay to be sheltered, the longer they will need to remain in a shelter – at a greater cost to the City – as they struggle to accumulate financial resources necessary to secure a new place to live.” Thompson also wrote a letter to Mayor Bloomberg, urging the Mayor to halt the new policy and instead implement a savings plan to help working homeless families gather resources to move from shelter to their own homes.

Mary Brosnahan, the Coalition’s Executive Director, and Steve Banks, Attorney-in-Charge of the Legal Aid Society, also spoke at the press conference. They were joined by two working homeless mothers: Martha Gonzalez, a security guard who has a 19-year-old son and resides in a City-run shelter in Brooklyn; and Akilah Seaborn, a child-care worker with a part-time job who has a three-year-old daughter and resides in a shelter in Manhattan.

Both women spoke about how harshly and senselessly the Bloomberg administration’s new policy has already been implemented. NYC Department of Homeless Services’ workers told Ms. Gonzalez she’d have to pay more than $1,000 each month in shelter “rent” and even instructed her to sign over her paycheck. Staff at Ms. Seaborn’s shelter threatened to remove her and her daughter from shelter and even changed the locks on her shelter unit.

Since the new “Income Contribution Requirement” was unveiled, Coalition for the Homeless has strongly criticized the new policy and called on Mayor Bloomberg to rescind it. We’ve also been perplexed by various public comments from Mayor Bloomberg and administration officials which, on the one hand, defend the punitive new rules, and on the other, attempt to blame them on State mandates.

For instance, NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess told the New York Times, “I think it’s hard to argue that families that can contribute to their shelter cost shouldn’t.” And on Saturday, according to the New York Daily News, Mayor Bloomberg told reporters, “Everybody else is doing it, and we’re told we have to do it, so we’re going to do it.”

In reality, the new rules date back to a State regulation (18 NYCRR 352.35) issued in 1995 by then-Governor George Pataki with the strong backing of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The rules reflect a very different, extremist, and punitive philosophy about how to approach homelessness – a philosophy that has resulted in nothing but failure and rising homelessness over the past decade. The regulation was never implemented for homeless families in New York City due to longstanding litigation, which was settled late last year.

Even then, however, the Pataki-era regulation does not mandate that the City impose the harsh payment requirements that it has just implemented, which effectively take every penny of a homeless family’s earnings over the poverty line. Indeed, City officials have much wider discretion to craft a program that would address the actual resources of working homeless families and could even create savings requirements instead of shelter payments.

We applaud Assembymember Wright, Senator Squadron, and other State and City elected officials who have spoken out against the Bloomberg administration’s misguided new policy and who are fighting to protect working-poor homeless families.