New York City Seeks New Powers in Its Stalled Fight Against Homelessness



New York Times-In June 2004, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made a lofty promise to address one of the city’s most intractable problems: he would reduce the homeless population of 38,000 by two-thirds in five years. Today, with the total homeless population down only slightly, and with more families in shelters than five years ago, the administration is seeking state approval for a new set of policies designed to move families out more quickly, applying the same market-driven, incentive-based philosophy to homeless shelters that it has used in schools and antipoverty programs.


Under the new rules, nonprofit agencies that provide shelter beds under contract with the city would be paid more than the usual rate, which is roughly $100 a day, for each family that arrives. But after six months, if the agency has not been able to get the family into stable housing, the city would begin paying it less than the standard rate.

And city officials are trying to toughen rules and consequences for homeless families, forcing them to follow a strict code of conduct or risk being ejected from the shelter.

“The thing that we have been trying to introduce is a greater expectation of accountability, both by the providers and by the clients themselves,” Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, said in an interview. “We want them to overcome homelessness more quickly. We believe they are in shelter far longer than they need to be.”

Shelter providers say that they are doing the best they can, and that the proposed payment structure could achieve the opposite of its intended result, especially since the city just imposed a 4 percent budget cut as part of reductions in virtually every city agency.

Christy Parque, the executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of more than 60 providers, said that further reductions “could result in an increased length of stay in shelter, because there will be fewer staff and resources to help clients address their problems and return to the community quickly.”

Advocates for the homeless called the city’s plans mean-spirited, and warned that they would threaten the safety of families, especially children, forced to leave the shelter with no place to go.

“It’s an extraordinary change in what has been city policy for nearly three decades,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society. “It’s striking that the current city administration and the current state administration would be returning to these shelter-termination regulations, which are really a relic of another, harsher era.”

The attempt to evict families from shelters began under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, an effort that was blocked by the courts. The Bloomberg administration has been no more successful. In 2002, the city pursued a policy that would allow it to eject families it deemed uncooperative, but backed down and agreed to reserve the right to eject single adults, but not families.

Ms. Gibbs said that an ejection could result from a homeless family “refusing to look for housing, refusing to seek employment, anything that is an unreasonable refusal to participate in the steps they need to take to overcome their homelessness.”

“The families need to understand that they can’t just thumb their nose at the rules and have no consequences,” she said.

One thing is indisputable: While the population of homeless single adults has gone down significantly in the last five years, the number of families sleeping in shelters is near an all-time high. According to the Web site for the Department of Homeless Services, there were 34,774 people in shelters last week, including 9,361 families — often single mothers with children.

About 150 organizations that hold contracts with the city operate most of the homeless shelters. (The city runs a small handful of its own shelters.)

The cost of providing shelter has risen. The city estimates that it costs roughly $36,000 a year to house a homeless family, up from $31,656 in 2004. The average stay in a shelter is about nine months.

City officials have privately expressed frustration at their inability to get a handle on the problem, despite efforts to expand homelessness prevention and introduce rental subsidy programs.

The new policies reflect the administration’s determination to rid the system of families who stay in shelters for long stretches, sometimes rejecting apartments offered to them, while giving the shelter providers an incentive to get them out.

Under the new rules, which would take effect in January, the city would pay the agencies a 10 percent premium for the first six months that it houses a family. During that time, the agency is expected to push the family toward economic independence and permanent housing. But if the family stayed longer, the agencies would be paid 20 percent less than the standard rate.

But advocates for the homeless questioned the city’s ability to avoid bureaucratic mistakes that could result in a family being wrongly ejected.

In May, a state-mandated program to charge rent to the working homeless was quickly suspended after it began with a dizzying series of errors from both state and city agencies. (City officials say the program is being revamped.)

State approval is required to make changes to social service policies. Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said the state commissioner was considering the proposals.

Robert V. Hess, the city’s commissioner of homeless services, said that the new policies would be put in place after a long rollout, staff training and orientation, and that ejections would occur only after a thorough review.

“At the end of the day, we’re not putting policies in place that are intended, or will result in, people just arbitrarily having their shelter rights terminated,” Mr. Hess said. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Bonnie Stone, the executive director of Women in Need, a shelter for women and children, praised the city for its ability to house an ever-increasing number of people who needed help.

But the notion of ejecting a family, she said, made her uneasy.

“I believe that you only do that under huge, huge safety and due process, and not for small things,” she said, pausing. “I think it is not what we do.”

At the moment, shelter residents who resist following rules are frequently subject to another form of punishment: transfer to a shelter seen as less desirable.

Tina Rodriguez, a pink-haired 23-year-old with a silver stud in her lip, said she and her toddler son, Damonie, had been living in a shelter in Hell’s Kitchen since September, and lately workers there had threatened that if she did not move out soon, she would be transferred to a so-called Next Step shelter. The city says such shelters offer more intensive case management, but among families, they are known for stricter rules and more crowded conditions.

Still, when Ms. Rodriguez was recently offered a studio apartment in Harlem, she rejected it. “I was scared to tell my worker that I didn’t want it,” she said, standing outside the Hell’s Kitchen shelter as Damonie slept in a stroller. “But there was no living room. I can’t live with a 2-year-old in an apartment like that. They’re trying to force me into somewhere that I’m not comfortable.”

Amanda Hayes, 24, said she entered the shelter system with her toddler, Xavier, in April after growing fed up with her living arrangements in the Bronx: sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, adult brother and Xavier.

She needs no additional pressure from shelter workers to persuade her to move out, she said.

“I’ve been looking for work every day,” Ms. Hayes said. “I don’t need to be threatened about it at every turn.”


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