by Nikita Stewart
A Holiday Inn in Rosedale, Queens, that has housed homeless families. New York is under a legal obligation to provide temporary housing to anyone who enters an intake center and asks for it.
Photo Credit: Christian Hansen for The New York Times
Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected on Tuesday to unveil a plan to open roughly 90 new homeless shelters throughout New York’s five boroughs, a stark increase devised to address his most vexing citywide problem.
The move, which was confirmed by several people familiar with the plan, would increase the number of shelters in New York by nearly a third and is sure to meet community opposition at nearly every turn.
With re-election looming, Mr. de Blasio has been frustrated in his attempts to curb the continuing increase in homelessness. Visibly, more people are sleeping and begging on the street, and the uptick is easily documented by a daily shelter census that now hovers at about 60,000 people.
“I’m very dissatisfied when it comes to a lot of strategies we put into place to address homelessness that still haven’t gotten us where we want to go,” the mayor said in December. “My job is to get it right.”
Homelessness has been a vulnerable point for Mr. de Blasio, who entered office three years ago with an ambitious agenda that promised to address the city’s income inequality. The rise in homelessness is arguably the mayor’s biggest failure in that goal to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington have experienced similar increases, even as the number of homeless people nationwide has declined in recent years.
The exact contours of Mr. de Blasio’s proposal were not clear; administration officials have declined to give any details until the mayor announces it, presumably at 2 p.m. Tuesday. The goal is far clearer: The mayor wants to significantly expand a shelter system that is so over capacity that the city is forced to spend about $400,000 a day on hotel rooms.
The new shelters — which would be in addition to the roughly 275 overseen currently by the Department of Homeless Services — would enable the city to move thousands of people from the hotels and so-called cluster housing to more stable shelters, and eventually into permanent housing. New York is under a legal obligation to provide temporary housing to anyone who enters an intake center and asks for it, putting a strain on the shelter system.
New York has experienced a continuing increase in homelessness even as the number of homeless people nationwide has declined in recent years.
Photo Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times
Tuesday will signify yet another reset for Mr. de Blasio, who halted the opening of new shelters for about eight months in 2015 after community opposition, only to be caught flat-footed and dependent on using hotels as a stopgap as homelessness surged. In late 2015, he shook up his administration, putting Steven Banks in charge of managing the crisis and restructuring the homeless services and general welfare agencies.
The changes were part of a multipronged effort to reduce homelessness by offering more affordable housing, rental subsidy programs for low-income residents struggling to afford their homes, and legal assistance to tenants on the verge of eviction. But the sweeping approach has not put a discernible dent in homelessness.
Mr. de Blasio’s shelter plan was to come a day after the City Council released a report on a legislative package aimed at overhauling the city’s Fair Share law, which is supposed to bring more parity to the way public facilities, including homeless shelters, are distributed throughout the city. The report found that homeless shelters, drug and mental treatment centers and foster care group homes were concentrated in 10 community districts, with an average of 21.7 beds per 1,000 residents in those districts, a balance five times the city average; that would change if legislation restricting such clustering is adopted.
The Coalition for the Homeless is opposed, saying the revamp could inadvertently stall the opening of shelters and would exacerbate the problem of homeless families with children being placed in shelters far away from their neighborhoods, saddling students with long commutes or temporary school transfers that threaten to hurt them academically.
“What we end up with is the inability to locate in any neighborhood,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at the coalition. “It would inhibit the city from locating shelters in neighborhoods where families may need more support.”
It was unclear whether the council’s Fair Share legislative package would hinder or help the mayor’s plan to build more shelters, which would open over the next five years.
But hotels turned into makeshift shelters are problematic, offering little privacy and space for families crammed into rooms with double beds. There are generally no kitchens — an especially difficult hardship for families with children, unable to get a home-cooked meal for weeks, even months, at a time. Cluster housing, consisting of units within private apartment buildings, has also been troubling, for its poor conditions and an inability to provide people with the services they need to move into permanent housing.
Shelter openings have already been delayed by neighborhood opposition, as in Maspeth, Queens, where well-organized residents successfully pressured one hotel owner to abandon a potential deal with the city to convert a hotel into a homeless shelter.
Mr. de Blasio will also need the cooperation of nonprofit organizations that shelter the homeless. Many of them are reluctant to buy into the mayor’s latest effort because they have not been paid for past services and are working under outdated contracts. The frustration has led to behind-the-scenes tension, and even refusals by some nonprofit providers to open new shelters.
Steven Banks, right, who is in charge of managing New York’s homelessness crisis, with Mario Arias and Lauren Taylor, who work in homeless outreach, this month.
Photo Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times
Nonprofit providers initially played an optimistic wait-and-see game with the administration. Many executives of nonprofits had hesitated to publicly criticize the administration because Mr. Banks, formerly the head of the Legal Aid Society, and Mr. de Blasio, formerly public advocate and a city councilman who headed the general welfare committee, were seen as sympathetic to the nonprofits’ concerns.
Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of about 50 shelter providers, estimated that about a third of existing contracts needed action.
Now providers will also be asked to open new stand-alone shelters. But patience has eroded as providers have watched Mr. de Blasio roll out one large-scale plan after another without first taking care of the nuts-and-bolts management of contracts and payments.
Many providers are dependent on bridge loans, in lieu of payment, that the city gives them as they await the Office of the City Comptroller to register the contracts and cut a check — a monthslong process.
Almost two years ago, the de Blasio administration blamed the comptroller for a failure to register contracts in a timely manner, which Mr. Banks said delayed improvements to the conditions of shelter system. But the blame for the recent delays lies squarely with the mayor’s administration, which is also in charge of renegotiating contracts that originated in the 1980s and 1990s and now have severely outdated rates, some providers said.
“The city’s lack of organization and failure to plan often means those on the front lines face financial stress and uncertainty,” Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, said in a statement. “Ultimately, that makes this extraordinary challenge harder to fix.”
Mr. Banks did not address nonprofits’ concerns about the rates. But he said in a statement that the city had worked “as fast as we can” to reduce a payment backlog. He also said some payments remained outstanding because nonprofits had not made necessary improvements to their shelters.
Win, one of the largest nonprofit providers of homeless services in the city, will most likely have to tap into $5 million in reserves this year, a comfort that many smaller organizations cannot afford, said Christine C. Quinn, who has been in discussions about running against Mr. de Blasio in this year’s mayoral election.
“We can’t take on more work when, in some cases, we are three fiscal years behind in payments for services rendered,” said Ms. Quinn, Win’s chief executive and a former City Council member who ran against Mr. de Blasio in 2013. “There are smaller groups actually laying people off. These are not providers whining about paperwork.”
Source: The New York Times