Out of the Shelter, Into the Fire

New city program for homeless: Keep your job or keep your apartment

As every welfare recipient knows, it's routine to lose benefits for a time thanks to being "sanctioned" (punished) by the city for anything from missing an appointment to lost paperwork. While the city keeps no figures, it's estimated that between one-quarter and one-third of all welfare recipients face sanctions at some point during any given year. Under Section 8, this was a hassle; under HSP, it can mean getting stuck with thousands of dollars in rent arrears.

Sanctions are what left Aponte scrambling to stave off eviction after the city cut off her welfare, claiming she hadn't submitted proof that she was enrolled in college. "They stopped my rent for three months," she says. Though she won a hearing to get her benefits restored, she's still out the back rent. "HSP owes the balance to my landlord," she says. "I went to them with an eviction notice, and they said, no, we're not going to pay."

No one knows how many families in HSP apartments are in similar straits. The city department of homeless services keeps figures only on how many families leave shelters (6,854 so far) and how many return ("less than 1 percent"), but, admits DHS deputy commissioner Maryanne Schretzman, "we wouldn't know [what happened to them] if they didn't return to shelter."

"I'm a certified nursing assistant," says Haneefah Bilal (above with son Eric). "I can get a job with no problem. And you're telling me I have to work at McDonald's? Are you serious?"
photo: Cary Conover
"I'm a certified nursing assistant," says Haneefah Bilal (above with son Eric). "I can get a job with no problem. And you're telling me I have to work at McDonald's? Are you serious?"

But some people have an idea of how serious the problem is. LSNY-Bronx senior staff attorney Randi Massey estimates that nearly 60 percent of her practice now consists of HSP complaints. Her colleague Takach adds that in recent months she sees "at least one person a day" who's been evicted from an HSP apartment and who is looking to go back into a homeless shelter.

Indeed, everyone involved, including some city officials, seems to agree that HSP is broken to some extent. (Among other things, it makes it damn near im- possible for the city to meet the new federal requirement that 50 percent of all welfare cases be in "work activities" when its own caseworkers are warning people not to work.) How to fix it is another story. The city says it has asked the state, which has oversight over HSP, to create a "work subsidy program" to allow people to keep their housing ben- efits even after they find jobs; DHS of- ficials, though, can't provide any details of either how this would work or when or if the state's response is expected. Beyond that, the official city statements are all resolute optimism and work-ethic rhetoric. In January, Bloomberg declared HSP to be "very successful so far" in giving people "the tools so they can get their lives together and become self- sufficient." Asked specifically about the 20 percent stepdown catch-22, DHS's Schretzman—who prefers to call it a "gradual step-up to progressive independence"—insists: "We really believe in our families, that they are able to work, and they will be able to afford their rents."

It's the kind of blind-faith pronouncement that it's hard to imagine even city bureaucrats really believe. "I think they probably knew this was a mistake as they were doing it," says Manhattan state senator Liz Krueger, the ranking Democrat on the senate's housing committee. "Frankly, all the experts predicted that this was going to happen—that it was a ridiculous model to assume that homeless families in New York City could see a 20 percent increase in their rent each year for five years, somehow not actually lose their public assistance during that time period, and still be able to keep their homes."

Unfortunately, even if the governor's office were inclined to approve a work exemption, it's not likely to come quickly, given that Albany is content to engage in an extended road show of Waiting for Spitzer. "You don't really have too much of a state government at the moment," observes Krueger. "You have a lot of people job-hunting, and a lot of empty desks."

While the state fiddles, the City Council has taken up a pair of bills addressing HSP's shortcomings. Speaker Christine Quinn has introduced legislation that would prohibit landlords from taking part in HSP if their buildings had too many violations; another bill, introduced last month by Bronx councilmember Annabel Palma, would set up an "eviction prevention" supplement as a backdoor way of helping people who are caught in the too-rich-to-get-aid, too-poor-to-pay-rent quandary.

While substandard housing is a huge problem—Bilal notes that her apartment has 103 outstanding violations, including peeling lead paint, defective window guards, and two weeks in January with no heat or hot water—housing experts don't expect much from the Quinn bill, since it's already nearly impossible to find landlords willing to enter a program in which tenants can afford to pay less and less rent each year. "Buildings without violations would never go into HSP in their life," says Massey. "The only people that will are owners of buildings with hundreds of violations who see a way to make a quick profit."

Palma's bill, which has the backing of council general welfare committee chair Bill DeBlasio, potentially holds more promise. But action on it is months away at best—it doesn't even have a hearing scheduled, and no one is certain how it would be financed. There's also some concern that adding another layer of bureaucracy wouldn't be the best cure for an already confusing program. Josephson worries that "the more complex [the system], the better the chance that someone is going to fall through the cracks."

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