Out of the Shelter, Into the Fire

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

Lisa Hendley should have been the poster child for the Bloomberg administration's five-year plan to end homelessness. After spending time in a domestic-violence shelter, the 26-year-old mom had found herself and her daughter a place to live with the help of Housing Stability Plus, the mayor's new program to aid shelter residents in renting private apartments. And she'd landed a job packing groceries for Fresh Direct, the first step on the road off of public assistance.

And then, she recalls, she was told by her city caseworker that she needed to quit. Her $8-an-hour job, it turned out, gave her too much income to be eligible for the new program's housing aid. Faced with the choice of keeping her job or her apartment, she chose the roof over her family's head.

It was an embarrassing moment for the mayor—especially when city councilmembers paraded Hendley before the cameras in early May to point out the need to reform city housing programs. But, say the legal-aid attorneys who handle housing complaints, stories like Hendley's have become all too common as HSP, one of the linchpins of Bloomberg's war on homelessness, enters its second year. "Almost all my walk-in emergencies have been people with HSP on the verge of being evicted again," says Karen Takach, housing unit director for Legal Services for New York City in the Bronx. "In my experience, it's been a disaster. Rather than decreasing homelessness, I think it's going to be a revolving door back to shelters."

"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?"

The troubles began in 2004, when the Bush administration effectively scuttled Section 8, the federal voucher program that helped homeless families pay the rent on private apartments. With city shelter stays already soaring, the Bloomberg administration crafted Hous- ing Stability Plus, a state-managed, city- implemented program, to fill the gap; then-homeless-services commissioner Linda Gibbs bragged that it was "the most significant discretionary rental- assistance program in the city's history."

It's hard to find people served by the program who'd agree. "I don't know who invented it, but it's a big mess," says Miosotis Aponte, a Monroe College criminal justice student and mother of six who was initially thrilled when the city told her it could get her an apartment in one week. "I've been in the program for a year, and right now I have two eviction notices. It's not a safe program, because any time you could be back on the streets."

The trouble, say both those seeking housing and their advocates, stems from two major changes from the old program. For example, Section 8 was open-ended, but HSP comes with a time limit: Each year, tenants face a 20 percent reduction in aid (called a "stepdown"), until after five years the housing aid evaporates entirely. The other difference is that unlike Section 8, the new program is linked to welfare benefits—meaning that if your public assistance is cut off for any reason, your rent check goes with it.

Put the two together, legal-aid attorneys say, and you have a situation in which people are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but if they tug too hard, they lose it altogether. "It's a very narrow window to be able to make enough to cover the stepdown without knocking yourself off of public assistance entirely," says Ed Josephson, housing-law unit director for South Brooklyn Legal Services. "That would get you through year two—and then year three you'd still be dead, because if you're making enough to cover the 40 percent, you're making too much for public assistance."

There's some dispute as to whether the window is as narrow as all that. Heidi Siegfried, supervising attorney for the Partnership for the Homeless, suggests that if someone were to piece together food stamps, child care aid, and the earned-income tax credit, even a low-wage job should provide enough income to pay the bills without the need for HSP. But Siegfried readily acknowledges that she can't name people who have actually done this. "I wish we had more success stories," she says.

Failure stories, meanwhile, are everywhere you look. Haneefah Bilal, who shares a one-bedroom HSP apartment in the Bronx with her two children, says she'd love to go back to work, but like Hendley, she can't afford to. "I've sat down with a calculator and said, 'This is how much I'd make a month.' Look at my rent. Add it all up—I could not do it."

Bilal, who landed in a city shelter after fleeing an abusive relationship, says it was bad enough that HSP forced her to go on public assistance for the first time in her life, which meant closing out her bank accounts and her children's college fund. To now be told that anything but a minimum-wage job would cost her her apartment is the last straw. "I'm a certified nursing assistant," she says, her voice rising with incredulity. "I can get a job with no problem. And you're telling me I have to work at McDonald's? Are you serious?"

Bilal, at least, has kept up with her rent payments, though that could change once she hits her first 20 percent stepdown, which could come as early as this month. With most HSP clients only now beginning their second year, housing attorneys note that they're not yet seeing many stepdown-related cases, since landlords are unlikely to boot tenants immediately so long as they're still paying most of their rent. Instead, what they've found is a flood of complaints related to the program's link to welfare benefits.

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."

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."

Some advocates are still hopeful that HSP can be redeemed: If the stepdowns were eliminated, the public-assistance requirement removed, and more stringest housing-quality requirements imposed, says Coalition for the Homeless senior policy analyst Patrick Markee, it could potentially become as viable a program as Section 8. But Takach, who has spent the last three months fielding HSP complaints, is less sanguine: "I don't think this program is salvageable. They need to scrap it and think of something else."

If the city does decide to rethink HSP from scratch, it needn't look any further than Haneefah Bilal for ideas. "If they said you could work for five years, save as much money as you can, that's different," she suggests. "Or if I had subsidized rent, I would be able to get off of this program. If my rent was $500, I would be gone. I could make it on my own.

"I don't want to bash HSP, because if it wasn't for them I wouldn't even be where I'm at now. But I just don't think that they thought it through."

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