News & Politics

Anti-Shelter Queens Reps Grill de Blasio’s Homeless Commissioner

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The evening before former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn began attacking erstwhile rival Mayor Bill de Blasio over his homelessness policy, Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks faced some of his most vocal critics: the community board chairs of Queens.

The meeting, hosted by Borough President Melinda Katz during her monthly borough board gathering, offered Banks an opportunity to outline how the de Blasio administration is addressing the city’s ballooning homelessness crisis before he dove into a tense back-and-forth with community board chairs and council members.

Compared to previous public discussions of homeless shelters in Queens, last night’s meeting was relatively subdued, providing Banks an opportunity to put a fresh foot forward in public with the borough’s civic leadership.

But it didn’t always go smoothly. Community Board 5 chair Vincent Arcuri, who has been battling a hotel-to-shelter conversion in Maspeth, accused Banks of not utilizing empty public housing units for the homeless and proffering “make-believe” statistics, before he asked why the city can’t simply build additional housing like it did in the middle of the 20th century.

“Fiorello La Guardia had something that Bill de Blasio doesn’t have—” Banks began, before Arcuri cut him off.

“Brains,” the community board chair said to laughs. Katz admonished him before Banks moved on.

“—a federal partner,” Banks finished.

Absent a reinvigorated federal housing policy, Banks’s goal is to build enough shelters designed for the homeless, instead of renting out apartments or hotel rooms. Thanks to a landmark 1983 lawsuit Banks won as an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, the city must house the homeless each night. Crunched for space, it’s been renting hotel rooms—a policy dating to the Lindsay administration, Banks said—and working with non-profit contractors to convert low-end hotels into shelters.

It’s not ideal, Banks admits, but there’s an even bigger issue he is focused on first: phasing out “cluster sites” of apartments the city had been renting, sometimes for decades, for use by the homeless. Now, the city is working with landlords to convert these units to permanent housing with full-term leases for their occupants. There are about 3,000 of these units remaining, mostly in the Bronx, and Banks hopes to convert them to apartments by 2018.

New York’s homelessness crisis has been building for decades, from less than 24,000 homeless each night in 1994 to over 60,000 today. “We’ve been dealing with this issue way before de Blasio came into office,” said Council Member Donovan Richards. “So to say that this is just a de Blasio issue is just disingenuous.”

The numbers would be even worse, Banks said, if not for efforts to prevent homelessness, including increased anti-eviction legal services, more assistance to help tenants with rental arrears, and outreach to street homeless.

The commissioner has been rolling out additional policy changes since April, when he took over the new Department of Social Services and the mayor released a “90-day review” of homeless policy. Next up, Banks says: a plan “in the coming months” to construct additional purpose-built homeless shelters, instead of relying on hotels.

That didn’t satisfy some of his critics last night, including Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who has backed her Maspeth constituents in opposing a homeless shelter at a Holiday Inn. In a back-and-forth with Banks, Crowley claimed the city had been misleading about its agreement with the hotel owner, and is moving people from cluster-site apartments to hotels like the Maspeth Holiday Inn.

“You keep making the point that we’re taking people out of clusters and putting them into hotels,” Banks said. “For everybody here, this is not the policy of the Department of Homeless Services of the City of New York.”

Crowley wasn’t convinced. “He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” she told the Voice as she left the meeting.

Currently, the city gives at least 30 days notice when it is opening a new shelter, or will be renting out at least half of a hotel for the homeless, Banks said. But when less than half of a hotel is leased, there is no advance notice. “It’s clear to me, and to the administration, the fact that hotel rooms have been rented without any notification process has to change,” Banks said. Elected officials and community boards will begin to receive notice of these types of agreements in the coming weeks, he said.

Banks also said the city is shifting to a borough-based program, where each borough will accommodate its own homeless population, instead of shifting the homeless to far-flung locations around the city. Today, Queens shelters 8,500 of the city’s 60,000 homeless, or 14 percent—about half its 27 percent share of the city’s total population.

The Voice asked Banks if that meant Queens should expect a significant increase in homeless units, so it can shoulder its fair share. “This is a citywide problem,” Banks said. “As we move forward, we want to make sure we put shelter space in places where people can remain in their communities.”

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