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At a committee meeting held yesterday, City Council members told the Department of Homeless Services to start coming up with better solutions, not temporary fixes and excuses, to combat the rapid rise of homelessness in the city.
“We’re in crisis mode, and if we don’t do something over the next 16 months, then we’re going to be left with a situation that’s going to be getting worse, not better — under a new administration,” Councilman Stephen Levin said at yesterday’s hearing.
“As much time as [the new administration is] going to take to figure out what to do, we’re going to be well over 50,000 people in New York City on any given night in the shelter system.”
The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness estimates that some 20,749 children will spend this Christmas housed in a shelter — a figure not seen since the Great Depression.
DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond said the city expects to build at least three new shelters by the end of this year to accommodate the soaring homeless population. Reports today indicate that there will likely be at least five new shelters built before the year is out.
The City Council, DHS, and policy experts agree that the state’s decision to end funding for the Advantage rental subsidy program in April 2011 has played a big role in the dramatic increase in homelessness. The program offered roughly 7,000 families up to two years of rental subsidies to help working individuals transition from the shelter to permanent housing.
“The state has imposed restrictions on how its own money can be used, and when it ended the advantage program, not only did it end financing for the advantage program, it further sealed the deal and showed their intention by putting in appropriation language that says that no state dollars, no state dollars, can be used to assist people in leaving shelter,” Diamond said.
Patrick Markee, senior analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, said in his testimony to the council that Diamond only told half of the story concerning state funding. He said that it’s also the city’s unwillingness to use some its own federal resources to fund a rental subsidy program, which has halted progress on reviving a version of the initiative.
“He was a little disingenuous in talking about the legislature,” Markee said. “I think the state has voiced, in both public and private, that New York City is the only locality in the state that essentially is not using any its own affordable-ousing resources to address the problem of homelessness.”
Diamond said DHS is largely using its funding to ensure that the growing homeless population will have shelters to stay in, and to provide services, such as job training and other resources, to help individuals and families get back on their feet.
“If you could tell me today that no new people would come into the shelter system, then we can take all the people in shelter and maybe use the money [for housing],” Diamond said. “As long as we have a continuing need for shelter, we can’t devote those resources to housing because there will be more people going into the shelter system.”
City Councilmen Brad Lander revealed his frustration with this game plan as he grilled Diamond during the commissioner’s testimony.
“Respectfully, I believe you’re putting your head in the sand about it,” Lander said. “To come in here and give us testimony about it that says ‘We’re trying harder to help those folks get jobs,’ in the face of these numbers, by doing a little better on all of the things we’ve done before, we need a new approach.”
To work around whatever issues the city’s administration and the state have in regards to permanent housing, the City Council asked the Internal Budget Office to analyze a plan that would bring a portion of homeless individuals into permanent housing units through the New York City Housing Authority. Such a plan would call for individuals living in shelters — who are also on NYCHA’s more than 125,000-person waitlist for public housing — to receive priority position.
The IBO found that if 5,000 people were able to get into public housing based on this system, the city would save more than $29 million on family shelters and $11 million in total public funding.
“I really think that we’re being given misinformation,” Lander said. “The efforts we have made to try to reach a sensible compromise to do something for these thousands of kids and families [are] being met with a stonewalling and head-in-the-sand attitude from the administration.”
With well more than 75,000 city residents living below the poverty line, several City Council members argued that helping individuals secure low-level retail, security, and health care jobs won’t help those living in shelters secure permanent housing — not when the median monthly rent costs for New York City apartments is at $1,129/month.
“There’s never going to be a time when there’s not significant financial issues with federal state and city governments,” Levin said. “From here on out, there are going to be significant issues. My question is, what’s the real game plan here?”