The Department of Homeless Services is making some changes in their strategy to reduce homelessness in New York City, and homeless advocates approve. DHS presented their 2015 budget to City Hall last Monday, and outlined new focuses and funding, including prioritizing specific groups to help move out of the shelter system, capping payments to cluster sites at $1500 a month, and using NYCHA as a low-cost solution to homeless family placement.
The groups being prioritized by the DHS are “vulnerable populations,” which include homeless families who have been to a shelter more than once, and “working families” that live in a shelter and work full time.
In the 2015 budget, $60.1 million will be directed specifically to vulnerable populations by reducing reimbursement rates for landlords of cluster sites and hotels, capping those reimbursement rates at $1500 per unit per month. Cluster-sites are units for the homeless in otherwise market-rate apartment buildings, effectively acting as a satellite shelter. They are similar to former “scatter-sites,” which were widely criticized and all but disappeared under Bloomberg, only to reemerge with a new name, and enhanced social services.
The $1500 cap is a major break from the recent history of homeless policy; several homeless advocates interviewed say the average amount received by a cluster-site unit is roughly $3,000 a month. Many of the cluster sites are located in neighborhoods where a unit’s market rate would be far below that number. At the hearing last week, newly appointed DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor noted that the vast majority of DHS shelters are contracted out to private providers.
Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, applauded the price cap.
“The city actually pays $3,000 a month to use apartments as temporary shelter, a complete waste of money and totally misguided, that the Bloomberg administration expanded to record levels,” Markee said. “If what they can do [is] reduce the payments to cluster-site landlords and reinvest that money into rent subsidy, that’s one step towards moving in the right direction.”
The Working Families Rental Assistance Program will provide 801 families annually with a 3-year housing subsidy, with an option to renew after 5 years. The program will receive $80 million over four years, with the City and State each contributing 50% of the funding. 2015 gives the program $6 million, with planned increases the following 3 years. At the City Council hearing, Taylor acknowledged that 801 was a small number, but by focusing on a group disposed to better support themselves, DHS might show the State a high success rate to expand the program in the future.
“Targeting working families is a great idea,” said Ralph Da Costa Nunez, president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness. “The problem with the Bloomberg administration is that they just threw vouchers out there and created chaos…targeting working families is the way to go. … You’re going to shoot for your best opportunity to move families out that will stay out.”
City Council members were particularly interested in the use of NYCHA housing to help stem the rising tide of homelessness, describing it as not only the cheapest solution to New York City homelessness, but one that wouldn’t require State funding and approval.
Under the current plan, homeless families that are already on the waiting list for public housing with be prioritized. Those families will then get follow-up services from DHS. Representatives from the DHS and NYCHA would not say how many homeless families would be moved to the top of the list.
Advocates note that NYCHA was a major hallmark of the homeless policy in New York City under the four Mayors before Bloomberg, and hope it will be used more rigorously under de Blasio.
As of March 2014, there are 247,262 families on the waiting list for NYCHA’s Conventional Public Housing program. As of January 2014, the vacancy rate of NYCHA apartments available for occupancy was 0.95 percent.