BY LYNN EDMONDS
The best way to deal with homelessness is not to let it happen in the first place, many experts testified in a report on homelessness in New York City that was released on Dec. 21, following a Task Force meeting on Oct. 7.
The city has been in the midst of a homelessness crisis, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, with levels of homelessness not seen since the Great Depression, and 86 percent higher than they were 10 years ago. Former Commissioner of Homeless Services Gilbert Taylor testified at the hearing that 57,000 people were in the shelter system, including 11,950 families with children.
Elected officials Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have been under pressure to address the problem. Taylor resigned on Dec. 15. On Sunday, Cuomo signed an executive order requiring local governments to house the homeless in shelters when the temperature dips below freezing.
On Monday de Blasio said he would stop a program that was poorly regarded by many experts in homelessness, “Cluster Sites.” The program had the city paying high prices for what was usually bad-quality housing, so that it could be used as shelter space. The program came under criticism because of the poor conditions in the apartments and because, in competing with low-income renters for housing stock, the city was essentially going against its own goals of battling homelessness.
“The cluster site shelter program encourages slumlords to take rent stabilized units off the market and convert them into shelter units, which, in turn, encourages them to harass renters so they can replace them with homeless families,” the report paraphrased Ryan Hickey, a housing organizer for Picture the Homeless, as saying at the October meeting.
Most of the expert witnesses attributed the rise in homelessness to the increasing cost of housing in New York City, which has not been matched by an up tick in wages.
Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration Steven Banks said that the median rent increased by 75 percent in New York City between 2002 and 2012. Fifty-five percent of rental households in New York City pay at least 30 percent of their income towards housing costs and more than 30 percent put over 40 percent of their income towards rent. That heavy rent burden leaves too many families “one serious problem away from losing their homes,” Banks said.
The long term strategy is to create more affordable housing and better-quality jobs, many of the experts agreed. But in the meantime, it’s also less disruptive for families, and much cheaper for the government, to provide subsidies for families that are in danger of losing their homes, rather than to finance stays in shelters, they said.
“It is easier and more cost-effective to preserve housing so that an individual or family does not become homeless than it is to house an individual or family that has become homeless,” Megan O’Byrne, a staff attorney for the New York Legal Assistance Group, said. “There must be more affordable housing options for everyone, including viable and permanent rental assistance subsidies and further protection of the stabilized housing stock.”
Banks stated that the average cost to house a family in a shelter is $37,000 per year, as opposed to the average cost of emergency rent help, which is $3,396 per case, and legal services, which cost $2,000 per case.
He said rent help could be achieved through increasing certain benefits, like the state-set shelter allowance, and improving access to others, like LINC, CITYFEPS, and SEPS.
Connecting tenants with the public assistance they are entitled to has been a problem, some said. For instance, SCRIE, a rent freeze program for seniors, is only utilized by 40 to 45 percent of those we are eligible for it, state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) said.
Another important protection that helped low-income New Yorkers stay in their homes, in addition to the rent assistance, were legal services to protect them against eviction and tenant harassment, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, email@example.com or @Ellinoamerikana