By Domenick Rafter
Editor in Chief
Commissioner Gilbert Taylor, the face of the Department of Homeless Services, resigned Tuesday as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a review of the agency and his administration’s response to the city’s homeless crisis.
Taylor has been the target of criticism over the administration’s handling of the homeless problem. His tenure has been especially controversial in Queens, with the openings of emergency shelters, such as at the former Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst in 2014 making his agency the target of public ire.
At issue was what officials and civic leaders saw as a hapless response to the city’s rising homeless population. Immediately after Taylor announced his resignation, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an overhaul in his administration’s response to the growing homeless problem, for which he has been the target of criticism by opponents and supporter alike.
Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks will take over the DHS during a reorganization period, along with Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris. Taylor will be moved an advisory role.
Legally, the city is also required to give shelter to anyone who needs it. Since 2013, the population of homeless in the city has risen by more than 12 percent, due to a number of factors including inability to find affordable housing and domestic violence. More than 12,000 families and 23,000 children live in shelters in the city.
As the population of homeless swells, the DHS says it lacks room in already existing shelters and was forced to open “emergency shelters,” such as the Pan Am, usually without any community input. That has led to strong opposition from residents who feel slighted and fear crime that is often associated, erroneously mostly, with the homeless. After the Pan Am shelter opened in 2014, hundreds of residents protested outside the shelter for weeks in rallies that often grew contentious.
An application to make the former hotel at 79-00 Queens Blvd. a permanent shelter was denied multiple times by City Comptroller Scott Stringer. The DHS has sought to open new shelters in Glendale and in Southeast Queens, inviting disdain from community boards and civic leaders in those communities as well.
But even some staunch supporters of the mayor have argued that the response was reactionary, and not proactive. Many progressive leaders had blasted the response as “warehousing” of homeless families.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who had called for Taylor to resign earlier this year, said he hoped the change in leadership would lead to a better DHS.
“Unfortunately, under Gilbert Taylor, there was an abject failure to self critique and an unwillingness to communicate,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “With today’s announcement that he will be stepping down, I have renewed hope for the agency under Steven Banks’ direction and look forward to seeing an overhaul of DHS. His testimony during the Taskforce’s Public Hearing on the Current State of Homelessness provided valuable insight into the challenges we face in addressing the rise of the homeless population.”
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing), who represents much of Elmhurst, said she wanted to see not only a better focus on the homeless problem, but also a recognition of the crisis.
“The resignation of Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor presents an opportunity to reshape the way the DHS operates,” Stavisky said. “With the number of people in shelters increasing from 53,000 to more than 57,000 over the past two years, we as a city must acknowledge that homelessness is a serious issue. I sincerely hope HRA Commissioner Steven Banks will also look for a way to change the city’s approach to housing our homeless. Too many are staying long-term. We must move away from a shelter system and look to build supportive housing.”