The Legal Aid Society Goes To Court On Behalf Of Vulnerable Homeless Women And Men; City Puts Off Implementation Of Its New Shelter Denial Plan

Last Thursday, the City agreed to postpone the November 14 implementation of its new procedure that would for the first time provide for the denial of shelter from the elements to women and men seeking help from the City. The agreement was reached after The Legal Aid Society commenced litigation in State Supreme Court, New York County to enforce the 1981 consent decree requiring the provision of shelter to women and men who are in need of shelter "by reason of physical, mental or social dysfunction" or who meet the need standard for public assistance. The City agreed to delay implementation of its new plan -- which represents a sea change in City policy -- so that Supreme Court Justice Judith Gische will have time to review the matter. The next court date is scheduled for December 9.

Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told the Wall Street Journal that "it's regrettable that it required going to court."

Banks told The New York Times that the policy would would “upend the basic standard that has been in place for 30 years; it’s unfortunate that it required a court proceeding to stop the implementation next week of this misguided policy.”

The law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP is co-counsel with Society. The Society has represented homeless New Yorkers for some 30 years and Mr. Banks has been lead counsel in the litigation.

According to a report from the Coalition for the Homeless released earlier this week, the City’s homeless population is 41,204, up from 31,000 a decade ago. The Society is counsel to the Coalition and the litigation last week was filed on behalf of the Coalition as well as all homeless women and homeless men.


November 11, 2011
Wall Street Journal
City Delays New Policy for Homeless
By Michael Howard Saul

Faced with the possibility of a state judge issuing a preliminary injunction, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration preemptively retreated Thursday and agreed to postpone plans to launch a new eligibility policy for single adults seeking entry into New York City's homeless shelters.

Last week, the administration sparked outrage from advocates for the homeless when the Department of Homeless Services confirmed the city would no longer allow single adults into homeless shelters unless they demonstrated they have no other housing options.

The city planned to implement the policy on Monday but following a court challenge from the Legal Aid Society, a non-profit, and a discussion with Supreme Court Justice Judith Gische on Thursday afternoon, the administration agreed to a delay to give the court time to review the matter.

Each side is expected to submit written arguments in the coming weeks and to return to court Dec. 9.

"I think it's regrettable that it required going to court to put off the implementation of this misguided policy," said Steve Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, who has represented homeless New Yorkers in litigation establishing the right to shelter since the early 1980s. "We are hopeful that the city will be prohibited from proceeding."

The administration estimates the new policy would save the city $4 million, but Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, said the policy's focus isn't financial.

"We believe that it's the right process that should be put in place because shelters should be reserved for those who have no alternative," he said. "The judge indicated that she wanted time to fully review the matter and we thought it was best to give her that opportunity."

At an emergency City Council oversight hearing on Wednesday, council members angrily denounced the policy.

Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn called it "stupid" and "asinine."

Mr. Diamond said he doesn't believe that the council members were giving the department enough credit for its plan to ensure that the policy would be implemented humanely.

In a statement, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said on Thursday she was pleased this "dangerous new policy" won't go into effect on Monday.

The administration, she said, should "permanently reverse course."

November 11, 2011
The New York Times
City Delays Tighter Rules for Homeless People Seeking Shelter
By David W. Chen

Facing mounting criticism from the City Council and a lawsuit from advocates for the homeless, the Bloomberg administration on Thursday postponed until next month the imposition of tighter rules for homeless people seeking shelter.

The administration announced last week that the policy, which would try to verify that people seeking shelter were truly homeless, would take effect next Monday. And, despite critics’ fears that more mentally ill people, among others, might be forced onto the streets, Seth Diamond, the commissioner for homeless services, said at a tumultuous Council hearing on Wednesday that the city had “received state approval and we’re going ahead.”

But the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, in a testy letter, said the state had not approved the policy but had merely found it was “not inconsistent with state law.” The state also said it had “serious concerns” with the policy’s quick start-up and called the Nov. 14 date “completely unreasonable.”

Mr. Diamond said Thursday that the city had tried to be clear about its interaction with the state at the Council hearing.

“We were trying to be as upfront as possible,” he said. “Again, the phrasing for people who are not in this field can be somewhat confusing.”

On Thursday, the Legal Aid Society sued the city, saying the policy would violate a 1981 consent decree requiring the city to provide shelter to every person who seeks it. Hours later, the city said that it had agreed to postpone the start date so that Justice Judith J. Gische of State Supreme Court could hear the case. Arguments are scheduled for Dec. 9.

“We’re disappointed that we’re not able to go forward next week,” Mr. Diamond said.

Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, said Thursday in an interview that the policy was a “harassing” one and “mean-spirited.” And Steven Banks, attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society, said the policy would “upend the basic standard that has been in place for 30 years; it’s unfortunate that it required a court proceeding to stop the implementation next week of this misguided policy.”

But the city says it believes the policy will allow it to accommodate chronically homeless people better. The city would require a background check, of sorts, to determine if people applying for shelter have alternatives, like housing with relatives or friends.

“Shelters should be reserved for people who have no options,” Mr. Diamond said.

Homelessness has risen sharply since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office a decade ago, as the national and local economies have worsened and joblessness has risen. According to a report from the Coalition for the Homeless released this week, the city’s homeless population is 41,204, up from 31,000 a decade ago.

For Homeless, Getting Shelter Will Soon Be Harder
Friday, November 04, 2011 - 02:34 PM
By Cindy Rodriguez

Homeless single adults will have to prove they have no place to go in order to stay in a city shelter starting next Monday.

The decision to implement the policy – which is already in place for homeless families – came after it became apparent that some adults seeking shelter had alternate options such as staying with family or friends rather than sleeping on the streets, the Department of Homeless Services said.

"Over 60 percent of the people coming into the shelter system now are coming from having lived somewhere else,” said Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond. “Less than 15 percent are coming from living on the street."

The city said the mentally ill will be treated differently but there will be a thorough review of everyone else: "We'll be contacting the people that they either lived with or their prior landlords," Diamond said.

Critics of the policy say it results in needy people being wrongly denied shelter.

"This policy is an irresponsible 'no room at the inn' approach that does nothing to address the record number of people experiencing homelessness in New York City as winter approaches," Council Speaker Christine Quinn and council woman Annabel Palma, who chairs the committee that oversees homeless services, said in a joint statement.

Palma said she'd hold a hearing on the issue next week.

Legal Aid Attorney Steve Banks said the policy violates a 30-year-old court order that requires the city to provide shelter to homeless women and men that meet certain criteria.

"It's certain that very vulnerable women and men will end up being denied shelter and on the streets of the city, and that's in nobody's interest whether or not your homeless or not,” Banks said.

News 4 New York at 11
WNBC (NBC) New York
November 3rd, 2011 4-5 PM

Chuck Scarborough, Co-Anchor: Well, the economy has changed the face of the typical homeless New Yorker. Tonight, we learn about a major change in the system. There will no longer be a welcome mat for some. News 4’s government affairs reporter Melissa Russo has this News 4 exclusive.

Melissa Russo, Government Affairs Reporter: Chuck, city officials want to make many of the people coming to shelter go back where they came from, but to be clear, they’re not talking about sending people back to the streets.

For a sobering sign of the times, visit the city’s homeless intake unit for men. There’s Duane, who just got out of prison; next to him is Jose, who’s tired of living on the streets. They are who you might expect to find in a shelter. But here’s Thomas, who just lost his Laundromat job in Queens, and Benjamin, who lost his doorman job in Brooklyn. To spare his pride, he asked that we not show his face.

Benjamin, Recently Laid-Off: All the years of working and paying taxes, you know, I don’t like it. It’s my first time.

Melissa Russo: Are you frightened?

Benjamin: I am a little frightened, but it’s a situation that I can’t get out.

Melissa Russo: For most people, you’d think showing up here, at the front door of the New York City Homeless Shelter System would be an absolute last resort; in fact, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would do it if they had anyplace else to stay.

Manuel Crespo: I’m staying with my mother and father.

Melissa Russo: After ten years, Manuel Crespo’s girlfriend asked him to move out. Since then, he’s been staying on a mattress at his parents’ place in the Bronx, which he doesn’t want to do anymore. On $1100 a month income, Manuel worries about affording his own apartment, so he comes here to the Homeless System.

Manuel Crespo: My mother has Alzheimer’s; my dad is 85 years old. So, you know, it’s not easy living with them.

Melissa Russo: Do you consider yourself homeless?

Manuel Crespo: Yes, I do.

Melissa Russo: Even though you have a place where you can stay?

Manuel Crespo: Yes.

Seth Diamond, DHS Commissioner: People who have alternatives are not homeless.

Melissa Russo: Homeless Commissioner Seth Diamond tells News 4 in cases like Manuel’s, where there is another option, the city will send people back where they came from, beginning later this month.

Seth Diamond: If they have a mother or a brother or a sister who can house them, that’s where they should go.

Melissa Russo: We were given unusual access here inside the system because city officials want to make their case to the public about the importance of reserving limited resources for the neediest people.

And at a cost of $3,000 a bed, they say taxpayers can’t afford not to enforce stricter guidelines, since they say the majority of people today come to the shelter straight from other people’s homes. Lawyers for the homeless say the change is dangerous.

Steven Banks, Legal Aid Society: He’s playing with fire by implementing this policy, particularly in the winter, and it’s certainly going to result in very vulnerable New Yorkers ending up on the streets.

Melissa Russo: Now, the city insists they’ll only divert people like Manuel, who have a safe place to sit, to stay, and they say they’ll have a right to appeal, but interestingly, we’re told Manuel found an apartment shortly after he left the shelter. Now, looking ahead, there may or not be a court battle over the city’s new policy, but the Cuomo administration did approve it today. Chuck?

Chuck Scarborough: Melissa, thank you.

Wall Street Journal
November 5, 2011
By Sean Gardiner
City Alters Homeless Shelters Policy

New York City officials said Friday that they won't allow single adults into homeless shelters unless they show they have no other housing options, a shift in policy that advocates promised to challenge in court.

The Department of Homeless Services plans to begin implementing the plan on Nov. 14. Single adults looking to enter shelters will first undergo questioning to determine whether they could live with family or friends, said Seth Diamond, the department's commissioner. A similar policy has been in place for families for 16 years, he said.

"The shelter system really should be for the people who don't have other viable options," Mr. Diamond said. "If you have a mother or friend who can provide another option, than that is better than living in the shelter system."

Steve Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, said he believes the new policy violates a 1981 consent decree that established New York City's modern shelter system. Mr. Banks said lawyers will ask a judge to strike down the city's new policy.

"Without going to court and asking to change that order, the city intends, with winter approaching, to implement a new policy to begin to deny shelter to women and men?" Mr. Banks said. "The city's playing with fire, and there's certainly going to be vulnerable men and woman who end up on the streets, in the subways and on stoops throughout the city. That's in nobody's interest."

Mr. Diamond said the consent decree "applies to people who are homeless. People who have housing alternatives are not homeless."

The commissioner said approximately 1,700 single adults seek shelter each month. He said he couldn't estimate how many might be rejected.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has set a Nov. 9 hearing on the change. "This policy is an irresponsible 'no room at the inn' approach that does nothing to address the record number of people experiencing homelessness in New York City as winter approaches," she said.

The number of single adults in the shelter system increased by more than 24% in 2009-11, while the number of families with children decreased almost 6%, according to the most recently available average daily numbers.

Mr. Diamond said that about 60% of single adults seeking shelter were living with someone else before trying to enter the system. Only 15% in the system now were previously living on the streets.

Under the new policy, those trying to enter city shelters will be required to provide the names and addresses of people with whom they have lived over the past year, he said. A decision about whether to allow the applicant into the system will be made within 10 days, but shelter will be given to those who need it in the interim.

At at time when city agencies are being asked to find $2 billion in cuts, Mr. Diamond said that he anticipates the policy will save money, but he couldn't say how much. He said the city is not making the shift to save money but to use the money it has more wisely.

Crains New York
End of subsidy threatens the homeless
By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
City says New Yorkers earning little can get housing on their own
October 23, 2011 - 5:59 am

Vivian Torres has been homeless before. And the single mother could soon be again.

A housing subsidy helped Ms. Torres, currently working part-time, and her 12-year-old son escape the city shelter system in 2009 and land a one-bedroom apartment in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. But her subsidy expires at the end of this month, she's still searching for a full-time job and the city has killed the subsidy program.

“The scariest part of it all,” said Ms. Torres, whose job at a domestic violence center pays $10.67 an hour, “is if I go back [to a shelter] now, there would be no way out.”

Seven years ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to slash homelessness by two-thirds by 2009. However, after a series of missteps, course corrections and budget cuts, the city has abandoned its subsidy programs, including Advantage, the program that helped Ms. Torres.

Programs ignore history, critics say.

For the first time in decades, the city has no transitional housing support for the homeless and no plans to create any. And as the shelter population hovers around record highs, advocates predict homeless figures will climb higher yet.

“The Department of Homeless Services seems to be operating in a time warp,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society and lead lawyer in homeless family litigation against the city since the 1980s. “Its policies fly in the face of everything we've learned in the last 30 years.”

The Department of Homeless Services reports 9,760 families are in city shelters, up 5% since May, the month after Advantage ended. Between March and August, the average length of stay of families at shelters ballooned to 326 days from 278, a 17% increase, though the median length of stay dropped.

In 2004, the Bloomberg administration charted a radical new course in homeless policy. It began denying federal housing vouchers and public housing priority to homeless families—a vast departure from the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations—and introduced a rent subsidy encouraging self-sufficiency.

The new program, Housing Stability Plus, provided a time-limited subsidy whose value declined by 20% a year. Designed to ease recipients off benefits, it did not work. By 2007, record numbers of homeless families were entering the shelter system. The city abandoned Housing Stability Plus that year and replaced it with Advantage, which provided federal rent vouchers worth up to $1,000 a month to homeless people who found jobs.

The program was a lifesaver for Ms. Torres, covering 60% of her $1,070 rent. But its strict two-year time limit was not long enough for many families who struggled to find jobs that paid enough to pay New York City's high rents. Fueled by the recession, homelessness hit a record high in 2010. The 113,553 people in city shelters that year was 39% more than when Mr. Bloomberg took office, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

“A revolving door”

“Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg experimented with deeply flawed subsidy programs that became little more than a revolving door for thousands of families and children,” said Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst with the coalition.

But Seth Diamond, the Homeless Services commissioner, rejects advocates' calls to use federal vouchers, which he called “uncertain,” and to give the homeless priority for public housing. He is instead focusing on “accountability and self-sufficiency.”

“The best resource, the most reliable resource, even in the face of difficult economic times, has been employment,” Mr. Diamond said.

The department has helped nearly 6,800 homeless men and women find work this year, up from 5,439 during the same time period in 2008. The average hourly wage for those jobs is $8.65.

“I applaud the Department of Homeless Services' efforts to connect those in shelters with employment,” said Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma, who chairs the council's General Welfare Committee. “However, these aren't the types of jobs that will lift people out of poverty.”

In fact, 29% of families currently living in city shelters have at least one person working. But those who aren't in shelters and who are just scraping by have ways to stay in their homes, Mr. Diamond said.

“There are thousands of people in New York City who live in apartments every day on entry-level wages,” Mr. Diamond said. “They do it by living with other family members or sometimes taking in friends who have income.”

Ms. Torres, though, has no family in New York. She remains hopeful that she'll be able to support herself.

“Cramming people into an apartment like a pack of hot dogs is not a valid excuse,” she said at a job fair last week. “That's not an example I want to show my son.”