Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Calls Homeless Shelter Problems A Ticking Time Bomb For The Incoming Administration

With a shelter population that numbers more than 52,000 and with more than 22,000 children in the shelter system, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told the Wall Street Journal that "The shelter-system problems are literally a ticking time bomb for the incoming administration." According to statistics provided by the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless families has grown by 80 percent since Mayor Bloomberg took office in January of 2002.

The Wall Street Journal
Homeless a de Blasio Hurdle
By Michael Howard Saul
Nov. 16, 2013

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's pledge to narrow the gap between New York City's haves and have-nots could meet its first challenge in a burgeoning homeless-shelter population that numbers more than 52,000 for the first time.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in January 2002, the nightly homeless shelter population has increased 69%, and the number of homeless families has grown by 80%, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group that tracks the shelter population from statistics provided by the city. The city Department of Homeless Services says the shelter-system number is slightly lower, about 51,000, but advocates say they undercount some adults.

More than 22,000 children—also a record—now sleep in the shelter system, and they are spending more time in shelters, according to the city Department of Homeless Services.

"The shelter-system problems are literally a ticking time bomb for the incoming administration," said Steve Banks, attorney-in-chief at the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit group that advocates for the homeless.

As a mayoral candidate, Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, described Mr. Bloomberg's record on homelessness as a failure. Mr. de Blasio has promised to depart from the mayor's policies by again returning homeless people to the front of the line for some public housing. He would also seek support for a new rent-subsidy program similar to one cut by City Hall after it lost funding from Albany in 2011.

Mr. de Blasio declined to be interviewed. A spokeswoman said he had nothing to add to his comments during the campaign. In the final mayoral debate on Oct. 30, he said: "Unfortunately, Bloomberg administration policies have allowed more and more families to end up in shelter. The families are the losers, and the taxpayers are losers."

Administration officials defended the mayor's record, saying the city had made strides in reducing street homelessness and ridding the shelter system of some notorious problems, such as children sleeping in an intake center. Officials said the city has a legal obligation to provide emergency shelter to anyone in need.

"While other cities around the country are putting up 'no vacancy' signs and turning families to the streets and to live in cars, we have transformed the homeless system," said Heather Janik, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Homeless Services.

Mr. Bloomberg set lofty goals for reducing homelessness, promising in 2004 to cut the number of people sleeping in city shelters by two-thirds in five years—a goal he didn't come close to meeting.

In 2005, his administration eliminated the preference for public housing given to those in city homeless shelters. Homeless advocates protested, but administration officials said the preference created an incentive for people to go to homeless shelters to bypass huge public-housing waiting lists.

In 2011, homeless families took a hit when Albany cut funding for the Advantage program—a $140 million rent subsidy funded jointly by the federal, state and city governments—as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers scrambled to close a $10 billion budget deficit. The state cut eliminated the federal money, and the Bloomberg administration declined to take on the full cost of Advantage and chose to cancel it.

Since then, the shelter population has swollen to record highs. Ms. Janik said the administration has strengthened homeless-prevention programs. She said the city's homelessness ratio of one per 2,662 residents "remains one of the lowest of any major city in the country."

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, said he was hopeful that Mr. de Blasio's approach would be effective. Coalition officials met Mr. de Blasio for more than an hour in the summer to discuss his plans.

"He can really stem the tide of rising homeless in a significant and relatively near-term way," Mr. Markee said. "There's some really good stuff in his platform."

City Council Member Annabel Palma of the Bronx, chairwoman of the council committee overseeing homeless policy, said she was optimistic about working with Mr. de Blasio. "I believe he will make the necessary changes," she said.

Howard Husock, vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think tank, said Mr. de Blasio should be cautious about giving preference for public housing to people in the homeless-shelter system, saying it would create more demand for a type of housing that isn't increasing. "We will be getting newly homeless all the time," Mr. Husock said. "We have to figure out a way to move those in public housing up and out."

Robert V. Hess, who served as commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services under Mr. Bloomberg from 2006 to 2010, said Mr. de Blasio's support for a new rental-assistance program was a good first step. Mr. Hess's nonprofit group manages several city shelters. The Department of Homeless Services, Mr. Hess said, "is not going to solve homelessness. DHS is similar to a homelessness emergency room. To attack homelessness, you need a variety of city departments working together."

There is some support in Albany for Mr. de Blasio's promise of a new rent subsidy. "We support the concept of a rental subsidy program to lift people out of poverty and get them into affordable housing and sustainable living situations," a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said. The governor's office, without seeing a specific proposal aside from Mr. de Blasio's broader policy goals, said through a spokesman that it would "review any proposals when they are put forward."

Senate Republican aides didn't respond to messages seeking comment.