Record Numbers of Homeless Children And Adults In Shelter System; Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Points To Elimination of Permanent Housing Services For Homeless New Yorkers
THURSDAY, AUGUST 23, 2012

The numbers of homeless children and adults are at a record high in the City's shelter system, according to an article today in the Wall Street Journal. Steven Banks, the Attorney-in Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told the WSJ that "It's impossible to eliminate permanent housing relocation services for homeless New Yorkers and not have the result be dramatically increased lengths of stay in the shelter system at far greater cost to the taxpayers. We hate to always be in the role of Cassandra, but this is exactly what we warned would happen."

According to the WSJ, the average length of stay for families with children is now 337 days, and 414 days for adults families and 270 days for single adults.




The Wall Street Journal
Shelter System Strains
August 23, 2012
By Michael Howard Saul

The average length of stay for families with children at New York City homeless shelters increased more than 30% during the fiscal year that ended in June, placing additional pressure on an overloaded system that is scrambling to deal with the highest number of sheltered people in city history, recently released records show.

For families with children, the average length of stay is 337 days, but for adult families, the average is 414 days—more than a year—an 18.6% jump from the previous fiscal year. For single adults in shelters, the average stay is 270 days, an 8% increase from the previous fiscal year.

As of Monday, the total citywide shelter population was 44,604, including 25,942 adults and 18,662 children, a nearly 17.5% increase from last summer, according to the city.

To deal with the burgeoning demand, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly opened nine new shelters between June and early August: five in the Bronx, two in Brooklyn and two in Manhattan. Five of these facilities cater to families with children.

"Make no mistake we're in a whole new era for the first time since modern mass homelessness emerged," said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. "The city has absolutely no plan to move homeless families with children out of shelters into permanent housing, so, of course, the shelter stays are going up and they are going to continue to go up."

Seth Diamond, commissioner of the city's Department of Homeless Services, said federal and state funding cutbacks contributed to the administration's decision in 2011 to cancel a rental-assistance program that helped move families from shelters into permanent housing. He said the expanded shelter capacity and higher census numbers are a testament to the city's commitment to providing shelter to all needy people.

"The fact that the numbers are going up is, of course, some concern, but there's a broader picture here, where there's been funding that was available that is not available," Mr. Diamond said. "There are economic trends that are improving in New York City faster than the rest of the country but it's still tough times."

He said the city is working to reverse statistics showing the average length of stay in shelters is growing dramatically. Last week, 140 families left the shelters, he said, "so people do leave."

"We do want to make sure that we are working aggressively with those who are in shelter to move them to the community, and the best way to do that is to insist that everyone in shelter who can work must work," Mr. Diamond said, "and we have to provide the services that they need to get them there."

Some in the shelter system are disappointed with the city's efforts to help them find a path to permanent housing.

"There's no funding, there's no programs to help us. It's like they're setting us up for failure," said Christina Valle, 27, who, along with her husband, Kevin McClanahan, is currently staying at a new shelter on the Upper West Side. They have been in the system for a year, she said.

"If you don't find housing they'll just keep moving you from here to there, but they have no programs to help us find houses. It's very limited," said Ms. Valle, who is studying to be a nurse. "It's embarrassing to have to walk out with scrubs on from a shelter."

Said another resident of the shelter, Jerome McGriff, 53: "It's bad, they don't do anything for you. They don't provide any services, they don't help you find housing. They don't help you with any real moves, training, nothing."

In June 2004, Mr. Bloomberg said his administration planned, by the end of 2009, to cut the size of the city's homeless-shelter population and the number of homeless people by two-thirds. At the time, the mayor said he hoped to "make the condition of chronic homelessness effectively extinct in New York."

Officials have acknowledged that the administration has failed to meet that goal, and advocates say the mayor's policies on homelessness represent one of the most glaring failures of his tenure at City Hall.

"It's impossible to eliminate permanent housing relocation services for homeless New Yorkers and not have the result be dramatically increased lengths of stay in the shelter system at far greater cost to the taxpayers," said Steve Banks, attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit. "We hate to always be in the role of Cassandra, but this is exactly what we warned would happen."

In her State of the City address, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn proposed subsidies to help the homeless get out of shelters, but she said she has been unable to persuade the administration to adopt her proposal.

"Sadly, the record number of people in the shelter system proves we were right," she said in an email.

"We used to have a shelter system where there was an exit plan and resources to get people home," said Ms. Quinn, pledging to continue pushing the administration to shift gears.

Ms. Quinn and advocates said it would be far cheaper to provide a rental-assistance program than to pay for an expanded shelter system.

"If we can't appeal to the mayor's heart, maybe we can appeal to his business sense," said Ms. Brosnahan, who said people are "trapped" in what she called a "dead-end shelter system."

Mr. Diamond said he thinks the criticism is unfair and ignores the administration's accomplishments.

"This administration has transformed the shelter system from one that had people sleeping on benches and spending weeks overnight at an intake facility to a modern professional system that is caring, that meets the needs of New Yorkers that have no alternatives," he said.

A woman with three children who has been in a homeless shelter since the beginning of this year said she's frustrated with the lack of services offered. "They are doing no good job of finding me a permanent home," said the woman, who gave her name only as Bernadette.

She added that she's supposed to go to shelter meeting this week: "The meeting is about keeping your unit clean. OK, we already know that. It's not about getting an apartment, housing….Unbelievable."

—Danny Gold contributed to this article

A version of this article appeared August 23, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Shelter System Strains.