Albany's unfinished business
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers are back in Albany to finish off this year’s legislative session. Kudos to the governor for charting a course to eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in many parts of the state – it will make a meaningful difference for millions of hard-working women and men. But with homelessness in New York City continuing to hover at near-record levels, it’s imperative that in the coming weeks, the governor and legislative leaders step up and take decisive action to turn the tide of misery on our streets.
Over 60,000 New Yorkers will sleep in the New York City’s sprawling emergency shelter system tonight – and that includes an astounding 24,000 children. The Coalition for the Homeless’ latest State of the Homeless report details the significant steps the de Blasio administration has taken to address the crisis – including investing heavily in eviction prevention grants to rescue our neighbors on the brink of homelessness and helping thousands of families with vulnerable children move out of shelters and into permanent affordable housing.
If there’s any reason for hope amid this continued crisis, it’s this: Without the de Blasio administration’s extraordinary investments in prevention and housing, the 60,000-plus men, women and children packed into our emergency shelters would be much higher – eclipsing at least 73,000!
But make no mistake: There’s so much more that must be done by the mayor and his homeless czar, Steve Banks, to build upon this initial stabilization. First, they must make significant, tangible progress in making the shelter system safer and more humane. That includes implementing vastly improved mental health services and the swift creation of many more smaller, easily accessible Safe Haven shelters to draw in the countless men and women sleeping rough on our streets – those who have given up on shelter altogether.
Second, the mayor must increase the number of homeless families and single adults moving out of shelter and into permanent housing. Last fiscal year the city moved 7,500 households, including over 16,000 individuals from homeless shelters, into their own apartments. But to have any hope of seeing an actual reduction in the family shelter census – and not just continued stagnation – de Blasio must increase the allocation of New York City Housing Authority units from 1,500 to 2,500 and close down the notorious “cluster-site” apartments – converting those that are salvageable into decent, affordable permanent housing.
While the Coalition and other providers continue to press aggressively for additional local investment and reforms, here’s the simple truth: We need help. The sheer size and scope of this crisis, and its catastrophic effects on so many of our neighbors, demands that the state fulfill its historically indispensable role as full partner in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all New Yorkers.
Here’s what needs to happen in the next eight weeks:
- Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature included in this year’s state budget a critical investment of nearly $2 billion for supportive and affordable housing. But there’s still no legal mechanism necessary to release the funding for the creation of new housing units – despite the dire need. The governor and Legislature must sign a memorandum of understanding, as required by language in state budget documents, to make that $2 billion accessible to supportive housing developers and providers.
- Affordable and supportive housing takes years to plan, site and build. In order to jumpstart this process, it’s imperative that the state immediately begin to issue requests for proposals – so that the groups experienced in building this specialized type of housing can apply for funding and get the ball rolling.
- The state must make some of the $2 billion set aside for supportive housing available for “scattered-site” housing units. This will allow homeless people with mental illness and other disabilities to immediately move into available private market apartments (with contracted intensive case management provided on-site). The “scattered-site” has proven extremely successful and helps bring units online much faster than newly constructed housing.
- The governor and the mayor must codify the relationship between their respective commitments to build supportive housing for the homeless. Without such a binding agreement, supportive housing developers – and the banks backing their projects – will have no legal guarantee that funds critical for upkeep and operation will be there in future years.
- The state must approve the de Blasio administration’s plan to marshal savings from the downsizing of group facilities for youth toward the expansion of the city’s rental subsidy programs, which are successfully moving our homeless neighbors into permanent housing.
- The state should reverse the harmful cuts to New York City’s emergency shelter system and help underwrite more Safe Haven shelters.
- The state must raise the rent caps on programs like the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement, which the city uses to house homeless families. FEPS rates are set unrealistically low by the state, given the soaring cost of housing in New York City.
Finally, both the mayor and governor have said repeatedly that they want to fix the dysfunctional shelter system – and indeed they must. But these efforts have to be carefully coordinated, with actual funds made available to improve conditions and move shelter residents into permanent housing – not carried out separately to score political points.
It’s time to put aside their differences and work together cooperatively to help homeless New Yorkers get off the streets, out of shelters, and into real homes.
Mary Brosnahan is the president and CEO of the Coalition for Homeless. This piece originally appeared in NY Slant.