Talking About Homelessness

Photo: ICPH
Keynote speaker Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute.

Talking About Homelessness

February 18, 2016

At the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness’ recent event, “Beyond Housing: A National Conversation on Child Homelessness and Poverty,” attendees packed workshop rooms to standing room only. It was the institute’s largest conference to date: More than 570 attendees from six countries, 41 states and the District of Columbia listened to presentations over three days, made all the more salient by the event’s location in New York City, where addressing homelessness has been top of mind for legislators and service providers.

Conference presenters worked to put the current homelessness problem in context.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James opened day two of the conference by stressing the need to address the problem of nameless and faceless children and adults in her “beloved Brooklyn” who live on the streets and carry all their worldly possessions in plastic bags.

ICPH President Ralph da Costa Nunez said, “This is an institutional problem, and a very, very severe problem.” He mentioned street sweeps that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration recently began conducting to remove homeless individuals and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s threat to have the state take over the city’s shelter system, something that has “never happened before.”

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, framed the day’s conversations with a review of policies at the federal and city levels that led to segregation by race and the concentration of children with high needs in urban settings serviced by overburdened and under-resourced public schools. Lack of awareness of the federal and state policy decisions that created segregation have resulted in a general acceptance that segregation is de facto – “in effect, though not formally recognized” – instead of de jure – “based on or according to law,” Rothstein explained. As an example, he referenced Levittown, Long Island, as a suburban housing development where African Americans were prohibited from buying homes, with federal consent.

“As long as we think it (segregation) happened by accident, it’s inevitable that we’re going to believe that it can only be corrected by accident, or by inconsistent and odd policies here and there that might address it around the fringes. If we understand, however, that this is a state system of segregation that’s been established – whose effects endure to this day – if we understand it’s a de jure system then all kinds of possibilities open up about how to address it,” Rothstein said.

“Nonprofits have an educational job to do as well as trying to deal with the immediate problems that they face, and that is to educate their constituencies about how we came to where we are, because if we understand how we got here, we’ll be in a much better position to try to figure out how to move on from here,” Rothstein told New York Nonprofit Media.

Presenting the facts and advocating for the future

Workshops such as “Exceptional Results in Helping Homeless families Achieve Economic Independence,” and “A Holistic Approach to Ending Child and Family Homelessness,” provided an opportunity for more in-depth and interactive discussions.

At a presentation titled “The American Almanac of Family Homelessness State Rankings,” presented by ICPH’s Senior Policy Analyst Josef Kannegaard, questions surrounded what indicators should be included in comparative state rankings when often, due to inconsistencies with reporting, the statistics supporting those indicators are not as precise as they could be.

“Taken individually, each of these variables, each of these indicators is imperfect. We feel very confident with our process for combining them and the overall ranking we’ve come up with,” Kannegaard said.

At “The Role of Advocacy and Consumer Engagement,” a panel moderated by Clayton Brooks of Covenant House, staff from various homeless services providers talked about how to balance an organization’s need for advocacy with a client’s need for privacy and recovery. Panelists discussed the value of forming coalitions to amplify advocacy efforts, the value of having board members who are professionals in local businesses speak to elected officials on behalf of their nonprofit, and the overall importance of advocacy work.

Nicole Bramstedt, a policy analyst with Urban Pathways, mentioned New York State Office of Mental Health regulations requiring their supportive housing sites to provide self-advocacy training and services in the course of case management.

“Our mission, our vision talks about the self-sufficiency of our clients. I don’t think you can have self-sufficient clients unless they can advocate for themselves. … To do that, they should know what they want, and be able to speak up,” Bramstedt said.

It also helps that Urban Pathways’ executive director, Frederick Shack, believes in advocacy “more than 100 percent,” Bramstedt said. He has infused it into their strategic plan, which drives their organization’s efforts.

Panelists agreed that it is difficult to find funding to support advocacy, but Jeff Foreman, Director of Policy and Advocacy with Care for the Homeless argued that advocacy work does bring in revenue over time.

“I always like to make the argument that the better we are at policy development and advocacy, that that will show up on our development line, too,” Foreman said.

Panelists spoke of meeting with New York City Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks at a recent meeting put together by Homeless Services United and expressed optimism related to New York’s efforts to deal with the issue.

To a question posed by NYN Media about the city’s current 90-day review of homeless services, Foreman said, “That review can be great and there could be some bad things in there too. I think most of us see this as a tremendous opportunity. As long as people are intentionally looking at and reviewing the way the process works and the policies that can make things better, that’s a great opportunity for us.”

“This City Council has been fabulous as a progressive advocate for policies dealing with people who are homeless, in poverty and vulnerable in the city of New York, so I think we are in a much better position today, both with elected officials and with the administration,” Foreman said. “They are including us and we are certainly weighing in.”

Aimee Simpierre
is New York Nonprofit Media’s editor-at-large.