Interviews & Profiles

Battling homelessness while looking for solutions

An interview with Catherine Trapani, assistant vice president of public policy at Volunteers of America of Greater New York

A man sleeps on a subway seat on a west bound train in Brooklyn, New York.

A man sleeps on a subway seat on a west bound train in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

While New York City grapples to balance services for migrants bussed from the Southern border and still serve New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, Volunteers of America of Greater New York, a 125-year-old anti-poverty organization, has worked closely on the migrant influx as the first organization to deploy the city’s “Street to Home” pilot program. 

The initiative partners with the Office of the Mayor and Human Resources Administration, among others, to quickly place chronically homeless individuals into supporting housing, often bypassing bureaucratic layers of shelter systems while providing individualized treatment plans. 

Following Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $2.4 billion pledge to asylum seekers efforts, Catherine Trapani, assistant vice president of public policy at Volunteers of America, called the executive budget “a promising step forward for vulnerable New Yorkers,” as it includes “urgently needed investments in mental health care and a critical increase in resources to defray the cost of providing asylum seekers with the shelter and care they deserve.” 

Despite the relief, Trapani pointed to the need for continued investment.

“The human services sector urgently needs more investment to ensure greater pay equity and other support to continue powering the critical programs that serve the neediest residents, she told New York Nonprofit Media. “Without it, programs will go understaffed, and residents will be underserved. 

“On housing,” she added, “Gov. Hochul’s incentive-based program is another good step forward, but she should work with the Legislature during the session to ensure that the housing created addresses the deepest shortage: the lack of homes for extremely low-income and formerly homeless families while also protecting tenants from displacement.”

NYN Media spoke to Trapani, who joined the organization after her tenure as executive director of Homeless Services United, about the greatest issues facing the New York homeless services sector. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pulling from your prior experience at Homeless Services United, what are some of the biggest obstacles that have prevented providers implementing solutions?

 There's a few things that have really been systemic. One of them is access to benefits and wealth building. We know that navigating the very complex systems, HRA the Human Resources Administration which administers public assistance grants is really confusing. A lot of clients have challenges obtaining and maintaining those benefits. There has been some press about historic high rates of rejection, even to the point where some statutory deadlines have been sort of blown past meaning that folks are waiting a really long time to get the benefits to which they're entitled and that really impacts somebody's ability to pay rent or qualify for housing assistance. And so one of the things that we're going to be looking at is expanding on some of our income building programming throughout the organization and then figuring out systemically, what we need to advocate for and work with the city on improving their practices, so that our clients can more readily achieve economic stability. So that's one area that I think I really do want to turn my attention to, and not just in our general homeless populations, but also for survivors of domestic violence. There are some unique obstacles to economic empowerment due to the dynamics of abuse and economic abuse that that many of those folks experience. 

Would you mind speaking a bit more about economic abuse and how that's often overlooked when dealing with survivors of domestic violence?

One of the things that sort of the average person doesn't really consider when they think about the experience of domestic violence is that not all the violence is physical. Most people experience some form of economic abuse within their relationship because the person that's causing harm typically is the one that's in control of the finances. So they might be in control of all the resources and then use that economic interdependence to prevent a victim from being able to escape. So very often when folks come into the domestic violence shelter programs, they have their employment sabotaged, and so there's a host of issues that can arise for people as they're disentangling themselves from their abusive partner. They need some specialized support and there's also some safety concerns as somebody is considering reentering the workforce and how that's going to impact their ability to remain under the radar if they're trying to stay away from the person that was hurting them in a way that they want to remain as anonymous as they can. But we still haven't quite figured out how to move the needle sufficiently, I think to eliminate this as a barrier to independence and I'm really interested in jumping into that work.

With the disruption to the city’s right to shelter mandate, how is this affecting homeless New Yorkers? Was this ever preventable?

There is not an end to the right to shelter mandate. The right to shelter is ensconced in the state's constitution. So I'm aware of litigation that is pending, where the mayor has asked for relief on certain aspects of the right to shelter. But I'm not aware of any rulings that have been made to that effect. So I just want to make sure that we're being really clear on the parameters of what is being discussed. One of the things that I'm very proud of as a New Yorker is that our state constitution does guarantee care for the needy and that does mean that anybody who is experiencing homelessness has a right to receive appropriate shelter services. The system obviously has been really strained by the influx of new arrivals in our city and state. It concerns me to see that the quality of accommodations hasn't really kept up with the state standards and the traditional right to shelter offers. And all of that is being negotiated between the parties in the ongoing litigation. So sort of until and unless that comes to a resolution. It's sort of difficult to comment, but you know, it's the law of the land. And it's something that has been really helpful to ensure that there's sort of a floor of what the standard of care is and that we don't have the “tent cities” that we see in some of our West Coast locality with people sleeping in the streets in a widespread way. And to the extent that we lose those protections, and it is possible that New York will experience those things. And it's not New York that's experiencing those things—it's human beings. And that's not something that I think anybody wants to see. We want to see all of our neighbors have safe and adequate shelters. And it's one of the reasons that I'm really proud to work at an organization that has so many programs designed to help people from all walks of life. 

Is this strain of resources invested into asylum seekers affecting the quality of aid that we serve to homeless New Yorkers?

I really want to avoid this whole idea that one group's needs are being pitted against another group's needs—if you're here, we're all New Yorkers. The second thing is that there's always choices when you're doing a budget. And so it's certainly true that there are needs to serve an increasing homeless population. But there's also other aspects of the city budget that impact resource availability, not just for homeless services, but for other city services. And so if you look at history over the last few years, even prior to the arrival of people seeking asylum, the city's budget grew exponentially over previous mayors. There was not a plan that was put in place to replace funds that everyone knew were more temporary, the COVID relief funds that were coming in from the federal government. And so the city spent all of that money as if that revenue was recurring, and now it has a structural deficit because all of that federal aid is going away. And of course, we would like to continue all of those services and so to say that the budget crisis is due to people coming into New York City seeking shelter is a little bit disingenuous. It's only part of the picture. And I think that the budget challenges that the city and state are facing need to be viewed a little bit more broadly and holistically, And so we have options and I think that the causes of the budget strain are varied and the solutions can also be varied. The human services sector and service providers are really the partners that are helping the city meet these challenges. And so what I do not want to say is disproportionate cuts or really any cuts to the social safety net, that is helping the city and state care for our neighbors in need, regardless of the reasons that they're in need, we really need to protect these core programs that are keeping our city in good shape. And so when I think of budget priorities it's really important to protect that core safety net and look for other creative ways to manage the pressure on the budget. 

What can the city do within the existing framework of shelter providers and nonprofits to mitigate the homelessness crisis?

I think that they can really focus on what's working right. And we do have examples. You know, I know that it's sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees right. But we do know that we can be successful when our social service programs are appropriately resourced, if staff members are paid a living wage. And we have the resources to do that, our programs are staffed with dedicated professionals that have the experience and skills necessary to move clients from a place of crisis and instability to housing and then permanency. And the second thing is to be creative and to not be afraid to take risks and to say, if a certain intervention hasn't gotten us as much of a result as we'd like, what can we do differently? 

Some of the language that’s used to describe homeless people can be dehumanizing. How significant is language in shifting the way we serve and perceive homeless individuals?

I think that we have to remember that folks experiencing homelessness are folks, they're people. There’s that expression, “but for the grace of God go I”, where people should not be judged by the worst thing that has ever happened to them. And when we talk about folks that have experienced housing instability that are residing in shelter, they're New Yorkers, just like anybody else, and any language that we use that dehumanizes or puts the situation ahead of the person really is very demoralizing and can make overcoming the obstacles of homelessness harder. So I think it is important that we are respectful, and that we honor the humanity of the people that we serve always and that is part of the core values of care and integrity and support for our clients.