A Love Letter to Policymakers

Jeff Foreman, Director of Policy

Advocates to end homelessness in New York City owe policymakers a love letter, so this is ours.
The new de Blasio administration, a new more progressive City Council, new Council General Welfare Chair Steve Levin and their teams are just about 100 days into their responsibilities. And the ship of state is turning.

That’s quite an accomplishment for the highest homelessness rate city in America.

In January, following a decade of crisis growth in homelessness, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) census of city homeless shelters documented just how bleak the situation had become. That month we hit new record census highs for total shelter population (53,615) and children in the system (22,712). Worse yet, over 111,000 people, including more than 40,000 different children, had to use those shelters at some point in 2013. And the duration of stay for homeless families with kids keeps getting longer to its current 435 days (that’s 14 ½ months).

Even that horror story understates the problem because it doesn’t count those in city shelters outside the DHS control (domestic violence shelters, HASA emergency shelters for people living with HIV, veterans’ shelters, shelters for runaway and unaccompanied youth, and more) and it doesn’t count those in non-governmental shelters like small faith based shelters. It doesn’t count people living on the streets, in cars, parks or subways (a 2013 HUD nationwide point-in-time count estimated street homelessness fell 4% nationwide even as it grew 13% in New York City). It certainly doesn’t count tens of thousands of New Yorkers couch surfing with family or friends and on the verge of homelessness.

Incoming policymakers had their hands full by any measure. And expectations were high.
To be clear 100 days isn’t time enough to be judged on funding, execution or implementation and certainly not on results of policy changes. It is time enough to start to chart a new course. That’s being done.

In the March 31st state budget two potentially game-changing policy initiatives were included that were big ideas promising big results. Both were major Care for the Homeless Agenda items that we and our clients have been vigorously advocating. So here are two big thanks for changing statutory language prohibiting state funding allowing for a crucial tool to move people experiencing homelessness from shelters to stable housing, and for including a provision to cap tenant rent in HASA housing to 30% of household gross income. 
Make no mistake, without New York City Council (thank you Chairman Levin, Councilman Ruben Wills,
Commissioner Gilbert Taylor with Care for the Homeless Certified 
Client Advocates Ava Conner and Philip Malebranche 
every member of the General Welfare Committee and the 50 members of Council who pushed on this), the Mayor and his DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor, the rent subsidy change simply wouldn’t have happened this year.  The HASA rent cap was a joint mayoral-gubernatorial agreement that made it into the budget after many years of attempts and failures to pass it.

There’s more to thank these new leaders for. Mayor de Blasio has promised “base-lining” important homeless programs in the city budget – like existing health clinics in shelters - taking them out of the annual budget negotiation “dance.” Thank you.

Commissioner Taylor announced an initiative to coordinate city homeless policies among several governmental agencies that impact it, and Councilman Levin is drafting city legislation to institutionalize that. Thank you.

There’s been a commitment to reinstitute priority for a portion of NYCHA public housing units to homeless families, just as there was until the city ended it in 2004. Thank you.

There’s a long way to go and loads more to do. But these are the first steps toward ending homelessness In New York City. We really are thankful to the policymakers taking those steps.

Often it’s not just policy, but attitude, that signals a sea change on an issue. Advocates for fighting homelessness have found strong voices with focused attention in the new leadership. Public Advocate Letitia James has made standing strong for vulnerable New Yorkers a major issue and we thank her. Thank you to virtually every Council Member, with special thanks to leaders like Speaker Mark-Viverito, and Council Members Cumbo, Gibson, Johnson, Levin, Menchaca, Palma and Wills.

We were overwhelmed last week when the new First Lady of New York, Chirlane McCray, used a major public speech to promise to use “whatever influence I have” to fight the “unacceptable” homeless crisis in NYC. Thanks again.       

Email Jeff at policy@cfhnyc.org

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