Give ’em shelter

Give ’em shelter 

New plan aims to stem tide of homelessness

Story by Gregg McQueen

“I today cannot see an end,” said de Blasio of the city’s homelessness crisis. Photo: Edwin J. Torres
“I today cannot see an end,” said de Blasio of the city’s homelessness crisis.
Photo: Edwin J. Torres

Mayor Bill de Blasio says he cannot see an end – yet.

While unveiling his latest plan to help homeless New Yorkers, de Blasio admitted the city’s crisis would not abate any time soon.

“I today cannot see an end,” stated de Blasio. “I’m not going to lie to and say we have a defined end in sight.”

“I see how we can get better,” he added. “Right now, I want to break the cycle of going in the wrong direction.”

Though de Blasio vowed to reduce the shelter population after taking office, the number of people residing in shelters has continued to rise, and currently exceeds 60,000.

At a press conference in Manhattan on February 28, de Blasio seemed humbled as he unveiled an agenda to open 90 new shelters and upgrade 30 existing sites, while entirely phasing out the use of cluster sites and hotels for housing homeless individuals.

The plan is to incrementally reduce the number of shelter residents by 2,500 people within five years, stated de Blasio.

“These aren’t the most desirable goals,” he said. “But they’re goals we think we can meet.”

“It we can surpass it, we will,” he added.

The city plans to decrease the number of shelter sites by 45 percent, de Blasio explained, with the reductions to be realized by eliminating all cluster apartments by the end of 2021 and use of hotel facilities by the end of 2023.

Gibson said she “will have a problem” if more shelters are added to her district.
Gibson said she “will have a problem” if more shelters are added to her district.

He also said the city would attempt a new approach to keep more homeless New Yorkers in shelters near their own neighborhoods.

De Blasio said that communities receiving a new shelter would be given at least 30 days notice, and acknowledged that he expected to receive some pushback.

“That does not mean if there’s protests, we’ll change our minds,” he remarked.

De Blasio said that community boards will be asked to “do their fair share” in terms of accepting shelters and noted that areas with high concentrations of homeless individuals would need to provide capacity to help house them.

“We’re working with communities to find better approaches, even though there is likely to be some resistance,” he said.

At the press conference, a subdued and serious de Blasio described his plan as “a blood and guts war strategy,” and cautioned that progress would be slow and steady in the attempt to reverse the trend of a homeless population that has been increasing for 35 years.

De Blasio reveals his latest strategy. Photo: Edwin J. Torres
De Blasio reveals his latest strategy.
Photo: Edwin J. Torres

“Any way you slice it, it will be incremental progress,” he commented. “But if we can sustain incremental progress, that will be the first time that has happened in three and a half decades.”

De Blasio’s announcement coincided with his release of a 128-page report, titled “Turning the Tide on Homelessness.” He suggested economics were to blame for the city’s swollen homeless count — the report stated that between 2005 and 2015, median income in the city increased 4.8 percent, while median rent increased by 18.3 percent.

However, the mayor did shoulder responsibility for previous shortcomings in the administration’s battle against homelessness.

Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres
Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres

“I claim full responsibility for everything that worked, and everything that didn’t work,” he remarked. “It always felt like we were playing from behind.”

The report said the city will continue efforts to make housing more affordable and halt illegal evictions, and touted a program called HOME-STAT for getting 690 homeless people off the streets and into supportive housing.

De Blasio said the city has already severed ties with 44 cluster buildings, and will be out of 40 more during 2017.

He explained that the controversial practice of using cluster sites and hotels to house homeless individuals was launched in “a panic” during the 1980’s as the city struggled to decide where to place the homeless population.

“When you need to put a roof over someone’s head, sometimes you take the first roof that’s available,” he remarked.

The report did not include any costs related to implementation of the shelter plan, or reveal the communities where new sites would be placed, but de Blasio indicated that the first new shelter would be opened in April in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

That site will serve 132 families, with 120 of them coming from Crown Heights.

“As we proceed to open new sites, we are looking to match up as much as possible, with people in that borough,” said Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks at a press briefing following the mayor’s announcement. “That had not been done in the past.”

The city’s shelter population has exceeded 60,000 people.
The city’s shelter population has exceeded 60,000 people.

The mayor’s community-based shelter allocation would seem at odds with the concerns of many housing advocates and City Councilmembers, who have complained that shelters are already too concentrated in poor communities.

Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres, whose district has the highest concentration of cluster sites in the city, voiced apprehension that moving those homeless individuals to shelters in the same neighborhood would fail to improve quality of life in those areas.

“My concern is that the boroughs that shoulder the greatest burden will continue to do so,” Torres said.

“While I’d have to say that a shelter is likely preferable to a cluster site, the only real solution is permanent affordable housing,” he added. “As a city, we’ve spent a billion dollars to tackle this problem, but to what end?”

Councilmember Vanessa Gibson explained that she is still absorbing all the details of de Blasio’s plan, but remarked that she “will have a problem” with adding more permanent shelters to her district.

“The homelessness crisis we face is a citywide crisis,” she said. “It is not a Bronx issue, nor is it a minority issue. Every neighborhood should have its fair share. Neighborhoods that have been saturated should not be further saturated if other neighborhoods don’t even have [any shelters].”

”This is the first plan to address homelessness in a realistic way,” said Banks.
”This is the first plan to address homelessness in a realistic way,” said Banks.

Torres also worried that federal cuts to anti-poverty programs could exacerbate the homelessness issue even more.

“I’m concerned about Donald Trump’s presidency and potential cuts leading to more homeless people in New York City,” he remarked.

Banks noted that the city would look to add 18 to 20 new shelters per year over the next few years, and most of them would involve the repurposing of existing buildings.

He said about five new shelters per year would be “purpose-built from the ground up,” rather than using existing buildings.

Office of Management and Budget Director Dean Fuleihan explained that the shelter plan would not add additional costs to the city’s operating budget, as cluster sites and hotels were being simultaneously phased out.

“There will be approximately $300 million more reflected in capital spending over the next five years, which will be included in the mayor’s executive budget,” Fuleihan said.

Banks called the new strategy “the first plan to address homelessness in a realistic way” that he has seen in more than 30 years.

De Blasio said that outreach with community-based organizations would be essential to the success of the new shelter strategy.

“A lot of times, they will show us the answer that isn’t evident to government,” said de Blasio.

Deputy Commissioner of Health and Human Services Herminia Palacio said she hoped communities would keep an open mind regarding the shelter plan.

“We’re going to be engaging in dialogue,” she said. “We don’t have rose-colored glasses. But the only way we can reach a solution is to engage in that dialogue.”

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