Credit Where Credit is Due – A Step Forward on Homeless Policy
Four months ago, I spoke candidly about New York City’s unprecedented homeless crisis and emphasized that in order to truly tackle the crisis, the city had to change course and put homeless women and kids – 70 percent of the homeless population – at the center of the conversation and any proposed solutions. I’m gratified to say that this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio did just that, and in doing so took key steps to make sure that the population I call the “forgotten face of homelessness” won’t be forgotten any longer.
I commend the mayor, whose homelessness announcement this week made it clear that he understands the urgency of our city’s crisis and has a vision to address it by making sure that homeless families are at the center of the plan. In fact, the mayor and the Department of Homeless Services have assured me that their plan will include 40 percent of new shelter units to families, a necessary commitment because the phase-out of cluster housing will move more than 3,000 families to shelter. It is also a victory for the forgotten faces that Win supports each day.
Even before the mayor’s tidal change this week, he deserved serious credit for taking meaningful steps to address the issue. But those steps had not gone far enough in terms of vision and tactics. Over the past several years, the city’s efforts around the siting of shelters have been piecemeal; disconnected from a larger framework that would build community support, and not specifically designed to address the unique challenges of homeless families. At that time, I called upon the mayor to take charge – use the bully pulpit and the power of the agencies to vocalize and execute a long-term plan, and help build the political will in our communities to be a part of the solution.
I emphasized that Win, the shelter provider I run that serves thousands of homeless women and their children, would be eager to stand with him and support his efforts to do so.
Addressing the challenges that homeless families and children face requires a different strategy than dealing with single adults, a demographic that, so far, has led the conversation, despite making up only 30 percent of the homeless population. It means focusing on the needs of families and children, not just on the parents; developing a multiyear plan for construction of the necessary number of units and planning for support services; prioritizing long-term stability over moving homeless families out of shelter quickly before they’re ready to move; and better supporting the transition from shelter once a family is ready to maintain housing stability.
The recommendations in the mayor’s plan include a neighborhood-based approach, which will keep homeless people close to home while growing community support; building additional community-centered facilities so that families can stay in their neighborhoods; reduced use of cluster apartments and hotels as shelter; and increased rental assistance and supportive services. Taken together, it’s clear that Mayor de Blasio has given thought to those who have been left behind and left out of most previous attempts to right the ship.
Win wholeheartedly supports these proposals, including increasing the number of shelters and eliminating cluster and hotel housing, which frequently lacks proper security and necessary services. Full-service shelters provide more than just beds to sleep in; they provide opportunities and support services for residents to break the cycle of homelessness and move to self-sufficiency.
While the mayor’s plan shows vision and goodwill, it is equally important that City Hall deal with outstanding administrative issues, like sector funding and delayed contracts. The last several years have been challenging for providers as the administration has been slow to register contracts and been without a system to quickly and fully reimburse shelters and remedy rate inconsistencies. As a result, providers have had no choice but to curtail services and turn down contracts in order to remain solvent. As the administration looks to expand the system, we need to be assured that funding will be there to support our ability to offer that care consistently.
In the course of our work with the mayor over the next several years, we will also share expertise gained through our work with families each day. We will bring these findings to the city to make sure that there’s focus on initiatives that work. For instance, we’ve found that family reunification is not a strategy for long-term success. Win clients who leave to go back to a family member’s home tend to come back. What we hear from our clients is if grandma’s couch didn’t work the first time, it probably won’t work the second or third time.
As plans are implemented, Win and other providers are ready to partner with the city to ensure funding issues are addressed, specific needs are being met and the previously forgotten faces of homelessness are at the table as the mayor’s vision is executed.
Christine C. Quinn president and CEO of Win, the vice chair of the New York State Democratic Party and the former speaker of the New York City Council.