shelter

Halfway Into Homeless Revamp, Work Lags as Hotel Use Grows

Homeless advocate Came'e Lee speaks at a rally in front of City Hall on Aug. 20, 2019.
Homeless advocate Came’e Lee speaks at a rally in front of City Hall on Aug. 20, 2019. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

Halfway through Mayor Bill de Blasio’s five-year plan to overhaul the city’s sprawling homeless shelter system, work is running behind and hotels are packed with New Yorkers who have nowhere to go.

Unveiling a February 2017 plan dubbed “Turning the Tide,” the mayor promised 90 new homeless shelters in five years, with the hope of opening 20 in each of the first two years.

He also vowed to eliminate the use of commercial hotels as homeless shelters, as well as scrap notorious, so-called cluster sites — rental apartments used as shelter.

Two and a half years in, just 25 of the new shelters are now operating, with another 23 sites on the drawing board.

The number of people housed in hotels, meanwhile, is up 40% since the announcement — rising to 10,500 on any given night, out of a total 58,000 people in the shelter system.

Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks told THE CITY the administration always expected it would take a long time to stop using hotels as shelter during the system’s transformation.

And despite the slow pace on some parts of the plan, he sees “signs of progress.”

Banks points to a major decrease in the cluster apartments, down to 1,400 from a high of 3,650, concentrated in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Some of that drop includes the conversion of 500 family cluster units to permanent affordable housing when the city bought 17 buildings in a controversial deal earlier this year.

“The plan always provided for using commercial hotels as a bridge until we could complete the cluster closure and bring on the shelters,” Banks said.

The sale coincided with a drop in families with children in the system — down by 9%, to 42,049 last month. Some 70% of shelter residents are families with children, a majority of those headed by single mothers, Banks noted.

“The face of homelessness is family homelessness,” he said.

The below map shows the nearest cross streets to the 48 new homeless shelters opened (blue) or slated to open (orange) so far under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Turning the Tide” shelter revamp.

Building a Better Shelter

A chorus of New Yorkers — including the homeless, their advocates and neighbors of shelters fighting to prevent their openings — have regularly shouted down the mayor on his handling of homelessness, from his Park Slope gym to billboards in Iowa to the steps of City Hall.

At a rally there last week, Came’e Lee — a single mother who was evicted from her Queens home in 2015 — gave voice to the frustrations and anger of homeless people who feel the mayor isn’t doing enough for them.

“Our leaders cannot call us a progresssive city if we refuse to take responsibility for the well- being of our most vulnerable,” she said.

Demonstrators called on de Blasio to create more housing for homeless people and extremely low-income New Yorkers. The Coalition for the Homeless released a report, timed to the rally, that concluded City Hall’s policies are worsening the housing crisis for the poor.

Giselle Routhier, the Coalition’s policy director, said the problem is illustrated by numbers from the city Rent Guidelines Board: Apartments that cost $800 per month or less have a vacancy rate of just 1.1%. At rents above $2,500 per month, the data show, the vacancy rate jumps to 8.7%.

“We have two totally different housing markets in New York,” she said.

The de Blasio administration, Routhier added, should prioritize producing housing for the very poor, not middle-class renters.

“We should be using all of the subsidy dollars that we have…where we have a complete lack of housing and resources for folks,” she said.

An Eye on Spending

In May, City Comptroller Scott Stringer put the Department of Social Services and others providing services to the homeless on a spending watch list for the second year in a row. Stringer found the cost of shelter operations had grown from $1.5 billion in 2017 to nearly $1.8 billion budgeted this year.

The City Council forecasts hotels alone will cost $376 million this year — which are “the most expensive way to provide shelter,” Banks conceded.

The costs of any kind of shelter have been growing steadily — up to $192 a day for a family for 2018, according to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report. Banks defends increased investment as necessary.

“The shelters that we have been bringing online are more expensive … because they provide a higher level of services,” he said. “Part of reforming the system is raising the bar.”

He added that delays in opening shelters drive up costs. For example, he said, a contentious legal battle on West 58th Street, in the shadow of Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row, has prevented the agency from moving residents into the new shelter for months.

“There are beds there that could have been used,” he said, “and instead, we’re having to use commercial hotels.”

Reaching New Neighborhoods

From the outset, the 90-shelter plan has been dragged into court, starting with twin lawsuits over two of the first “Turning the Tide” shelters, both in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights.

The battles have continued, with the pending lawsuits on 58th Street and another over a proposed shelter in College Point, Queens.

Banks noted a legal fight has never ultimately stopped the city from opening a shelter.

“In every instance, we prevail,” he said. “But litigation does delay.”

While some shelters become lightning rods, such as a pair of proposed facilities in Park Slope, others have opened without much fanfare, like a women’s facility on 52nd Street that got a warm welcome from neighbors. And in three areas that never had a homeless shelter  — Kingsbridge, Far Rockaway and Ozone Park — now have new facilities up and running.

The mayor has said the Department of Homeless Services will open new shelters in every community district in the city, and Banks said that is still true. Last week, the agency announced two more shelters for Queens — both in Community District 5, where there currently are no shelter beds.

Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks speaks with the THE CITY about housing for homeless people, Aug. 22, 2019.
Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks speaks with the THE CITY about housing for homeless people, Aug. 22, 2019. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

In one neighborhood in that district, Maspeth, local uproar against plans to use a hotel for shelter cowed the property owner into backing out during de Blasio’s first term — and the area’s Council member, Robert Holden, has already vowed to fight the newest shelter facility, saying he’s “disgusted” with the plan.

Avery Cohen, a City Hall spokesperson, said there has been “tremendous progress under Turning the Tide.”

“We’re wholly committed to taking that progress further,” she said in a statement, emphasizing the administration has helped nearly 120,000 people move out of shelters and into permanent housing since de Blasio took office in 2014.

“Our work is far from over,” she said.

An Affordability Crisis

At Neighbors Together, a Brownsville soup kitchen and services organization, staffer Amy Blumsack said she doesn’t hear about “great, new shelters opening.”

But what she does hear, over and over, is how hard it is to get out of the shelter system. Her clients’ housing vouchers just don’t match the rents of available apartments.

City statistics show the average length of stay in shelters growing, to 438 days for a family on average in 2018.

To Blumsack, whether the shelters are new, old or in hotels misses the point.

“The thing is, you can’t solve homelessness with services,” she said. “You solve homelessness with housing.”

Banks acknowledges the obvious link between homelessnes and the availability of homes — pointing to an “affordability crisis that is built up for many years in the city.”

For a solution, or part of it, he points to a bill from Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D-Queens) that would provide a rental subsidy for low-income people who receive cash assistance and are either homeless or at risk of eviction.

In the meantime, Banks said his agency is “using every social services tool that we have” to bring down the number of homeless people, including eviction prevention programs. Evictions are down, which Banks attributed to a boost in city spending that provides legal services for tenants in Housing Court.

According to analysis by the DHS, without policy changes under the de Blasio administration, the homeless shelter census would be somewhere around 71,000 — not the current 58,148.

Still, Banks knows there’s a long way to go.

“I don’t think anyone in my job should ever be satisfied,” he said.

CORRECTION (August 26, 2019, 11:00 a.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that only one of the two most recently-announced homeless shelters in Queens would be in Community District 5. In fact, both shelters are planned for the district.

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