How to Steer the de Blasio Homeless Initiative Toward Real Change
Family homelessness remains one of the most misunderstood issues of our time. The system is overwhelmed with families who the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars to shelter in for-profit hotels and cluster site apartments. Its negative effects dominate the news while our political leaders continue to pursue solutions that have little impact.
Though government’s response to homelessness for over three decades has focused almost exclusively on housing, the truth is that the solution does not simply lie in obtaining housing but on a family’s ability to maintain their housing. In other words, it depends on housing stability.
Over half of all homeless families have not completed high school and only one in five have any meaningful work experience. They lack the education and job skills necessary to support their families, let alone their housing. Many are the victims of domestic violence or have mental health or substance abuse issues which must be addressed to assure they can maintain a stable housing situation.
Despite the evidence, the policy focus remains on developing more “affordable” housing. And while more affordable housing will be built, it will never be enough; homeless prevention programs will be expanded, only to forestall what is probably inevitable; and rental vouchers are time-limited as well as a revolving door back to shelter while drawing new families into the system to get a piece of the pie.
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In the early 1980s, much like today, the city was in the middle of a homeless family crisis. Emergency shelters were overwhelmed. Increasingly, the city turned to and grew dependent upon private hotels, many of which became infamous like the crime-ridden Martinique, Prince George, and the Holland. These facilities were no place for families and children, homeless or otherwise. Their owners reaped millions from city coffers, while families lived and sometimes died, in squalor. But it wasn’t until three young homeless children burned to death in their room at the Brooklyn Arms Hotel that things changed. It was a wake-up call for the Koch Administration that housing homeless families in hotels had to stop.
In response, the city established a capital construction program to develop several prototype facilities with clean, safe, private rooms along with daycare centers for homeless families and their children. They would come to be known as Tier II transitional housing units where homeless families would be helped to successfully transition back to independent living. They emerged as the model upon which the current family shelter system is based. They are both state and city regulated and inspected and, most importantly, operated by experienced nonprofit providers. As a result, thousands of homeless families were successfully resettled into permanent housing, the use of for-profit hotels declined, and the homeless crisis eased.
But no one back then would have imagined that almost 40 years later the city would be facing another homeless family crisis—even worse than before—and that it would again be beholden to for-profit hotels and other scandalous landlords.
Today, with more than half of all homeless families housed in those facilities at a cost of over $250 million annually, the de Blasio administration announced an aggressive new initiative to build 90 shelters with services. By way of a “fair share” policy they will be proportionally distributed throughout the boroughs based on the numbers of homeless emerging from each, with community notification being part of the process.
The mayor’s plan will certainly help to reduce dependence on welfare hotels and cluster site housing, but will it be successful in keeping fam-ilies from becoming homeless over and over again? No. It doesn’t go far enough and the fair share proposal will surely solidify community oppos-ition to the mayor’s initiative and the homeless. There is, however, a way to serve homeless families and to address the needs of communities as well.
When the city developed the Tier II transitional model in the 1980s the plan was to eventually turn over these facilities to communities for public use when the homeless crisis subsided. While that never happened, the plan was a good one. De Blasio should pick up exactly where Koch left off.
Imagine a scenario where the elements of a neighborhood community center would be integrated with Tier II transitional housing to produce a new service to the community. A future Tier III Community Residential Resource Center (CRRC) would not be a shelter but rather a temporary community residence with a mandate to provide comprehensive job training and employment services, adult and youth educational programming, child care and health care services among its many services to meet the needs of facility residents and the community at large. CRRCs would give rather than take from communities, and be a center of pride rather than scorn. In short, they would serve to get struggling families—and in particular those who lose their housing—back on their feet economically, regain their stability, and stay in their community near family, friends, school, and work. CRRCs could be readily constructed on the abundance of NYCHA’s public housing grounds currently being leased to private developers, putting public land to public use.
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For over thirty years, there has been little change in city policies to address family homelessness. But a new capital investment to develop Tier III CRRCs offers a unique opportunity to positively and permanently transform the entire family shelter system away from simply warehousing families. Both families and communities in need would be equally served. CRRCs would be a cost-effective way to both prevent and reduce homelessness. It is an old idea enhanced by lessons learned and whose time has come.
The city is at a crossroads. It can choose to develop 90 new shelters and continue the ineffective policies of an ever-expanding and dispersed shelter system, or it can choose to travel a new path and redefine how best to assist homeless families to truly achieve the stability they need in order to maintain the housing they want. It is an opportunity to restructure the system, permanently moving it away from the temporary provision of shelter and establishing a new universe of “community residences” and “resource centers” with services available to entire neighborhoods. The time is now and the choice is simple: more of the same tired policies that result in little change, or new Tier III Community Residential Resource Centers with the potential to positively change family homelessness as we know it.
Ralph da Costa Nunez, PhD, is president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness and Homes for the Homeless, as well as Professor of Public Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. He has served in executive-level policy positions dealing with homelessness and poverty at both City and State levels of government.
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