City Shifts View on Homelessness

In an effort to reduce reliance on the municipal shelter system, New York City is seeking to increase resources to prevent homelessness and to eliminate longstanding practices that may encourage people to enter the shelter system. It may also ask single people and families to pay part of the costs of a shelter if they are financially able.

A draft of the Bloomberg administration's new homeless plan suggests an end to the priority given to homeless families over other poor people seeking to receive a federal subsidized housing voucher. In addition, the city is considering asking single people whether they have other options, like living with relatives, before giving them a long-term bed. Currently, no questions are asked.

But the plan is not limited to restrictive measures. As fewer people are drawn into the homeless system, the city plans to redirect money toward preventive measures such as legal services for families facing eviction from their homes and one-time rental assistance.

Also under consideration is the construction of new housing units that come with intensive, continuing social services, known as "supportive housing," although no specific numbers are discussed in the draft.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is scheduled to reveal the city's 10-year plan for coping with its surging homeless population next Wednesday, and city officials said the final plan could differ significantly from the draft. The New York Times obtained a copy of the draft report from a homeless advocacy group that disagrees with the proposals and that demanded anonymity.

In many ways, the draft reveals a philosophical U-turn for the city, which over several administrations became oriented toward providing emergency shelter to homeless people, rather than considering ways to prevent homelessness.

"Because we have such a large and institutional shelter system, it has become the answer to every housing problem," said Linda I. Gibbs, the city's commissioner of Homeless Services, who would not comment on any of the specifics of the draft until it was released. "Which is why we have to put a lot more effort into preventing homelessness by looking broadly at what draws people into shelter in the first place."

But some advocates for the homeless argue that while its rhetoric is grand, the plan is far too vague, particularly when it comes to affordable housing and supportive housing.

"It feels a little bit like the emperor has no clothes," said Maureen Friar, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, who sat on a coordinating committee that advised the city on the report. "The plan has a lot of words without any goals we can measure to see what we've done next year. How can we measure results? It is disappointing that it is this general and out of sync from how the mayor has approached work in education and other areas he cares about."

Ms. Gibbs said that the city would shortly announce detailed goals and timetables for every aspect of the plan, including adding housing units.

Others who work on the issue praised the city for trying to reduce homelessness. Rosanne Haggerty, president of Common Ground, which is among the largest developers of supportive housing in the city, noted that it cost up to $33,000 a year to keep a family in emergency shelter and said that money should be shifted to new housing. "This plan zeroes in on moving resources away from emergency spending to the real solutions, which are prevention and housing," she said.

Eric Brettschneider, executive director of the Agenda for Children Tomorrow, a city-funded social services group, said the significance of the report was in its effort to prevent homelessness in the communities where the families come from.

"Until now, we separated crucial issues like housing and homelessness," he said. "This is in keeping with the idea of helping families in the context of communities."

Under a local law, the city must provide shelter on demand, and the average length of time that families stay in emergency housing has swelled to nearly a year. The number of families in shelters doubled to a record 9,000 from 1998 to 2003, and the number of single people in shelters, now at 37,000, has not been as high since 1990.

To deal with the problem, the city announced in November that it was working on a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. It then called on members of the city's homeless organizations, business leaders, and prominent citizens like former Mayor David Dinkins to participate in the planning process, which expanded to include every aspect of the system. The effort parallels a national push by the Bush administration to reduce chronic homelessness for single people.

The draft obtained by the Times is the last copy made available to the panel members who contributed to it, but it does not include changes that may have been made to the plan as a result of their critiques. And the critiques, at least on one narrow issue, have been fierce.

At a City Hall meeting with Bloomberg administration officials last month, several members of the groups that contributed to the report complained that it did not contain any specific numbers for new supportive housing, unlike most similar 10-year plans by other cities.

"There is a consensus, from the Bush administration to the advocates to the front-line providers, that the solution to this problem is supportive housing," said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. "So to produce this report without the commitment of a single new unit of supportive housing is shocking." She said the city needed to build 16,000 units in the next decade.

In the past two decades, the city, with help from the federal and state governments, has built 21,000 units of supportive housing. The Bloomberg administration also produced a housing plan in 2002 that called for 2,300 new units of supportive housing.

The plan does not specify what the city might charge families for use of a shelter. In some cases, it already gets matching state and federal payments for families on welfare.

The draft plan also contains recommendations for the city's housing court to reduce evictions and a proposal to expand social services to the homeless after they move into permanent housing so that they do not become homeless again.

  • Homelessness