De Blasio No Fan of Mayor’s New Homelessness Approach — UPDATED

%name De Blasio No Fan of Mayors New Homelessness Approach    UPDATED

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio thinks the city’s latest solution to homelessness might only make things worse. 

The New York Times today painted a pretty grim picture of the city’s struggles with rent subsidies and vouchers, and the public advocate’s office told The Observer says the city’s newest approach may be counterproductive.

This fall, the city plans to implement stricter requirements that some fear will worsen the cycle of the shelter system. The city, in its Advantage program, will require families to contribute 40 percent of their monthly incomes and have at least one family member working 35 hours each week, in the second year of assistance.

Mr. de Blasio’s spokesperson, Matt Wing, emailed over a response today to some of the city’s latest proposals, saying that the public advocate wants to be sure that new requirements do not force residents back into the shelter system, financially draining the city and exacerbating the problem. 

“At a time when there is greater need, continued unemployment, and a scarcity of jobs, this approach could very well make a bad problem worse.  Increasing rent contribution levels in the Advantage program will likely lead to more families leaving Advantage and ending up in shelter, which costs the city almost three times as much per family. With record numbers of families already living in shelter this change in policy will hurt struggling New Yorkers and tax the City’s resources,” he wrote.

De Blasio has challenged Mr. Bloomberg’s record on homelessness, calling on him to intensify his efforts.

De Blasio had been a staunch critic of requiring rent in shelters, and stood with Bloomberg at a press conference last month when the city announced its pilot program to require shelter residents to put money into a savings account (as an alternative to a rent program).

Mayor Bloomberg’s antipoverty campaign continues to face pressures, The Times says, of unemployment and insufficient affordable housing, and the article analyzes the city’s Advantage program, intended to give homeless families incentive to move into the working world with subsidized rents.  According to the story, many families struggle after one or two years, when they are no longer eligible for the program and face a new rent burden.  

But Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond said that the new policy continues the program’s primary focus on work, and said the agency has a “very strong record of moving people out of shelter.” According to Diamond, over 90 percent of people who have moved out of shelter under the program have not gone back–a trend that he hopes to continue.

“It’s a policy decision to really emphasize work,” he said of the changes to the Advantage program. “What has worked well in the prior program is an emphasis on employment and leading people to stability because of work. We want to set people up in the community where they’re in a position to continue to succeed when the rent subsidy ends. And you can only do that if you have income.”

Diamond also refuted the notion that now might be a particularly difficult time to up the hourly requirements for new workers. “I think that’s a little bit of a misunderstanding of the economy. One of the strengths of the city’s economy even in these times is the entry-level population,” he said. “Despite a very difficult economy, we’ve had a great increase in the number of people going to work.”

Diamond added that the focus on work–even when politicians disagree over how best to implement those policies–represents “a tremendous victory for the administration and its programs.”

State Senator Daniel Squadron—who helped craft the savings initiative announced last month—told The Observer that there’s still a long way to go.

“I don’t think anyone’s happy with where we’re at,” he said via phone Tuesday afternoon.

He cast the savings program as a model of successful collaboration—one he hopes to replicate. “I’m hopeful that we can have the same process with Advantage and other innovative processes moving forward.” (The savings initiative was one that “everybody was excited about,” he said).

“I commend the Bloomberg administration for being willing to try new things,” he said.

But Squadron is not convinced that Advantage and some of its new requirements resolve a fundamental question: “Will this have the effect of moving families from shelters into permanent housing?” 

He added though, “No one would say it’s an easy problem to solve.” 

slevin@observer.com 

[UPDATED: This article has been amended from its original version to include the comments of DHS Commissioner Diamond.]