Leader of City Homelessness Review Points to Years of Increasing Population

Steven Banks, the city's welfare commissioner, will take over the department tasked with serving the homeless during a three-month review.

HRA Commissioner Steven Banks (Photo: Will Bredderman).
HRA Commissioner Steven Banks (Photo: Will Bredderman). (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer)

Steven Banks, who will lead the city’s Department of Homeless Services through a period of review after the departure of its commissioner, shied away from criticizing the agency’s leadership today, instead pointing to decades of rising homelessness in the city under prior administrations.

“On the first day of the Giuliani administration, there were 23,000 homeless New Yorkers. On the first day of the Bloomberg administration, there were 30,000 homeless New Yorker. On the first day of our administration, there were more than 50,000 homeless New Yorkers,” Mr. Banks said, rattling off shelter populations during a media roundtable this afternoon at City Hall. “This is a problem that is structural.”

Mr. Banks is the commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, which administers the city’s welfare system, and he will continue on in that role while simultaneously running the Department of Homeless Services after Gilbert Taylor stepped down as its head yesterday. Atop those duties, he will conduct a review of the services provided by both departments—which were formerly under one umbrella—along with Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris.

“There’s no foregone conclusion about what the relationships between the two agencies should be,” Mr. Banks said, only that they should be more efficient for city residents.

Mr. Taylor will stay on the city payroll during a 90-day review of the department he is leaving, in an “advisory” role working out of City Hall. Mr. Banks was short on details about what exactly Mr. Taylor will do.

“I look forward to his advice and assistance based upon his experience in running the agency,” Mr. Banks said. 

Mr. Banks is no stranger to the Department of Homeless Services. The HRA works closely with the department, but even before coming to City Hall he worked on the issue from the outside—as an attorney, and eventually the Attorney-in-Chief, of the Legal Aid Society, which works on behalf of low-income people. He spent much of that time suing the two departments he is currently leading, at one point casually noting that he’d sued his former boss, former Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who resigned in August.

But after decades as a critic, when asked about Mr. de Blasio’s record on homelessness so far, Mr. Banks had high praise. He said the city’s problems owed in large part to decisions by previous leaders to cut rental assistance and other programs that help prevent homelessness, cuts he said Mr. de Blasio is trying to counteract with new rental programs and the building of supportive housing.

“I’ve sued four mayors and six governors in the past on homeless issues,” he said, “and there’s never been an elected official who has committed these kinds of resources to deal with this problem.”

But homelessness—particularly a perceived increase in the number of homeless people on the streets, cited by some as a quality of life issue—has dogged Mr. de Blasio in a way it has not his predecessors, despite the steady rise of the shelter population under their watches.

“As you remember, it was other mayor’s problems, too,” Mr. Banks said when asked about the perception of homelessness as being Mr. de Blasio’s problem. “I think that if certain things that this mayor has put in place were in place in the past, we would be in a different place.”

Leader of City Homelessness Review Points to Years of Increasing Population