On Tuesday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new plan on homelessness called “Turning the Tide on Homelessness in New York City.” Yet one searches in vain for any authentically new idea in its more than 100 pages. The part getting the most attention is the pledge to open about 90 new shelters to replace the use of “cluster sites” (jerry-rigged shelters in apartment buildings) and hotels. But phasing out cluster sites and hotels was already the mayor’s official policy. It would have been less misleading if, instead of releasing this “new strategy,” the mayor had simply issued a press release saying: “To everybody who says homelessness is out of control, be patient. I got this.”
De Blasio’s purportedly “comprehensive” plan glosses over two key questions about homelessness policy. First, what kind of shelter system do we want? Some have praised Turning the Tide for its dismissal of the idea that we could end homelessness any time soon. In policy terms, this means that New York City is reembracing the concept of shelter, or temporary or emergency housing. But that should in turn prompt a renewed debate about shelter quality. Are we talking about the housing equivalent of unemployment insurance—just a roof over their head while people get back on their feet? Or do the homeless need additional services? If they do, what should be done for them that the city’s vast social-policy apparatus is not already addressing?
The city describes the approximately 90 new shelters soon to open as “high-quality.” To sweeten the deal with neighborhoods that may not want a new shelter in their midst, these facilities are being pitched as community centers, with services available also to non-homeless residents. But the more attractive you make shelter—the higher quality the conditions, the better access to services and housing subsidies—the more sheltered homelessness you will get. Progressives never want to hear about the “draw to shelter”: in their view, no one ever becomes homeless by choice.
Second: Is homelessness possible to prevent? Having failed to reduce homelessness, de Blasio has clung to the argument that the problem would be worse still if not for the array of programs that the city runs. Under de Blasio, at least 194,000 New Yorkers have received a rental subsidy and/or some other service designed to keep them out of the shelter system. It’s not realistic to think that all these people would have wound up homeless if not for the city’s efforts. According to the administration’s own estimate, the shelter census would only be about 8,000 higher than the current 60,000 if not for its “major rental assistance” programs. Thus, any homelessness-prevention program has a built-in element of waste.
Clearly, this plan—designed by those who built the current system, such as Department of Social Services commissioner Steven Banks—does not represent a new approach on homelessness policy in New York. But that does not mean that improvements are impossible. Here are three practical reforms that Mayor de Blasio should consider.
First, the city should provide a clearer accounting of the costs associated with Turning the Tide. This is an extraordinary oversight not only considering that the document is supposed to be a soup-to-nuts account of homelessness policy but also because of the city’s chronic tendency to under-budget for homeless services. All other things being equal, shelters are cheaper than cluster sites and hotels, which should mean that Turning the Tide would reduce homeless spending overall. Instead, the city plans to spend the savings elsewhere, such as on the services associated with the “high-quality” shelters. Homelessness spending cannot be an open-ended commitment: spending has already increased by at least 77 percent under de Blasio, far more than in any other city program, according to the Citizens’ Budget Commission.
Second, New York City should do a systematic fraud audit of shelter clients to gain a better understanding of who is staying too long, whose situation has improved to the point where they can move on, who has off-the-books income, and so on. Progressives won’t like this idea, but implementing it would significantly strengthen the mayor’s hand against the shelter-siting battles he’s gearing up to fight. The city won’t need to open as many new shelters if the shelter census declines.
Third, the city should publish a comprehensive report on provider quality. Shouldn’t we be able to debate the merits of homeless-services providers as openly as we do, say, charter school networks? Opinions about the quality of shelter operators are often anecdotal and depend significantly on the salesmanship of providers’ management teams. Not all providers are equal—and not just because the quality of their housing stock varies (this is partly a city responsibility, anyway). Provider-level outcomes that we should know more about include average length of stay, rates of crime and 911 calls, and, for the “special program” shelters, how well their education and jobs programs work and how compliant their substance-addicted and mentally ill clients are with treatment regimens.
Critics have focused on whether the city is giving providers enough money to operate their facilities—but the truth is, the city should direct resources away from underperforming providers and invest more in what works. And the de Blasio administration should welcome a debate about provider quality. Not only might it lead to improved services; it would also distract attention away from the administration’s mistakes on homelessness.
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