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Open Letter to NYC Department of Homeless Services

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Action Alert, Blog

To: Ms. Joslyn Carter
New York City Department of Homeless Services

We read the NY Times story about the Bronx Parent Housing Network shelter and the allegations of harassment by the former director in February 2021.  The National Coalition for the Homeless is concerned that the repeated allegations were made over a long period of time and no one seems to have acted on them until the New York Times front page story.  We know that the City is under court supervision to provide shelter to everyone who seeks assistance, which has led to an explosion in shelters and the funding of shelters.  The National Coalition for the Homeless is concerned that the system has become so huge that it needs a complete overhaul and is beyond mere agency personnel changes or updating standards to have any impact on protecting the end user. 

It seems as though there are broader community wide policy changes that need to occur in order to stop the tide into the system and make the time that a person is without housing as short as possible. We recommend looking at a complete overhaul of the homeless social service system to prevent discharges from subsidized housing through eviction as well as medical facilities including drug treatment and mental health facilities into the shelters.  We support increasing the local housing subsidy to those struggling with homelessness so that they have more options in the market and could receive a subsidy that beats or at least matches the federal Housing Choice Voucher program. Shouldn’t the goal of the homeless shelter system in New York be to decrease the time spent in the homeless social services to the shortest time possible?  We believe that the goal could be written into every contract to get those seeking assistance out of the shelter/housing assistance programs as soon as humanly possible?  Maybe an incentive package for the homeless assistance industry for moving families into stable housing in under 30 days?

We understand from local advocates that you have set up an impressive system for input by current members of the homeless community to provide input to the Continuum of Care funding, but we also understand that these are only a fraction of the homeless assistance funds in New York City.  We ask that you consider expanding the oversight by homeless people to include all homeless social service funding and constructing a peer network in which those using the facilities could receive help from graduates of the programs.  This could be a model for programs from around the country and it would stem criticism of this giant bureaucracy unresponsive to the needs of its constituents. We are not asking for the hiring of a consultant who will spend the next year with focus groups to prevent sexual harassment in the shelters, and in the end will produce $1 million poster that says “Sexual Harassment is Wrong—If you see something say something.” We all know that sexual harassment is not acceptable especially in a shelter serving domestic violence victims, and we all understand that women who have few choices are especially vulnerable.  From our perspective, we see a need for reform within  government that failed to set up protections, and once there were allegations, failed to respond quickly?

We understand that the Department of Homeless Services is reviewing the situation with the Bronx Parent Housing Network and will work with a caretaker CEO to make changes. NCH is asking that this incident prompt a larger look at shelters and housing for those experiencing homelessness to transform them back to short emergency services and not long term housing solutions.  We hope that you will look at the entire system to make dramatic changes so that anyone entering the shelter system is protected from predatory behavior and has access to a process to report abuse that will result in immediate actions. We have some recommendations:

  • Build into the contacts an incentive system to move people into housing within 30 days of presenting.
  • Limit intake restrictions so that the process is simple and speedy without barriers to access or a long questionnaire that includes a detailed history.
  • Work with local advocates to implement a city wide ban on government funded institutions discharging anyone into a shelter. 
  • Increase all local housing subsidies so that the family/individual can afford housing at the market rate and not be stuck in housing that pays the landlord less than market rates. 
  • Reduce hostile discharges from the shelter system.  The discharge policies for homeless social services should be focused on restorative justice model and not a punitive system that results in a high number of evictions.  Force a high bar with much bureaucracy and greater transparency with the goal of moving people into a better situation instead of so many lateral moves or discharges onto the streets. 
  • Work with groups like Picture the Homeless or Urban Justice Center to collect and report feedback from those using the homeless social service that would result in meaningful oversight. We are not asking for token input of 1 or 2 homeless individuals but real empowerment of leadership groups to provide real involvement by those who have experienced homelessness. This entity needs to be staffed by those who have experienced homelessness and supported by public funding.  This so called “homeless ombudsman’s office” should be visible within the social service system to accept complaints and have the authority to act on those complaints.  
  • A comprehensive review of all agencies policies and procedures to assure that there are tough standards against harassment of clients or staff.  There are good models available and every social service provider should have strong policies with clear consequences for those who violate these standards. No need to contract with a consultant.  We are asking for common sense protections to be put in place for every group receiving public money.
  • A new project to hire currently homeless individuals as so called “mystery shoppers” to report directly back to the Department of Homeless Services on the facilities and care that residents or clients are receiving. 
  • Once a problem is discovered there is due process for the agency, but the investigation and adjudication must be swift and consequential.  We believe these new policies should be published and that complaint process be transparent with the specific names withheld but all other information be released to the public. 
  • Again work with grassroots leadership development groups such as Picture the Homeless or the Urban Justice Center to provide current and formerly homeless individuals a meaningful role in deciding on local priorities for funding. These community leaders with lived experience should be consulted on how resources are divided within the community.  They should have a bigger role than the other communities of interest such as other homeless service providers, government or housing providers. It is our experience that when consulting people who have utilized the shelter system, the reliance on congregate living facilities is greatly reduced.  No one wants to have to sleep on a cot in a gymnasium without privacy because it only adds to the trauma of homelessness and strips a person of their dignity. 
  • Finally, the National Coalition for the Homeless was founded by a group of homeless and formerly homeless people in New York and Washington DC, and for our 40 year history we have always attempted to demonstrate the power and wealth of experience of those who have survived homelessness.  To that end, we have always recommended the importance of peer networks to ending homelessness.  We believe that for a large metropolitan area there should be a safe place for people currently experiencing homelessness can go to learn from those who lived through the trauma of homelessness.  We believe that there is no greater use of public resources than a mentoring network of trained individuals with lived experience who can help people who have recently lost their housing navigate the complicated system and can help to avoid the pitfalls or dead ends that often slow a person’s ability to find stability.  

We would be happy to set up a meeting to discuss any of the issues we have raised.  We are not trying to criticize your work, but we only offer an outside perspective.  We all want to see a better environment for the people we both serve.  We all want to reduce the trauma associated with homelessness and to fund projects that we would be willing to see a relative effectively utilize.  Thank you for all your hard work in protecting fragile populations in our society. 

Sincerely,

Donald Whitehead

cc: Mayor Bill DeBlasio

Notes from the Field: Southern Rural Indiana

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

Some think that it is hard to reach people experiencing homelessness, especially with the smaller population of people with a mental illness who often refuse shelter or services.  Barb Anderson, working in Jeffersonville, Indiana, has found a way to reach people where they are, not where she wants them to be or where society things they should be. 

Barb talks about her clients as her friends – truly some of the most amazing people she has ever worked with in her career.  Some of her friends’ minds don’t process information in a linear or sequential manner but have a creativity, spontaneity, and unique perspective that is enlightening. The downside is they will often make horrible decisions that are harmful to themselves, and it is so painful to see them suffer unnecessarily.  There is also the issue of looking on in horror when seeing how others react out of fear or hostility when they are face to face with a mentally ill person who lives outside.  Barb takes it all in stride and is able to calm the situation with her quick wit and loud Hazard, Kentucky laugh!

Barb shared a story about a man who traditionally lives outside with mental illness, who she was trying to coax inside this winter.  Anderson was trying to convince him to stay in the hotel designated by the County as the emergency spot for the hardest cases; he refused to follow the rules designed to serve the mainstream paying customers.  This conflict led to being asked to leave the end of the line, hotel of last resort. Barb tried her best with the staff person at 1:00 a.m. to get them to reverse course because she could not let him sleep outside in the middle of a cold winter night as the wind blew through the rural Indiana landscape. She called a neighboring hotel and paid for a room, they fed him, treated him very well and the issue was resolved.  It was a long night with little sleep, and she knew her long time friend appreciated her efforts. He was safe, fed, and sleeping in a warm bed. Her friends deserve nothing less.   

Barb Anderson

Barb began her career in 1979 as a public service employee (sort of like a national service member) and in the local city planning department.  She told me that she had grown up in poverty and had never really planned to work on social justice issues.  In 1985, she worked with many to open the only shelter in a 14 county region in Southern Indiana. In 1996, the shelter became an independent non-profit. In the same year, she joined the Board to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Anderson has been fighting for her friends for decades in rural Indiana with policy work at the national level, twisting the ears of state officials in Indianapolis and confronting the mayors at their favorite hangouts in the region. 

Small town America does not typically have the number of visibly homeless as the big cities like the one just across the Ohio River in Louisville, but that may be changing.  The poverty rate in this area is 9.6% but that hides many who are out of sight and thus out of mind.  Barb reports a sharp increase in street homelessness in the region over the last few years with no new resources to address the issue.  The opening of a walking bridge between Louisville and Jeffersonville has resulted in an increase in street homelessness but is only one  contributing factor in the increase. Louisville also tends to do more sweeps, has a more violent reputation, and homeless people have said that they feel safer on the streets in rural Indiana.  The problem is that the resources in a small community are fewer and friendliness does not keep people safe on a cold night.  

Barb reported that in the initial stages of the pandemic serving homeless people was very productive because of the “crap load of money” that the region received, but NIMBY issues resulted in tearing tents down.  The region has used CARES Act assistance funds to assist with COVID relief,  and used some of those funds to put people up in hotels and motels. The unemployment rate in Southern Indiana is really good at only 3.9%, but they do boast a higher than the national average of medically uninsured.  Haven House, in partnership with other agencies, has worked hard to provide outreach services to those living outside and those who were evicted despite the federal guidelines pushing an eviction moratorium.  But just like everything associated with the pandemic, things have gotten progressively worse as time wore on.  The money was not flowing like it did in the beginning, and people’s patience was wearing as thin as the same face mask being worn for 8 months straight. Anderson traveled to Bloomington recently and worked with activists in South Bend to find solutions to the sweeps being done in their communities.  

The increase in homelessness over the past year is not confined to one population with families, women and young people all on the rise in the region.  Barb and the Haven House volunteers did a get out the vote campaign, but Indiana is one of the state’s with many barriers to voting like mandatory identification.  The reality is that it is extremely difficult to motivate people to vote during a pandemic.  Haven House has a Facebook page and would love your input on ways to better serve people experiencing homelessness living in a rural community. 

A step forward, a step backward

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) celebrates the Supreme Court decision earlier this week that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Young people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender nonconforming, are 120% times more likely to experience homelessness than their cisgender and straight peers. This disparity is caused by mistreatment by family as well as institutions, and discrimination not just in employment, but also in access to housing, health care and education. 

“[This] ruling by the Supreme Court is a monumental victory for LGBTQ people across the United States. Discrimination in employment is a critical barrier to safe and secure housing for LGBTQ youth and adults,” says Gregory Lewis, CEO and Executive Director of True Colors United. “Discrimination against someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity is sex discrimination. This ruling makes clear that efforts underway at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to undercut protections for transgender people experiencing homelessness should not be allowed to continue under the law.”

NCH has long supported inclusive access for LGBTQ people to shelter and other emergency services. In 2003, along with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, we authored a guide for how shelters can make their agencies safe for people who identify as transgender. A ground-breaking survey of transgender Americans in 2015 found strong economic disparities for transgender people. Nearly one in three, (29%) of respondents were living in poverty versus 14% of the general population, and 30% reported having experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetime. As recently as 2016, HUD itself published guidance for shelters requiring that transgender residents are accepted to single-sex shelters based on their gender identity, without regard for what may appear on someone’s state identification. 

But after insensitive and discriminatory comments about transgender people made by Secretary Ben Carson, HUD has shown intention to roll back the 2016 guidance for shelters. A proposed rule will likely be published in the coming weeks that would allow single-sex shelters to judge gender by biology, and not by someone’s self identity.  

According to the Transgender Law Center, “This situation is particularly dangerous for transgender women who are inappropriately placed in men’s shelters where they often subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment and abuse, including sexual assault. While some transgender people will run the high risk of facing harassment and violence in a shelter that doesn’t match their gender identity just so that they can be housed for the night, others in this situation will simply forgo shelter and sleep on street.”

NCH firmly rejects any attempt to deny safe access to shelter or other resources for transgender and gender nonconforming people, especially transgender people of color, who disproportionately experience housing instability, discrimination and violence.

For more visit:
Info on Black Trans Advocacy Organizations
Lambda Legal
True Colors Fund

 

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