Homeless Op Ed | Homelessness | Affordable Housing

Homeless New Yorkers and Upper West Side Residents Deserve Better

In 2006, elected officials on the Upper West Side sent a letter to Robert Hess, then Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, raising concerns about the agency’s “emergency” decision to move homeless residents to the neighborhood without community input. Earlier this month, DHS received a nearly identical letter in response to a new “emergency” decision to place hundreds of homeless residents on West 95th St. Unfortunately, the city is disregarding the concerns of the community now, just as it did six years ago. This time, we should not let it get away with a lack of transparency and turning its back on the neighborhood. The Administration must be held accountable for failing to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with homelessness. The city must also shine a light on how it makes decisions about where it locates shelters and why it gives such lucrative contracts to these providers –often without a bidding process- and how it will ensure that contractors provide clean and safe facilities. It also needs to come up with a plan to restore the affordable housing that these new shelters are displacing from SRO hotels, and to ensure that homeless facility contractors do not expel SRO residents to take advantage of the much higher rate that the city pays them for emergency shelter housing. New York City does, in fact, face a real emergency in dealing with our growing homeless population. Homelessness has risen by 18% this year. We need real reform not, stopgap measures. Housing alone –especially in warehoused, concentrated buildings without proper services or security- will not fix homelessness. Critical services like mental health services, addiction services or job programs are essential if we are to stop the vicious cycle of homelessness. The Coalition for the Homeless estimated that 50% of the people utilizing shelters in 2010 returned to them in 2011. They estimated that 26% of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness, 38% have an alcohol problem, and 26% report problems with drugs. At the State level, we need to re-examine the impact of the legislation passed in 2010 that prevented these SRO units from being used as hotels. Our lawmakers need to provide for a way for landlords to generate revenue without being held hostage to the city homeless bureaucracy, but also to allow for some permanent affordable housing for seniors, students, or low income working residents such as artists or musicians. Additionally, our legislators need to find the funds for the crucial “Advantage Program,” which offered support and services to help stop the cycle of homelessness at a much lower cost than the emergency shelter rooms, for which the city pays two to four times as much as the Advantage vouchers. At the City level, we need to hold DHS accountable for its decision making process. The City Charter requires that each neighborhood bear its ‘fair share’ of

such services. This provision needs teeth. Moreover, DHS should no longer be able to use ‘emergency’ provisions to avoid a proper review of its own decision-making. This power should be eliminated, especially in cases where former administration officials are involved and present the appearance of conflict of interest. It is of particular concern on the UWS that the new group receiving the no-bid contract for the units on West 95th St is led by Robert Hess, the former Commission of DHS and recipient of the letter sent by community leaders in 2006. Greater transparency and accountability are desperately needed for DHS. The UWS is an incredibly generous and caring community, already supporting over 20% of homeless services. We have done more than our fair share. The city’s pattern of neglect for community cooperation and long-term planning for the homelessness crisis is disturbing. We must address the underlying issues –inefficient use of taxpayer funds, lack of foresight, opaque contracts, contempt of the City Charter, and disregard for democratic accountability--or this will happen again. Our homeless population, working poor, and all Upper West Siders deserves better. KEN BIBERAJ New York, September 2012 The writer is a resident of the Upper West Side and a candidate for City Council

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