Good afternoon everyone, and thank you all for being here today. We’re joined here by a number of leaders, activists, and concerned New Yorkers who are committed to a crucial cause—tackling our City’s systemic homelessness crisis and finding long-term solutions that not only relieve the problem, but break the cycle.
And we know that New York City is indeed facing a crisis. Our City is currently experiencing record levels of homelessness that have not been seen since the Great Depression. The numbers are staggering—every night, close to 58,000 New Yorkers spend the night in the DHS shelter system. Another 3,000 face the cold on the street, unsheltered. Almost 1,000 survivors of domestic violence reside in HRA’s domestic violence shelter system nightly. And three hundred youth are in DYCD’s Runaway and Homeless Youth system every day.
That’s 11,769 single adults. 11,749 families. 23,824 children. 1,000 veterans.
The statistics are alarming—and heartbreaking. But they are more than just numbers—they are stories of people who often look just like you, and just like me. It is too easy to paint a simplified, homogeneous picture of homelessness—we might imagine someone who is jobless, or perhaps someone who is battling a drug addiction. And in many cases that might be part of the story. But here is the truth: for thousands of New Yorkers, the only thing standing between them and homelessness is one missed paycheck, or one unforeseen medical emergency.
This shift in perspective in essential, because we have a responsibility as neighborhoods and communities not to shy away from the very real need to shelter our fellow New Yorkers. It is humane, and it is the right thing to do.
Unlike in other cities, poverty in New York City manifests as homelessness. With costs of living on the rise, these stories are becoming more and more frequent. And we must start thinking proactively about how we can fulfill our legal and moral obligation to provide shelter each night to every eligible person.
There are currently more people entering the city’s shelter system than are leaving, so we must think critically about addressing the need to house our homeless New Yorkers. But we also must think about long-term, strategic approaches—how can we intervene before an individual or family becomes homeless? What services can we provide to those in the shelters to help them get back on their feet and out of the system? How can we get homeless youth on a path to safety and stability?
The City and the New York City Council have made great strides to meet this goal. Since Fiscal 2007, the Council has provided support for the Citywide Homeless Prevention Fund, which offers emergency financial assistance to families in imminent risk of homelessness due to rent arrears.
This fund reaches individuals who simply are not getting the help they need from existing programs. We are also currently investing $23 million in legal services, including anti-eviction legal services, which help families navigate the complicated maze of housing court.
When every dollar counts, it is important that New Yorkers receive the benefits and savings to which they are entitled. The City Council provided $250,000 in FY 2015 to support tax preparation services, enabling organizations such as the Food Bank for New York City to help New Yorkers prepare all necessary tax documents and receive the maximum tax return using the Earned Income Tax Credit and other deductions. In 2014, New Yorkers over $85 million in 2014 while filing their taxes.
Last May, the City enacted a bill that streamlines the process by which domestic violence survivors can become eligible for shelter, by requiring DHS to automatically deem domestic violence survivors who have reached the maximum length of stay in a domestic violence shelter eligible for shelter in the DHS system. When you’ve already overcome so much, bureaucratic red tape should be the last thing that stands in way between you and safety, and this legislation makes sure our domestic violence survivors have thea time and stability they need to get back on their feet and rebuild.
But there is still much more work to be done to make sure that we are connecting at-risk New Yorkers with the resources and services they need. In addition to assisting those who are currently homeless, we must also double our efforts to break the cycle—identify markers, intervene early, and work with individuals to meet them where they are.
This month, the New York City Council introduced legislation that calls for the creation of a citywide Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator, which will expand the ability of individuals to access civil legal services, including representation in housing court. The Office will also prepare an annual survey of civil legal needs and services in New York City, make budget recommendations, and provide proactive outreach and education. Access to civil legal services is essential, because one of the main reasons for entry into the shelter system is eviction. This initiative will help keep people in their homes—and prevent them from reaching a point where shelter is the only option.
Hand in hand with the creation of this Office, the Council is calling for the City to invest an additional $7.5 million into the Court-Based Homelessness Prevention Project. The Project provides targeted social and legal services to families facing evictions in neighborhoods that have experienced a high-rate of shelter entries. The additional funding will allow the Project to serve 6,000 more families annually that who may otherwise enter the shelter system.
We must also be vigilant in our efforts to push the State to grant New York City local control over our minimum wage. According to DHS, one-third of the families in the shelter system are employed. We believe that if you work hard day in and day out, you should bring home enough to provide for your family and build a life you can be proud of. This is the promise of New York City, and it’s up to us to keep that promise for homeless families who, despite working hard, are finding it impossible to make ends meet.
We must also do more to reach the City’s chronically homeless. Many chronically homeless picked up by police on the street are suffering from conditions that may not be immediately apparent to the arresting officer, including mental health issues that require professional support—not two weeks in Rikers. This year, we asked the NYPD to consider issuing summonses and desk appearances instead of arrests, and decriminalizing low-level offenses. This policy shift stands to benefit our homeless populations as well, who would no longer have to spend a night in prison or lose their possessions simply for having no place else to go.
As policy makers and advocates will agree, supportive housing is one of the best tools at our disposal to comprehensively address the range of needs facing our homeless population, offering residents access to on-site support, including primary care, psychiatric care and overall holistic care. Rather than criminalizing these individuals and sending them to Rikers for low-level offenses, supportive housing connects the chronically homeless with the help they need. It has also been proven to be cost effective; supportive housing has saved on average $10,100 per resident. That is why the New York City Council is calling for a significant expansion of allotted units in New York /New York IV; according to supporters, New York /New York III reduced chronic homelessness in single adults, many with substance abuse and mental illness by 47% over the first five years of the program. This is a program that has proven effective, and so we urge the Mayor and the Governor to come to an agreement on New York /New York IV. We must build on irrefutable, positive results of supportive housing and embrace New York /New York IV as a forward-thinking approach to addressing our homelessness crisis.
Nowhere is our City’s picture of homeless more heartbreaking than when we look at New York’s runaway and homeless youth. For adults and families, homelessness can often be a frightening prospect. For too many young people, it is a terrifying reality.
According to Safe Horizon, young people are at a greater risk of becoming homeless if they are victims or witnesses of child abuse or neglect, if their parents suffer from addiction or mental health problems, or if they identify as LGBT. The stories of our city’s runaway LGBT youth can be particularly distressing. Running away or kicked out of homes that refused to love and accept them for who they are, LGBT youth turn to the streets with no place left to go—confused and alone at time when they most need support.
According to the State, 5,401 youth were turned away from the RHY shelter system statewide in 2012 because there were not enough beds. Without access to shelter beds, many youth would rather sleep on the streets and in unsafe situations than face the too-real dangers of staying in adult homeless shelters.
A study by Covenant House and Fordham University found that among runaway and homeless youth who reported engaging in commercial sexual activity, 48% said that a lack of a safe place to sleep was their main reason for entry into commercial sex.
This is unacceptable, and unconscionable.
As we have seen in recent news coverage, the adult shelter system can be a harrowing place—especially for youth mixed in with adults contending with issues of their own. Adult shelters also cannot provide the specialized support and counseling that runaway children and young people so often need, nor can they connect them with the City services and programming designed to help youth create a fresh start. Therefore, the New York City Council calls for an expansion of DHS shelters specifically for youth aged 18-24. These DHS shelters would be more accommodating to the needs of young people and free up space in the burdened RHY system for 16-17 year olds.
We are also calling for an increase in RHY beds, so that our young people need not sell themselves and their bodies to get off the street. The State Executive Budget includes $4.5 million for RHY, the first real increase in seven years. Not only does the RHY system provide a safe place to sleep, but also connects runaway and homeless youth with comprehensive services –including counseling and referrals– that can start building a supportive path toward stability, security, and independence.
The plans and goals we have outlined are bold and expansive. But our City’s homelessness crisis requires nothing less. We must meet homeless New Yorkers where they are and build a supportive roadmap back to safety and stability. We must end the ever-growing number of people entering and re-entering the shelter system and instead focus on ways to keep people in their homes—with better legal representation, fairer wages, and more affordable housing that takes into account the skyrocketing costs of living in our City. The task at hand is formidable, to be sure—but with the consistent commitment, dedication, and efforts of the people in this room, we will continue to make a difference in the lives of thousands of New Yorkers who call this City home.