Modernizing NYC's safety net

Council Member Levin introduces legislation to improve services for vulnerable New Yorkers

Each year, the City of New York supports individuals and families that are working hard to make ends meet by providing benefits such as access to emergency food, rental assistance, and job-training. The Human Resources Administration alone coordinates 12 major public assistance programs that serve over 3 million people. However, our office regularly hears of miscommunications and mistakes in the administration of benefits and services, due in part to antiquated case management systems. This includes, for example, an inability to track documentation to place chronically homeless individuals in appropriate housing, long lags in school transfers for homeless students, and failure to notify clients of appointments critical to the continuance of benefits.

It is essential to maintain and strengthen our safety net by bringing case management systems into the 21st century. My bill, Introduction 1577, would create an Office of Case Management to ensure that we are using the latest advancements in technology to modernize our systems and connect vulnerable New Yorkers to benefits and services that will help them overcome poverty and income inequality.

First, the office would advise and assist service-providing agencies such as the Department of Social Services and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to update case management systems and ensure appropriate integration among agencies. The Office will also be responsible for ensuring that clients can use digital tools to apply for services, upload documents, and receive service updates by text or email. To ensure ongoing quality improvements, the new Office will also monitor and evaluate existing and updated case management systems. Finally, the Office will develop recommendations to the State of New York to encourage coordinated systems development to achieve shared policy objectives and improve services.

If we are to truly tackle income inequality in our City, we must ensure that our agency partners have the best possible tools to meet the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers.

What so many get wrong about homelessness

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“This doesn’t just happen to those people,” said Jennifer Garris. “Anyone can become homeless.”

Ms. Garris has a Masters degree and was a special education teacher for 24 years. But after her husband passed away, she struggled with depression and alcohol use. Soon, she became homeless.

This is a familiar story across the country. No one wakes up and decides “today is the day I become homeless.” People lose stability to the unexpected — medical emergencies, sudden layoffs, or an untreated mental health condition. Yes, access to housing is essential to address our homelessness crisis. But housing alone cannot get everyone back on their feet. Some individuals need support to move forward.

Today, Ms. Garris is no longer homeless. She lives at The Schermerhorn, a supportive housing residence in Downtown Brooklyn. The Schermerhorn provides more than affordable housing. It also offers case management, and substance abuse and mental health counseling. Other programs taught Ms. Garris about money management, community building, and self empowerment. “They teach you how to live again,” she said.

Stephen Levin is a New York City Council Member and Chair of the General Welfare Committee. Photo Credit: NYC Council

Stephen Levin is a New York City Council Member and Chair of the General Welfare Committee. Photo Credit: NYC Council

As a New York City Council Member, and Chair of the General Welfare Committee, I am a fierce advocate of supportive housing. At its core, supportive housing is affordable housing combined with on-site resources. These supportive services help individuals overcome the challenges that left them chronically homeless. Experts agree that supportive housing is an effective way to address homelessness. This is especially true for those with mental health and substance use issues.

More than just a place to live, supportive housing is about community. In Fort Greene, Brooklyn Community Housing and Services provides community space for residents.

“Neighbors organize baby showers, quinceañeras, neighborhood meetings, and even weddings and funerals.” Jeff Nemetsky, Executive Director, Brooklyn Community Housing and Services.

Supportive housing is the way forward. However, the need far exceeds the supply. In New York City, for every person placed into supportive housing there are four more people waiting. The statistics are sobering. There are over 60,000 homeless individuals in the Department of Homeless Services shelter system. Thousands more are in specialized shelters for youth, survivors of domestic violence, and those with HIV/AIDS. These figures do not include individuals living on the streets. If we are to make progress reducing homelessness, we must be aggressive.

That’s why I co-chaired a joint hearing on supportive housing on January 19th with Council Member Jumaane Williams of the Housing and Buildings Committee. Participants included a wide range of stakeholders including the City agencies connected to supportive housing — HRA, HPD, and DOHMH, supportive housing tenants, advocacy organizations, community board chairs and supportive housing providers. Ten Council Members also took part in the half-day hearing.

“We truly appreciate the Councilmembers’ decision to hold the hearing in a supportive housing residence — because quite frankly, seeing is believing,” said Laura Mascuch, Executive Director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York. “Our hope is that Council Members came away with a clear idea of the enormously successful model of housing-plus-services and its transformative impact both on the lives of the formerly homeless people who live there as well as the neighborhoods in which it’s built.”

Housing experts came together to share plans on expanding supportive housing. Through the NYC 15/15 Initiative, New York City has committed to build 15,000 units of supportive housing in 15 years. Additionally, the City will put in place 23 recommendations from Mayor de Blasio’s Supportive Housing Task Force.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to building 15,000 units of supportive housing over the next 15 years. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to building 15,000 units of supportive housing over the next 15 years. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Much of the supportive housing in New York City has been developed through joint collaborations between the City and State. These are known as the NY/NY agreements. New York City has committed to invest in new units. The State has yet to fully deliver on a year-old promise to invest $2 billion in supportive housing. The failure to establish a new NY/NY agreement is a casualty of the politics between New York City and the State. In the meantime, tens of thousands of individuals and families are waiting for shelter.

Enough waiting. We know what works. The evidence shows that supportive housing is one of the best tools we have to address the crisis of homelessness. Let’s provide for our most vulnerable neighbors and set them on a path to long-term stability.