Despite Condemnation, Hess Holds His Ground

Called reckless by some, a new homeless families' policy is having the desired effect, testifies the Department of Homeless Services commissioner.

By: By Tram Whitehurst

After only two weeks, the lines have been clearly drawn in a vigorous debate over the new Department of Homeless Services (DHS) policy eliminating emergency overnight shelter for homeless families deemed to have other housing options. Both DHS staff and opponents of the measure packed a City Council General Welfare Committee hearing last week to examine the controversial policy change.

In his testimony before the committee, DHS Commissioner Robert Hess gave a progress report on the new policy and explained how and why it came to be. Hess argued that it has been successful in limiting the number of ineligible families who show up at the Prevention Assistance for Temporary Housing (PATH) facility in the Bronx. Since Oct. 12 when the policy was implemented, the total number of families seeking “late arrival placement”—or shelter after 5 p.m.—was 46 percent lower than in the weeks prior to the change. A total of 16 families previously found ineligible for shelter persisted in requesting late night placement over the past two weeks, 11 of which were once again denied shelter, he said. According to Hess, the policy “is helping to restore order at PATH and strengthen a system that is dedicated to providing support and services to homeless families.”

Critics at the hearing were not convinced by Hess’s testimony and questioned the logic and motivation behind the policy. Expressing a concern voiced by several speakers, Councilman Bill de Blasio, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the committee, asked Hess: “Why would a family come back [to PATH] if they had a viable alternative?”

De Blasio joined Rev. Martha Overall, priest of St. Ann’s Church in the Bronx, in wondering if the new policy reflects a cynical effort by DHS to reach Mayor Bloomberg’s goal of reducing homelessness by two-thirds by 2009. Overall called it a “reckless attempt to clear out the PATH center by any means necessary.”

But Hess maintained that the new policy is necessary to reduce the number of ineligible families who routinely return to PATH for late arrival placement. From Aug. 2006 to Aug. 2007, PATH saw a 102 percent increase in the number of families seeking shelter after 5 p.m. The change has allowed PATH workers to better serve eligible families, and has “brought the whole temperature down” at the facility, limiting crowds and increasing efficiency, Hess said. Ineligible families are encouraged to use the on-site resource room, which offers a variety of social services, and HomeBase, DHS’s community-based prevention program.

Councilmembers and advocates were especially troubled by the eligibility process PATH uses to determine whether homeless families have another housing option, saying it is inaccurate, arbitrary and unfair. Families completing their first application at PATH are given 10 days of free shelter while the agency conducts an investigation of their circumstances. Applicants must meet with a DHS family worker who obtains the family’s history, including family composition and housing history for the past two years. DHS investigators then visit the housing locations or call the primary tenants included in the family’s housing history. Families found ineligible who re-apply within 90 days must exhibit an immediate need or prove a change in situation in order to receive shelter. Those who disagree with DHS’s decision have the opportunity for a hearing to appeal it.

The problem with this system, said several speakers, is that it leaves too much room for error and often places the burden of proof on families in crisis. De Blasio, who called the policy “drastic and ill-conceived,” was first to criticize the eligibility determination process. He argued that it is unfair to homeless families because it only finds families eligible if their situation has changed, so if the initial eligibility determination was incorrect, then the reapplication determination will also be wrong. Hess countered by arguing that the DHS error rate is very low—somewhere between 4 and 9 percent—but Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of Legal Aid Society of New York, challenged that claim. According to data obtained by his organization through a lawsuit against DHS, 51.8 percent of families in 2006 originally found ineligible for shelter because they supposedly had an alternative housing option were later found eligible. That equals 801 families wrongfully denied shelter. “By any measure, there is a problem with the eligibility process,” Banks said.

And what about when DHS determines that a family has an alternative housing option when in reality that is not the case? asked Councilwoman Helen Foster, a Bronx Democrat. There are times, she noted, when for various reasons a host or a landlord wants a family to move out. Hess responded by saying that DHS reviews every family on a case-by-case basis.

Banks shared several stories of families who were denied shelter under the new policy. Their alternative housing options, as proposed by DHS, included returning to Puerto Rico to live with a mother who had already sent the family away, moving in with an ex-boyfriend’s stepparents, and staying with a sick mother who had a note from her doctor saying that sharing the apartment would be detrimental to her health. This last situation applied to Don Keith Allen, Sr., and his 20- and 11-year-old sons. In an emotional statement in front of the council, Allen said he and his sons had been sleeping where they could since Oct. 12, including the floor of St. Ann’s Church for a few nights. “If me and my sons had someplace to go,” he said, “we would go there. It’s that simple.”

Several speakers proposed what they think are more effective and humane alternatives to the DHS policy. De Blasio thinks that the answer lies not in turning homeless families away from shelter but in redoubling prevention efforts and creating more alternative housing options. “The administration is failing at moving families from shelter to permanent housing,” he said. He recommended an expansion of the Section 8 subsidy program for the homeless, and the development of more units of affordable housing. De Blasio plans to continue monitoring the situation and advocating for families as needed.

For her part, Overall focused on improving the PATH eligibility process. To counter what she called “arbitrary” eligibility decisions, she said PATH should enlist an objective third party to make the process more fair and reasonable.

– Tram Whitehurst