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September 22, 2008
On Track to Ending Homelessness

by George T. McDonald
As founder and president of The Doe Fund and its award-winning Ready, Willing & Able transitional work program, I have worked for more than two decades as an advocate and service provider to end homelessness in New York City. Quite frankly, I was appalled by last month's report by the New York City Independent Budget Office and the reactions to it. Sadly, many advocates have long histories of criticizing homeless policy rather than working to bring about positive change. I can say without reservation that no mayoral administration has been more proactive, innovative, forward-thinking, and successful than Mayor Michael Bloomberg's at tackling the challenges of homelessness.

Since Bloomberg took office, I have been approached by organizations and individuals from cities around the world dedicated to ending homelessness. With rare exception, they have come to see New York City as a worldwide leader in homeless policy innovation. The comprehensive nature of the Department of Homeless Services' programs - providing work opportunities and employment counseling, adding more Safe Havens for chronically homeless people, helping tenants avoid eviction, offering rental assistance - is simply unmatched. And these represent just a small fraction of the services the city provides.

Perhaps the most visible success of this administration has been the reduction in street homeless: the most obvious sign of homelessness in New York City. In a departure from past policy, the Department of Homeless Services engaged some of the most well-respected service providers in the city to create a network of street outreach teams. These teams work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, talking to, listening to and meeting with people day after day, eventually convincing them to come inside for help.

This active engagement has led to an extraordinary 25 percent drop in the number of people living on our streets in just three years, based on the city's annual HOPE count. In other words, since 2005, 1,089 individuals - approximately one person per day - have taken the first step to change their lives for the better.

Shelter Successes

Just as impressive has been the department's success in reducing the shelter population, moving a record number of people into lives of independence. In the four years since Bloomberg announced his homelessness reduction plan, the department's daily report shows the shelter population for single adults has dropped from nearly 8,500 to less than 6,700 - a 22 percent reduction that speaks for itself.

The Department of Homeless Services has accomplished this feat largely by recognizing that the adult shelter population is not a single block, but rather a reflection of the diversity of our city. By supporting individualized programming to serve this diverse population - ranging from work-centered programs like Ready, Willing & Able, to long-term supportive housing for truly disabled individuals - the department is working closely with service providers to encourage independence wherever possible.

In addition to these major successes with individuals, the department is continually developing new initiatives to help families with children. No longer must they endure the inhumanity of the old Emergency Assistance Unit, where they often would languish for days or weeks at a time waiting for help. More recently, homeless services established Advantage New York: a program providing rental assistance, matched savings, and connections to more housing than ever before. The department's Daily Report demonstrates that Advantage New York - now in its second year of existence - has helped reduce the number of families with children in shelter by 5 percent in the past 10 months alone.

Innovations like these will be allowed to flourish as a result of last week's settlement between the city and the Legal Aid Society on the 25-year old McCain litigation. As a result of great strides by the Bloomberg administration, the plaintiffs in this case - which had created more than two decades of judicial oversight of the shelter system - were finally able to agree that the Department of Homeless Services, rather than the court, is best suited to create and administer services to families with children. Now that the case has come to an end, with all parties agreeing to what is best for families facing homelessness, the city can move forward and continue developing novel solutions for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

Finally, the Department of Homeless Services has made enormous strides in the area of homelessness prevention, including a program that provides decentralized services to people in their home neighborhoods. Known as Homebase, this brand-new program was enormously successful in its pilot communities, giving families and children the services they need. This success has led the department to expand the initiative citywide, which is expected to save the city tens of millions of dollars that can be better spent within the community by helping people stay in their homes and out of shelter.

The Bloomberg administration's five-year plan is the most comprehensive, ambitious and innovative enterprise ever undertaken by any mayoral administration. It has led to the development of new and more humane methods of dealing with each segment of the homeless population and has been made a top priority throughout the city. Rather than criticize this administration, we should support it and work hard to help realize its important goals.

George T. McDonald is the founder and president of The Doe Fund, Inc., a homeless services provider that operates the Ready, Willing & Able program.

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