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February 28, 1994
Provide the homeless more than just shelter

by Barbara Benson
Homelessness isn't just about housing. It's about services that get people off drugs and alcohol. It's about finding jobs. It's about model homeless economic development projects like Ready, Willing & Able.

Through work instead of entitlement, the Brooklyn program takes single men out of emergency shelters and gives them housing, support services and jobs. A grant of $1.6 million from the city goes to pay homeless trainees to clean city-owned buildings, house the men and pay the staff.

In 1993, the yearly net cost to tax-payers of Ready, Willing & Able was $7,350 per participant. The city government spends $18,000 to keep a man in a shelter.

That huge disparity in costs isn't Ready, Willing & Able's only measure of success. In a recent 18-month period, 60% of the men got private-sector jobs and their own apartments. Although 92% of them had a history of substance abuse, only 12% got kicked out of the program for drug use. About 70% were ex-convicts, but not a single participant went back to jail.

Run by The Doe Fund, Ready, Willing & Able holds promise for hundreds of homeless men and women in New York. So why, then, isn't it duplicated citywide? Because large barriers and special interests stand in the way of enacting a sound policy on the homeless.

One problem is community opposition to small residential programs to treat the underlying causes of homelessness. Another is unions, which resist disbanding an army of shelter workers and giving the homeless jobs that could be union.

The third is money. Without either more funding or a shift in funding, there isn't enough to pay for necessary services, transitional housing and permanent housing.

If those barriers could be swept aside, a successful homeless policy in New York still would need more action by private corporations. It will take much better coordination among the three levels of government, and more commitment from the state and federal governments, which set policy and funding levels for mental health and housing.

What New York needs "is the operational energy to get the job done," says Ed Geffner, who heads the Manhattan Bowery Corp.

While the city searches for that energy, the crisis grows. Some 4,000 families were in shelters in 1989. Today the number is more than 5,500, including 9,600 children.

Politicians were delivered a workable blueprint for change in a February 1992 report by the city Commission on the Homeless, chaired by Andrew Cuomo. It helped open New Yorkers' eyes about who the homeless are.

Drug abuse key issue
Of the 5,500 New York families in shelters, 42% of them appeared to have a mental health or drug problem. Among the 5,300 single men in shelters, 53% had a mental health or drug problem the emergency shelter system wasn't equipped to address.

For those with multiple problems, the homeless label is inadequate. These people don't need homes alone. They need treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, and programs to teach them the most elementary things society expects. For many, independent living is achievable goal.

"Housing. Work. Then some services. That's a holistic approach. The vast majority of homeless will want it," says George McDonald, president of The Doe Fund Inc.

Among its many recommendations, the Cuomo report told the city to get out of the shelter business. That way, the city would stop wasting money on shelters that didn't address underlying problems of homelessness. Instead, the city should let non-profit groups run residential service programs that help the homeless obtain and maintain housing for the rest of their lives. It went on to call for a new agency that would be entrepreneurial in delivering services and developing housing facilities.

"We don't need any more plans, studies or commissions," says Mr. Cuomo. "We know what has to be done. Just do it."

The Cuomo report was a good step toward revamping the city's homeless policy. Yet even David Dinkins, the mayor who requested the report, didn't implement most of the policies suggested. Why not? NIMBY, money and politics.

Homeless advocates now question if a new mayor has the fortitude to dramatically change homeless policy.

"The new administration has an advantage. It's reorganizing government anyway, and the people with a vested interest in protecting their political turf are gone. It's easier now," says Mr. Cuomo.

The Dinkins administration adopted some elements of the report. It established the new Department of Homeless Services, carved out of the Human Resources Administration. But the agency is neither small nor entrepreneurial. It has nearly 3,000 employees and a $500 million budget.

Slowly shifting its mission
Many advocates now believe the city should only run a few shelters for the hard-core homeless, but the city is moving very slowly in shifting DHS' $500 million budget toward providing services. "These are dollars that save other dollars," says Richard Salyer, the New York executive director of Volunteers of America.

Because dollars are wasted, the slow pace of the non-profitization of shelters frustrates advocates. With almost 3,000 civil servants manning the shelters, part of the impasse is labor.

"The power of the unions is a factor in the city not getting out of the shelter business," says Eric Roth, executive director of BRC Human Resources Corp., a non-profit group serving the homeless.

DHS points to its record of non-profitization: Four singles shelters, or about 25% of the beds, are run by nonprofits. Among family shelters, 64 of 74 are run by non-profit groups. "With the complexity of details involved, I don't think we've been slow," says Joan Malin, DHS deputy commissioner. Meanwhile, the city needs leadership willing to advocate small, community-based residential facilities that provide a range of services. The hurdle: NIMBY. No politician wants to anger voters by putting a homeless facility on their block.

"Siting a facility in New York is impossible. Politicians can't take the heat," says BRC's Mr. Roth.

But advocates say that's what it takes to get the job done. "There's a dearth of residential, group-setting programs with a psychiatric and pharmacological approach. We need to look at the funding source for those kinds of programs," says Fran Gautieri, director of social work at Bellevue Hospital.

The solution is small residences equipped to treat complex cases.

Most officials won't take a stand against NIMBY. One way around that is the soft sell. Work with the community early on, sell the merits of the program, but be prepared for failure. The other is a legislative solution: Make community approval unnecessary if the facility houses just a few people. If officials meant business, they'd pick the latter option.

Corporations can't shirk an advocacy role toward the homeless

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