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Homeless Policy Address by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
“ Ending Chronic Homelessness in New York City”
Association For A Better New York
June 23, 2004

Thank you, Bill, both for that kind introduction, and also for the hard work you have put in to help bring us all to this day.

I also want to acknowledge someone else who is here with us: Philip Mangano, Executive Director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness in the Office of President Bush. More than any other single individual, he has re-energized our nation's efforts to end homelessness.

This morning, like every New Yorker in this audience, I woke up in my own bed, in my own room, in my own space. I didn't stop to think about it. I took it for granted. I was simply home.

Now, contrast my experience - and every single one of yours - with that of a man who didn't wake up in his own bed, a woman who hasn't had her own room or space in a year or two. And compare your experience with that of a child who, at the end of the school day, doesn't have a sense of comfort or security or place - a child who can't go home and who may never have had a home.

It is in these simple and stark terms that New York must think about the issue of homelessness. It is a persistent, difficult social problem, and - like others we grapple with, such as AIDS or drug addiction - it affects far too many of our men, women, and children. It forces them to live on the margins of society, in needless shame. It prevents them from participating in the vibrant life of our city and from contributing to it. It diminishes them, and, in doing so, it diminishes us.

Let me tell you something: We are too strong, and too smart, and too compassionate a city to surrender to the scourge of homelessness. We won't do it. We won't allow it.

Today, we will build on the success of so many dedicated organizations - public and private - and on two-and-a-half years of our Administration's own dramatic achievements in this area. We'll combine that with the best thinking of experts on every aspect of the problem, use the most up-to-date technology and tactics, and put the full weight of my administration behind ending chronic homelessness in this city.

And when we've done that - and any New Yorker who wants a home, has one -- it will be a victory for all of us.

The Department of Homeless Services has worked with many of you over the last several months preparing a 10-year plan to end homelessness in our city. It is a strong and detailed plan, but ten years is well past the "statute of limitation" for this Administration - and we have no intention of sloughing off our responsibilities on those who will follow us. We are determined to act now and to act comprehensively.

So while this plan, "Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter," provides a long-term framework, I'm also challenging my commissioners, and all of you, to work together to dramatically reduce homelessness over the next five years.

Specifically, between now and the end of 2009, we must cut the size of the City's homeless shelter population by two-thirds, reduce the number of homeless men and women living on the streets of New York City by two-thirds and, by doing these things, make the condition of chronic homelessness effectively extinct in New York.

In striving toward our goals, we will obey both the requirements of the law and the dictates of our conscience. We will also redirect the focus of our efforts away from maintaining an ever-growing shelter system and toward preventing homelessness. No longer defined by our differences on this issue, government, service providers, and grassroots community organizations will work in concert to end homelessness.

In that spirit, our Administration has been working with a court-appointed panel to resolve issues that have been in the courts for decades with the goal of fundamentally improving City government's approach to helping homeless families. Later today, the panel will release a report on the intake and eligibility processes that homeless families encounter at the City's Emergency Assistance Unit.

We've worked with them as they've developed this report. Their recommendations are fully in keeping with our vision. They demonstrate the value of constructive problem solving. They represent a real opportunity to create a more effective and respectful environment for families. This new vision includes an expansion of prevention resources for at-risk and homeless families, better eligibility decisions, and a determination that those who are ineligible for shelter can not continuously clog the system and divert scarce resources that should go to those truly in need.

These recommendations are sensible, responsible and compassionate. They would establish a system that our Administration would like to construct a new building around. And if they are enacted in their totality, it's our intent to do just that.

We're going to move forward on these reforms. That commitment, coupled with our Administration's more-than good faith efforts and demonstrable results to date, shows something important. In a democracy, public agencies should be managed by elected officials. The courts should get involved only when government fails to meet its basic obligations. That's just not the case here.

We're meeting and exceeding our mandate every day. It's time for the courts to recognize that, and return management authority to those who are elected to exercise it. We expect that as we demonstrate to the court-appointed panel our commitment to the reforms I have outlined, the panel will recommend to the court that the time has come to bring an end to the more than 20 years of active court oversight under which the City has labored.

Homelessness is an issue with a long history in New York - and many of you here this morning have been intimately involved in that history. Because of your efforts, New Yorkers have responded to the problem of homelessness with the compassion that makes this city great.

City government has created the most comprehensive, extensive, and expensive shelter system in the world. In the last decade alone, we have spent $4.6 billion on building and maintaining a network of emergency shelters, through which more than 416,000 homeless men, women, and children have passed.

In the process, many thousands of people have succeeded in getting their lives back on track. They have gained the basic - and profound - wellbeing and security that can only come from creating their own homes. During the current fiscal year, the Department of Homeless Services is on course to set a new record of moving 24,000 people out of shelters and into permanent homes.

We can all be proud of those achievements. Yet we must also be honest with ourselves. Our best efforts have not accomplished all that we would wish. And the evidence is all around us. This morning, some 38,000 people - including 16,000 children - woke up in City shelters. Several thousand more men and women met the dawn on the streets of our city because that is where they live.

Why, after two decades of such dedicated and relentless work, do we still confront such hard facts?

For the answers, we have to recognize the costs, and failings, of our own best intentions. Because in addressing homelessness, we've focused on crisis management rather than on identifying and pursuing long-range solutions. Our first - and, too often, only - response to any type of personal housing crisis has been providing shelter. The right to shelter, however, doesn't mean that shelter is right for everyone. People seek shelter for many reasons. They fear they may be evicted. Adult children may be in conflict with parents they live with. People face medical emergencies that seriously, but only temporarily, cut their income.

There are a variety of solutions to these problems; living in a homeless shelter isn't necessarily the best one. But when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. Because we've relied on shelter as our only homeless policy tool, our shelter population continues to grow. As a result, a system designed to provide an emergency safety net has instead become semi-permanent housing for far too many New Yorkers.

Today, the average family in the shelter system can count on being there about 11 months. In fact, our own policies needlessly encourage entry and prolong dependence on shelters. That has created a growing burden on our City budget. In the last five years alone, the annual budget for the Department of Homeless Services has almost doubled, from nearly $400 million to $700 million.

An over-reliance on providing shelter instead of preventing homelessness also has taken a powerful toll on the lives of the very people we have sought to help. Each year, tens of thousands of our city's children, who should be spending their most formative years in their own homes, are instead growing up homeless. It's been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely; but the same thing is true of being absolutely powerless. It breeds alienation and cynicism; it robs a person's potential for growth, change, and fulfillment. We can't afford to let that happen to another generation.

Acknowledging harsh truths is the first step in overcoming them. Over the last six months, working with the City, Bill Rudin, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, and many of you played major roles in developing this plan. I want to thank all of you for your insights and your hard work. Our city is fortunate indeed to have so many people, willing to contribute their time and their talent so generously to this effort.

Let's talk about the four principal goals of this plan:

First, by the end of 2009, we intend to dramatically reduce street homelessness in New York City. To do that, we will focus our efforts on identifying and helping the chronically homeless men and women on our streets. Over the years, enormous progress has been made in reducing their numbers. Today, however, there remains a core of several thousand such chronically street-homeless people. Typically, they have problems with substance abuse, mental illness, or a combination of the two. Some of them want and accept help. Others don't; they resist the structure and order that communal shelter life requires, such as staying sober or engaging in counseling and therapy. But we can't let such self-defeating behavior deter us. Street homelessness as a condition of urban life is intolerable, for both humanitarian and quality-of-life reasons.

We must honestly assess our practices and engage in new strategies that will connect us to those we are not now reaching. By using new data collection and management tools - and by improving the coordination and delivery of services - that's precisely what we're going to do. Our work will be research-driven. For the last two years, DHS has conducted an annual census of the city's street homeless population. That practice, which gives us important "who and where" information, will continue.

Let me say something about the importance of that. It demonstrates our Administration's commitment to hold ourselves accountable and govern based on the facts, even when that makes advocates and others uncomfortable. A centralized database on homeless individuals, containing, for example, information about hospitalizations and incarcerations, will be established and will have proper safeguards in place to protect confidentiality.

Other reforms will be instituted to make the shelter system more inviting and less forbidding for the street homeless. There will be a new focus on offering "low-threshold" housing where, as the stability of having a place to live takes hold, counseling or therapy can then follow.

We'll also increase supportive housing - a model that provides social services in on-site settings. We know that supportive housing works. Don't take my word for it - ask Steven Fernandez. Long bouts with mental and physical illness, involvement with drugs, and run-ins with the law left him homeless, and hopeless, until three years ago. That's when he found a home, and hope, in supportive housing at Times Square provided by Common Ground. He is now actively engaged in helping others do the same. He is with us today, and I'd like you to meet him.

Most of you know that our Administration is engaged in the biggest affordable housing program in our city in two decades. It's a $3 billion initiative to fund the construction and rehabilitation of 65,000 units of affordable housing by 2008. That plan included a significant increase in City funding for supportive housing - that is, permanent housing with social services on site. Along with our State and Federal partners, it should allow us to produce 5,000 units of supportive housing over the next five years.

But I want to do more. Today, I am challenging my commissioners to extend that commitment to at least 12,000 units. And in the spirit of accountability that is the hallmark of this Administration, we will work with our partners to fund half those units over the next five years. Doing that will take innovative new models that combine housing dollars with increased service funding. Twice before, we have done just that, under the historic "New York/New York" agreements. Now we must work with the State of New York to hammer out a "New York/New York 3" agreement.

We can do better for people. We know how to. I challenge you to help me achieve our goals.

Our second priority concerns the thousands of New Yorkers who have homes, but who are in jeopardy of losing them. For too long, our primary and probably sole response to these crises has been to offer them emergency shelter.

Today, we propose a new, more flexible, proactive, and, ultimately, cost-effective strategy centered on preventing homelessness before it occurs. We're already implementing one element of that strategy: The Department of Homeless Services has identified six neighborhoods where the threat of becoming homeless hangs over many families.

Beginning in the new fiscal year, DHS will launch the first phase of this effort in these six areas. They will work with grassroots organizations, with landlords, and with tenants associations to keep New Yorkers from losing their homes. This will involve, for example, greater reliance on mediation between landlords and tenants as an alternative to eviction.

This is Phase 1 of a broader community-based preventive effort that will be steadily extended as needed throughout the city.

Another key element of our homeless prevention strategy will focus on people in City and State custodial systems who are at risk of being homeless. They include prisoners discharged from City jails and State prisons, patients leaving public hospitals, young people "aging out" of foster care and people who are leaving homeless shelters.

Each of these groups is different - but people in each are highly at risk of becoming homeless. I've directed the commissioners of all the relevant agencies to work together to help these New Yorkers make quick transitions to permanent housing. This kind of work is already going on under the leadership of Correction and Probation Commissioner Marty Horn. With the help of many of you, he has begun initiatives to prevent homelessness among those being discharged from City jails.

I also want to stress that everyone being helped in these programs will also be expected to take as active a part as they can in the job of keeping or finding permanent homes. That's not an easy process. It can be frightening; it can require profound changes in personal behavior and habits. We will do what we can to lessen the anxieties involved. But there is also no greater personal satisfaction possible than taking charge of one's own life, and building a foundation of stability for one's self and one's own children. We're going to make sure that everyone who can, has an opportunity to experience those rewards.

Third, rapidly moving people who enter the shelter system into permanent housing will also become a major priority. This goal involves redefining the culture and practices of agencies in the homeless system. Accountability is key to achieving that paradigm shift. New performance standards will be set and enforced. And new client-monitoring tools will permit the staff in shelters to identify the people whose stays in shelter are lengthy, why that's the case, and help them determine if and how those stays can be shortened.

Last year, DHS instituted a system of standards, built around the expectation that clients in homeless shelters must, to the extent they are capable, engage in a process of becoming self-sufficient. The results have been empowering and fruitful.

Accountability also extends to public agencies and providers. Setting standards for helping people move to permanency has produced our Administration's success in moving record numbers of people out of shelters and into permanent homes. It has involved the work of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the City Housing Authority, the Human Resources Administration, and others. We will build on their achievements.

Fourth and finally, there will be a systematic reallocation of resources. Money and manpower now used to manage homelessness will instead be devoted to ending it. Currently, for every dollar spent by the city on prevention, three and a half dollars are spent on shelter. Over the next five years, that ratio will change. And in fact, we've begun this transformation. Our budget for the new fiscal year that begins next week, for example, includes $12 million for the first phase of DHS's community-based homeless prevention program.

But henceforth, this five-year plan to reduce homelessness will be funded by reinvestments made possible by a declining shelter population. Money now spent on the shelter system will instead go to rental assistance and preventive interventions. And the increased commitment to supportive housing that we've announced today will be both compassionate and cost-effective.

Those are the essential components of our strategy to end homelessness in New York. Some may consider it an unattainable goal. We do not. Not so long ago, many people thought that bringing crime in New York under control was pie in the sky. We've proved that wrong. For years, achieving education reform in New York was considered a political impossibility. We're demonstrating that it's not -- and we're going to put quality education within the reach of every youngster in our public schools.

There's an oft-quoted Robert Frost poem that says: "Home -- is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in." For too long, when New Yorkers in need "had to go" somewhere, the only place that would "take them in" was a shelter.

Tonight, when the day's work is done, I think we should all stop and think about that. Think how fortunate we are to be going home. And then wake up tomorrow ready to rededicate our efforts to satisfy that same basic human need for everyone in our city.

I will do everything in my power in this fight. And I need your help. Thank you.