Why de Blasio’s response to homelessness might “turn the tide”

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Since its release four months ago, there’s been a lively public discussion about whether New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to address homelessness will work. That’s good news: Informed debate will likely result in an even better plan as it develops and evolves.

But these important policy conversations can fall prey to naysayers protecting and promoting their own special interests and patented solutions. Anyone who has worked in the housing field as long as we have will likely share our wariness of those who claim to have all the answers, especially to a problem like homelessness, which has been consistently impervious to solutions. We believe the disregard of prior convention in de Blasio’s plan, just might, as it claims, “turn the tide” on homelessness. Here are three reasons why:

1. It’s a long-term plan: De Blasio is the first New York City mayor to recognize homelessness as something more than a temporary, emergency crisis. For more than 35 years, mayors – Democrats, Republicans and Independents – have floated short-term plans to address homelessness, a persistent structural problem symptomatic of tectonic shifts in federal housing policy and our global, national and local economies. Quick fix responses to long-term trends are sure to fail. De Blasio acknowledges the very simple fact that long-term solutions are needed: more affordable housing, new rental subsidies and new shelters, and the need to invest in the services provided in shelter. We can no longer wait for the federal government to solve our problems. Though at first glance it may appear inconsequential, this shift represents a critical distinction in the de Blasio’s administration’s approach that heralds its greater probability of success. Until you’ve actually identified the problem as something that’s likely to be with us for a while, and until you’re willing to recognize the need for politically unpalatable measures (e.g., the shelter in your neighborhood is likely permanent), then you’re just spewing rhetoric and spinning towards failure.

 2. The plan will foster innovations: De Blasio doesn’t claim to have all the answers to “turn the tide” on homelessness; however, he brings new urgency to the issue – and openness to innovation – insisting that change needs to happen now. Our organization, Gateway Housing, works with nonprofit providers on providing transitional shelter to homeless New Yorkers, and the administration has actively welcomed these providers into its planning conversations. Because the administration does not have a set idea of what will work, the city is inviting and inciting innovation – encouraging the development of a variety of shelter service models and an array of customized rental subsidies. In doing so we will learn from each other what works and what doesn’t. No one has the answer yet – beware any who claim that they do – but through the innovation that de Blasio and Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks are fostering, providers are empowered to come up with effective, replicable responses to homelessness that will eventually achieve powerful, permanent change. The mayor’s plan clearly accepts that we’re at our best when we collaborate and learn from varied attempts to address what are very complex problems.

3. The plan provides substantial, new resources: The mayor’s plan brings with it, at long last, a focus on what’s really important: adequate new resources to make a serious effort to “turn the tide” on homelessness. De Blasio has not only launched the largest municipal affordable housing production program ever, he came up with even more money after the fact to ensure that the new housing was affordable to households with the lowest of incomes – i.e. those most likely to become homeless. Moreover, the de Blasio administration has launched and funded the largest rent subsidy program in the nation, of a size and scale second only to the ever-shrinking federal Section 8 program. Furthermore, the city recently found $200 million more to improve services in shelters with licensed social workers and mental health professionals. One can certainly quibble, as some have, about whether the funds are sufficient, or should be spent to implement a particular type of service model, but that ignores the fact that the funds are flowing to programs that have been long been starved. Entrepreneurial nonprofits are already putting these new resources to work trying new service models and innovating on their prior methodologies. Finally, the mayor is making the first real capital commitment to build new, better shelters and renovate existing ones. Again, one can question what these shelters should look like, but by any measure, the commitment to build this requisite infrastructure is a significant investment in “turning the tide” on homelessness.

Some have thrown stones at the mayor for not following their service orthodoxies and hewing to their own deeply held convictions about homelessness, but we believe the de Blasio administration has set the stage for some very exciting, perhaps unforeseen, solutions to homelessness.

Ted Houghton and William Traylor served variously in the Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations and worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo in positions responsible for affordable housing and responses to homelessness. Houghton is the president of the nonprofit Gateway Development Assistance Corporation and Traylor is the chairman of its board of directors.