Stopping the Growth Trajectory in NYC Homeless

Steven Banks, NYC Commissioner of the Department of Social Services at the Oct. 19 briefing at the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (Photo by Julius Motal for CCEM)

Steven Banks, NYC commissioner of the Department of Social Services, at the Oct. 19 briefing at the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (Photo by Julius Motal for CCEM)

[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to incorporate additional reporting from another publication.]

Steven Banks, New York City commissioner of the Department of Social Services, responsible for both the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services, told community and ethnic reporters on Oct. 19 that “prevention” such as helping tenants in paying rental arrears, as well as actions such as providing legal assistance to tenants threatened with eviction, have helped to slow the trajectory in growth of New York City’s homeless population.

But he conceded that the city had yet to “bend the curve” and reduce the numbers of homeless.

Banks, who for three decades at the Legal Aid Society brought suit to force the city to house the homeless, said that the city’s approaches meant that the homeless population, at 59,763 as of Sept. 22, might otherwise have been 67,185. The largest growth in the homeless population occurred after the city in 2011 ended the “Advantage program” that offered subsidies to help families transition out of homelessness.

Banks said reform has been going on at the Department of Homeless Services for the past six months, and initiatives are “starting to bear fruit and have a positive impact.”

Legal services for the homeless, once available in a patchwork fashion from different agencies, have been consolidated. Funding for legal services to prevent evictions has increased from $6.4 in 2013 to $52 million this year, and marshal evictions are down 24 percent.

And, as Banks repeated during the briefing, which was held by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, prevention – that is, working to avert homelessness – is important. Today 53,000 renters now receive assistance in paying arrears, whereas the number used to be 42,000.  About 500,000 New Yorkers can fall into arrears during any given year when they are renters.

Errol Lewis, director of the Urban Reporting program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and host of NY1’s program “Inside City Hall,” moderated the briefing, and was joined in questioning Banks by Rong Xiaoqing of Sing Tao Daily and Edwin Martínez of El Diario/La Prensa.

When questioned by David Cruz of the Norwood News about the recent death of a baby four months old in a Bronx shelter, Banks said that his agency had launched a full investigation. Writes Cru:

The baby’s death is unclear, [and] Banks told a room full of reporters that “we should await an outcome from the Medical Examiner’s report.”

The body of Duane Pollard Jr. was found unconscious at the Van Cortlandt Motel, a notorious inn on Broadway near 256th Street in Riverdale. The boy was rushed to Montefiore Medical Center and died of his wounds.

The news adds another layer of trouble for the motel, pegged as a sleazy inn where rooms are rented by the hour. Homeless men were quietly moved into the motel rooms earlier this year. Residents caught wind of the news and demanded they be removed. The New York City Department of Homeless Services, which Banks oversees, replaced them with homeless families. Banks noted that “during the summer we see a seasonal increase in family homelessness,” which warranted the continued practice of housing the homeless at the motel, complying with a city standard in effect for the last 40 years. Banks admitted the motel stays are a “short run.”

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