At a heated hearing of the City Council Committee on General Welfare on Tuesday, Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond withstood hours of questioning that at times grew hostile.
Council Member Ruben Wills of Queens even asked if a minute-long “cool down” break should be taken, after Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn and Diamond traded barbs. (They opted not to take a break.)
There was one thing both Diamond and the committee members agreed on: the number of people and families living in the city’s homeless shelters is distressing and only getting worse. But how to bring the down the number — 46,036 as of Sunday — is a conundrum without a clear solution.
At the hearing, Diamond said the city was doing all that it could to address the increased demand for shelter. The best way to address the growing number of people in the shelter system, he said, is to offer prevention services such as the Homebase program so that people don’t end up in shelters, and job training to help those already in shelters become gainfully employed. He added that 4,500 people gained employment this year through a partnership with the city’s Human Resources Administration. How many of those new job holders have moved out of the shelters was not addressed.
“We have to look at what is possible and that’s the strength of our employment structure,” said Diamond. “We have to invest in the resilience and the strength of the people in the system.”
The city is also opening five new shelters before the end of the year, bringing the total number of new shelters opened this year to 15.
Council Member Lander scoffed at the idea that job training is enough to reduce the shelter population.
“‘We’ll find people more jobs’ is a head-in-the-sand approach,” he said.
Lander, as well as others on the committee, stressed the need for rental assistance from the city and the state, but according to Diamond, the state has made it clear that no funding for rental subsidies is available.
In 2011, the Advantage rental subsidy program was cancelled by the city after the state decided it would no longer pay into it. Governor Andrew Cuomo cut the state’s $65 million annual contribution, which resulted in a loss of $27 million in matching federal funds. In Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s State of the City speech this year, she addressed finding another rental subsidy program.
“Working together we can create a brand new rental assistance program to help families cover rent in private buildings,” she said. “And we need to prioritize homeless New Yorkers for NYCHA apartments and Section 8 vouchers, so we can get even more families into long-term stable housing.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, members of the committee continued to ask why people in the shelter system couldn’t receive Section 8 vouchers or be bumped up on the NYCHA waiting list. Diamond said shelter residents “shouldn’t be prioritized.”
“All people in New York should be treated the same,” he said.
The hearing was a fact-finding mission, and some committee members present were not satisfied with what they heard.
Council Member Stephen Levin of Brooklyn called on Diamond to explain why no new proposals for funding had been brought before the state.
“What has the conversation with the state been since April 2011?” he asked. “It should be all of our goal that we approach the state with proposals. We’re in crisis mode. We’ve got to sell them on a program.”