Mayor de Blasio Blasted on Homelessness--But What About Veterans?

The New York Post has recently blasted Mayor de Blasio on his handling of the spike in homelessness in NYC, and on Monday de Blasio's top aide on health and human services stepped down--the highest ranking resignation in thus far in the de Blasio administration. The Post has also accused de Blasio of shortchanging programs aimed at bringing veteran homelessness to zero before the end of this year. What's really going on?

This week, Evan Siegfried blasted Mayor de Blasio on veteran homelessness in particular: 

In the 21 months since Bill de Blasio took office, New York City has seen its homelessness issue go from problem to full-blown crisis. Yet Mayor de Blasio, the self-appointed champion of the downtrodden, hasn’t shown himself to be up to the task.

And nowhere is this clearer than in his handling of the epidemic of homeless veterans. In his State of the City Address this past February, de Blasio promised to end homelessness among veterans in New York City by the end of this year. It was an ambitious promise. However, seven months later, little has been done to meet this goal.

De Blasio hasn’t held a single meeting with his own veterans-advisory board, and he’s refused to meet with local veterans groups.

These veterans groups, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, are uniquely qualified to assist our homeless veterans with housing, job training, mental-health assistance and many other vital services. They’re waiting for the call from the de Blasio administration, but have heard only silence.

While there are many fair criticisms of the Mayor, including the fact that he has yet to meet with any veterans groups based in NYC or his own Veterans Advisory Board--the statement that the administration has done "little" toward ending veteran homelessness by the end of this year simply is not an accurate one

As we pointed out in our Change is Essential report earlier this year--homelessness is at an all-time high under Mayor de Blasio, but efforts to place homeless veterans into housing in NYC have been tremendously successful due to tens of millions of dollars in federal funding under the Obama administration's plan to end veteran homelessness nationwide. 

We also hosted an in-depth conversation about NYC's efforts to end veteran homelessness as part of our Forum on NYC Veterans Policy. You can listen to that conversation using the Soundcloud player below:

It is important for local media and all New Yorkers to let City Hall know that we need effective, compassionate solutions to prevent homelessness and keep our fellow citizens off the streets--especially veterans who have served our country and may be homeless due in part to service-connected conditions. But we also need to stay abreast of the facts involved. We have many excellent people working in both the public and nonprofit sectors to help homeless populations--including veterans--and many of these dedicated workers are veterans themselves. As a city, we still have much work to do, but we are also taking proactive steps to end veteran homelessness that other places aren't.

This week, for example, the Mayor of Los Angeles announced that their city's goal to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year has been delayed by at least several months, due in part to L.A.'s reliance on the VA to provide adequate case worker staffing, as well as a lack of housing available in L.A. that fall within the price range of federal housing vouchers. 

In contrast, the City Council and City Hall approved an increase in city staffing specifically for working on veteran homelessness. There are two positions currently open for Community Coordinators for homeless veteran programs at the NYC Department of Homeless Services. We encourage any qualified veterans to learn more and apply by clicking HERE

We are concerned, however, that NYC faces a shortage of housing for homeless veterans that falls within the price range of federal housing vouchers. The current voucher rate for a single apartment in NYC is $1,138 - which is very, very hard to find. Will NYC experience the same delays in ending veteran homelessness as L.A. has? This remains to be seen. 

As we look forward to the de Blasio administration's goals for ending veteran homelessness in NYC by the end of this year, we offer the following facts and recommendations (from our report last June):

NYC Coalition on the Continuum of Care (CCoC) Veterans Task Force. In order to coordinate otherwise disparate funding and resourcing of veteran homelessness initiatives in NYC, the NYC Coalition on the Continuum of Care (CCoC) formed the Veterans Task Force to work toward improving coordination of all resources serving homeless veterans in NYC to end veteran homelessness before the end of 2015. The end date of the Veterans Task Force is stated as December 2015,[13] although current planning assumes the CCoC Veterans Task Force will continue indefinitely beyond the end of 2015. The Executive Committee of the Veterans Task Force includes NYC government officials, to include the Commissioner of MOVA, as well as heads of the major service provider agencies. There is currently no veterans community representative on the Executive Committee, although veterans are represented by one provider and MOVA.

Current Progress. The Mayor’s office announced in April that fewer than 1,000 homeless veterans remained in NYC shelters, a reduction of 40% from the number of homeless veterans reported last year, and that there are fewer than 20 street homeless veterans living on the streets and an additional 30 that are chronically homeless but sheltered.[14] Mayor de Blasio has stated that his administration will end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.[15]  The goal has been stated as “functional zero.”

Questions and Challenges. While advocates celebrate the vital resourcing and hard work that has resulted in many successes, they continue to point out gaps and areas for continued improvement, and question some of the data defining current successes. These questions and challenges include:

  • Complex Individual Cases. Robust, targeted federal programs have succeeded in moving a large number of homeless individuals into housing because they met eligibility requirements and had situations that aligned with the design of these programs. Now that these programs have had several years to succeed, many individuals in the system remain chronically homeless, in shelters, or in housing that is not yet permanent because their situations are not as straightforward in comparison. These individuals have more complex cases, in that they may not meet eligibility requirements, or they may have complicated medical and/or legal issues, and their cases require individualized attention and support over a longer span of time to eventually transition into permanent housing. Additionally, veterans who are ineligible for federal programs due to discharge status, legal issues, or behavioral health issues that create shelter concerns can be left trapped in three-quarter houses. Three-quarter houses in NYC have recently received attention for misuse of government funding and unsafe and unsanitary conditions.[16]
  • Limited Housing Available to HUD-VASH Recipients in NYC. The HUD-VASH program requires that apartments pass an inspection prior to a voucher recipient moving in,[17] to ensure the safety and security of individuals.  Unfortunately, there is a disparity between available “affordable” apartments and what the voucher pays for. Some landlords may also deny HUD-VASH recipients a lease due to bad credit ratings, mental health issues, or other concerns stemming from their past histories. As of the release of this report, rent increase regulations have expired,[18] which may further threaten the limited amount of affordable housing available within NYC for HUD-VASH recipients.
  • “Functional Zero.” The goal of the federal initiative to end veteran homelessness is to reach “functional zero,” which the CCoC Veterans Task Force has defined as 300 or fewer veterans in shelters, and zero street homeless in NYC. Maintaining “functional zero” into the future will require continued funding, even as federal funding will eventually recede. This is especially critical as the large macro efforts will have a diminishing effect on the veterans who need the greatest interventions.
  • Veterans Not Counted in Annual Point-in-Time Count. Advocates have pointed out errors that occur with annual point-in-time counts that attempt to survey the number of unsheltered individuals out in public on one night each January. Errors in particular occur in counting homeless families.[19]
  • Count of NYC Street Homeless. Advocates who work with unsheltered veterans have expressed surprise at hearing that NYC has identified fewer than 20 street homeless individuals within the five boroughs. Some have observed that in particular, younger veterans are avoiding identification as unsheltered even when they meet the criteria (see below). Other individuals who have served in the military and received discharges that were not honorable may not be aware that NYC agencies will track them as veterans and provide assistance.
  • Finding and Serving Younger Unsheltered Veterans. Many in the youngest generation are confronting systems of poverty for the first time and feel alienated by shelters that may expose them to drug use, recreate situations similar to those in which military sexual trauma occurs, or overwhelmingly aggravate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress. These veterans are adept at surviving in the short term with few resources and are not detected by routine homelessness counts. Despite being highly capable individuals, some of these veterans are extremely vulnerable, living on the edge of spiraling further into poverty and illness. Bringing these men and women into programs that adapt to their needs requires creative efforts and additional funding, but that cost pales in comparison to what will be needed if they become chronically homeless.
  • Conditions in Veteran-Only Shelters. Veterans have reported that living conditions in veteran-only shelters have been problematic and that female veterans in particular have been vulnerable to attacks. Homeless shelters are subject to frequent inspection, and many dedicated individuals work to create safe spaces that meet the basic needs of individuals who require shelter and assistance with transitioning toward permanent housing. Yet this system is not free of problems and more can and must be done to fully ensure safe and sanitary living conditions, and that the basic needs of sheltered individuals are being met.
  • Inadequate Family Housing. Advocates and homeless veterans have reported that adequate transitional housing for veterans with dependent children is not currently available. This disproportionately affects homeless women veterans, and the current statistic nationwide is that women veterans are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to be homeless.[20]
  • No Shelter Options for Service Animals. Some veterans may be prescribed the assistance of trained service animals, such as guide dogs, hearing dogs, or other service dogs trained in specific tasks related to a service-connected disability.[21] No shelter options in NYC are currently available, however, for veterans with service animals, even if prescribed by a VA health provider.
  • Quality Disparities Between SSVF Providers in NYC. Some veterans have reported that they have engaged various SSVF’s and been offered different monetary amounts based on unknown criteria. Veterans and advocates have also noted that quality disparities in the services provided by some of the NYC-area SSVF providers are not being addressed, and providers are not being held accountable for low-quality services or misstated numbers of those being served.

Recommendations. A large number of previously homeless veterans have successfully been placed into transitional and permanent housing with appropriate supportive services to help them achieve further progress. This is success worth celebrating. Yet there still remain complex and conflicting eligibility requirements that frustrate these individuals, as well as service providers within the system, and hinder many steps that would otherwise be recognized as forward progress. Too many veterans struggling with homelessness also do not make it into these systems to be counted and to receive help. We therefore make the following recommendations:

  1. The CCoC Task Force on Veteran Homelessness—or a city-led equivalent, if the CCoC is dissolved in the future—must serve well beyond the end of 2015 to coordinate the efforts of all organizations working in NYC to end veteran homelessness. The Task Force should also make recommendations for future city funding needed to sustain “functional zero” over the next decade. NYC government cannot allow the progress reached thus far to be undone by lack of attention, coordination, and funding beyond 2015.
  2. The CCoC Veterans Task Force should include at least one advocate from the NYC veterans community, beyond the providers and MOVA, on its Executive Committee to represent community viewpoints and engage with city officials and agency leadership on decisions and strategies.
  3. City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should continue regular case consultation meetings to ensure chronically homeless veterans are moved into shelters, and that each veteran within the system, even those with complex cases, receive the full individualized attention needed to create a unique pathway to permanent housing for each veteran. These case consultations must include veterans who are not eligible for federal programs.
  4. City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should continue to refine and streamline the system that moves veterans seamlessly from the streets to a shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing.
  5. City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should find ways to address the following: providing more options for family housing; resolving quality issues and disparities in services offered by SSVF providers; and ensuring safety and adequate conditions in NYC-DHS shelters.
  6. City government, advocates, and the Veterans Task Force should address ways to provide shelter options for veterans with prescribed service animals. A veteran should not have to choose between keeping a service animal or going into a shelter.