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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Housing

The Homeless Pledge


When a single mother was given 10 days to come up with $3,000 or face eviction, she began to cry, pleading with the judge in Housing Court for more time to come up with the money. The judge replied he didn’t want to hear her “sob story.” And so, City Councilmember Annabel Palmarecalls, she and her son were forced from their apartment. “I was homeless,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

That was several years ago, but many New Yorkers still find it hard to believe how persistent the problem of homelessness is in the city. By many measures it is as bad as it has ever been.

Now, with record numbers of homeless people in city shelters and on the streets, the mayor has once again focused attention on the problem.

In June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told an audience of housing advocates from around the country that New York City is on track to reduce homelessnessby two-thirds by 2009, the year he leaves office. The mayor has brought in a new homeless services commissioner, Robert Hess, who is credited with reducing street homelessness by 60 percent in Philadelphia.

To help achieve their goal, the mayor and his commissioner say the city will

* Spend more money on homeless prevention programs

* Dismantle 73 encampments around the city where small groups of homeless people are living

* Concentrate on the approach known as “Housing First” – making homeless people’s need for housing the first priority, rather than secondary to such aggravating conditions as mental illness or drug abuse.

“We’re confident that we’ll continue to decrease the shelter population,” said Angela Allen from the Department of Homeless Services.

But will the plans be enough to result in a two-thirds decrease of the homeless population? Many advocates wonder if this is possible.

A PERSISTENT PROBLEM

More than 32,000 people every night – families with children, single adults, domestic violence victims – crowd the city’s shelters. On the streets, another 3,843, by the city’s count (advocates believe the number is higher), sleep on the streets, under bridges, on subways, in parks and abandoned buildings.

The city’s homeless policies have been the subject of several lawsuits by the Legal Aid Society. In 2003, City Hall and the homeless advocates called a truce of sorts, agreeing to a review by a panel of experts that would make recommendations on the city’s homeless policies. This past spring, the city filed papers asking the judge to dismiss all of the cases based on progress it has made reforming its homeless policies. The judge will decide on that request sometime next year.

Forced to deal with problems he inherited from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Bloomberg has developed policies that already have resulted in improved treatment of homeless people, some advocates say -- but they also say the solutions required are wide-reaching and long-term

Most people do not become homeless overnight, said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“For every homeless person there’s a different cause, but there are some common themes.”

Illness, Addiction, Poverty

Mental illnesses and drug addictions are common themes in the lives of many people who end up homeless. But the overriding theme is poverty.

“The one (problem) that isn’t mentioned enough is the poverty one,” said Sam Tsemberis, executive director of Pathways to Housing. “That’s really the disability that leads to the homelessness.”

And so, advocates say, the city’s policies to help homeless people will have limited success as long as the federal government cuts programs to help the poor and does little to build affordable housing.

“It’s good that they’re talking about ending homelessness and 10 year plans, but at the same time they’re creating more of it by cutting food stamps, Medicare, housing, et cetera,” said Stoops.

Real Estate Boom

In New York, the housing crunch has hit low income people particularly hard. Erin, a single mother, found a small studio apartment for $125 a week on the Lower East Side about10 years ago. But as the city’s real estate market boomed, the landlord raised the rent. She was forced to leave and could not find an apartment for her and her young son. She went to a shelter first. Then, she squatted in an abandoned building in the neighborhood.

“ I couldn’t find anything else,” said Erin, who asked that her last name not be used. “So, I went to the squats.”

Erosion Of Affordable Housing

Eric, homeless man in his thirties, was reclined on a bench as Erin told her story. Like other homeless people his options in New York City in 2006 are more limited than they were just 10 years ago. The stock of affordable housing is being eroded on many fronts.

For example, the number of abandoned buildings available for ingenious and resourceful squatters has dropped precipitously. The number of rooms in single-room occupancy hotels has also decreased, advocates said. Rent stabilized apartments are disappearing at an increasing rate and landlords are opting out of programs to keep housing affordable across the city as the terms of the agreements to do that expire.

Simply put, affordable housing is fast disappearing across New York City – and the 165,000 affordable apartments the mayor has been cheered for committing to are years away from reality.

The erosion of affordable housing is exacerbated by the high price of housing to begin with. For example, while a Social Security benefit check of $666 can pay for adequate housing in a city like Columbus, Ohio, in New York City it is just not enough.

Some do not think building affordable housing is the answer. In a New York Post commentary, Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute argues that rent regulations effectively prevent landlords from maintaining their buildings because they cannot charge enough money to do so. And rent regulation discourages developers from building more apartments, she wrote. Gelinas did not respond to a request for comment.

WHAT THE CITY IS DOING

Reforming Intake

After reviewing the city’s homeless policies, a report by a special master panel in 2004 made a variety of recommendations. The mayor has initiated efforts that stem directly from the recommendations.

In July, the city closed the Emergency Assistance Unit, its intake center for families, one of the panel’s key recommendations. Its demolition should begin soon. A “state of the art” intake center for families seeking shelter will take its place.

For now families seeking emergency shelter are evaluated for eligibility at the city’s PATH facility in the Bronx. But problems persist there, according to one worker there, who said staff attitude is a main obstacle. Indeed, the Legal Aid Society has sued the city for its treatment of people seeking help at intake centers in the past. They declined comment on the current climate due to pending litigation.

Prevention Efforts

Most of all, the city would like to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place – and the mayor told the national audience of advocates in June that he would more than double spending on prevention efforts with a new “Aftercare” program.

“Aftercare” would join the city’s “HomeBase” program, initiated in 2004 in the six neighborhoods that sent more people to homeless shelters proportionally than anywhere else in the city. HomeBase will be expanded under the mayor’s new plan. The “Aftercare” program will target people who leave shelters for support.

HomeBase has largely achieved what it has set out to do, the city said.

“Ninety-six percent of families they’ve seen have not gone into shelter,” said Angela Allen of homeless services. “We are seeing that prevention does work. If you can step in before that happens, you’re saving money.”

The six organizations that the city subcontracted with to open HomeBase centers provide all sorts of help to people facing the loss of housing – from one-time and ongoing help paying rent to mediation services to referrals to job training to buying bunkbeds.

A HomeBase worker who spoke to me only on the condition I not name him – he did not want to jeopardize his employment – told me he thinks the program has been effective in reducing the number of people going to city shelters, but that its scarce resources make it difficult to decide whom to target: People facing homelessness who make efforts to improve their situations or people who depend on the state to help them out and who may be particularly vulnerable.

“Who do you leave empty handed?” the worker said. “The minimum wage worker who’s trying, or the single mom with two kids who won’t even try?”

More significantly, he said, HomeBase has helped people in crisis situations, but in the long-run the people it is helping could just return for more. .

The Aftercare program will target about a third of the people who leave homeless shelters for follow-up services. The city expects to contract the services to ten organizations in the city, spending about $3,300 per client, compared to the annual shelter cost of $34,000.

Getting Homeless People Off The Streets

In June’s address the mayor also announced plans to get homeless people out of 73 encampments around the city and into housing of some type. The city would not release a list of the sites where it says small groups of homeless men and women are living.

Homeless encampments are hardly a new symptom of housing problems in the city. In the late 1980s, people evicted from neighborhoods like Chelsea and the West Village set up camp in Thompkins Square Park in the East Village. Hundreds of people were living there and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used the police to tear them down, sparking riots.

The encampments today are nowhere near that size. But advocates said clearing out the encampments is still a short-sighted plan to handle the homelessness problem.

“Mayor Bloomberg is supportive of building permanent housing and we are too, but at the same time he wants to tear down the homeless encampments,” Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless said. “He should not tear down the tent boxes until there’s a place for people to go.”

For several days this summer, Chris, a young man from Detroit, slept with friends in an abandoned factory building near the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. He said about 30 people used the place.

On a visit to this so-called Bat Cave on a recent evening, there were signs people were living there but none of the people themselves. It is a cavernous building up against the Gowanus Canal. Parking lots and factory buildings surround the old building, which has lost most of its windows and some of its roof. Although it is fenced in on all sides, I could jump from a bridge crossing the canal onto a small ledge running along the canal. A well-worn footpath led to some stepladders allowing access to the area behind the building. The back of the building was wide open.

The “Bat Cave” does not have electricity or running water and it’s probably infested with vermin. The holes in its façade and roof probably make it uncomfortable when rain falls or cold winds blow, not to mention dangerously unstable. But for all its problems, it has an advantage over the apartments going up in this gentrifying area of the city: It’s quite affordable.

Housing First

In his June address, the mayor also spoke about adopting a “housing first” strategy to helping people who are chronically homeless.

In New York and elsewhere, the typical approach to helping the homeless has been to use housing as a reward for good behavior. Even at city shelters, misbehavior can get a person kicked out. Under this approach, called “continuum of care,” a homeless person must show some progress in other areas – getting treatment for substance abuse or taking medications for mental illness, for example – before he or she can move into transitional housing of some type.

But the mayor is joining a growing number of homeless advocates who argue for a housing first approach, which was pioneered by Pathways to Housing in 1992.

“Housing is a basic human need, it’s what everybody needs to get their lives organized,” Sam Tsemberis, who helped initiate the approach, explained. “How can anyone get their life organized without housing?”

Research has shown that the housing first approach works: One study reportedthat 87 percent of homeless people in a “housing first” program were still in their homes a year later compared to just 23 percent of “continuum of care” homeless clients.

“All we’re demonstrating is that you can end homelessness for even the most difficult to serve people,” Tsemberis said. “They’re incredibly creative and resilient, able to survive on the streets. What that tells us is that they clearly have the skills to manage on their own.”

In East Harlem, Keith McGee is the team leader at a Pathways to Housing office. At the organization’s modest office, a team of workers combines their respective expert knowledge to help people who have been chronically homeless, often for years.

“We meet with the client at least six times per month,” he said. “We have someone on staff to deal with just about every issue they could have.”

A registered nurse dispenses medications for mental illness and treats other health issues, a psychiatrist provides therapy, a job specialist provides counsel on writing resumes and doing well in job interviews and a social worker offers support, too. The team meets every day to go over the cases staff is handling.

Above all, though, a housing department leases apartments and then subleases the apartment to the client.

A schizophrenic man who appeared to be in his 50s said the Pathways approach had saved him. (He didn’t want to give his name out of embarrassment for having been homeless.)

“It was bad” living on the street, he said. “I didn’t get enough rest and I didn’t get enough food. For two or three days I wasn’t eating…. I was trying suicide in different ways. I acted different and I didn’t have anybody to be there for me.”

Now, he has been in an apartment for eight years.

“I’m used to it now,” he said. “I like having my own food to cook. I have my own space. I have my own TV, I watch what I want. I have a warm place in winter time, I have a cool place in summer time.

“In the future, I want to go back to work, to have a better life,” he continued. “I’m feeling right now that what I have is the normal thing. I’m not homeless now.”

“More people are using this approach now… because it works,” said Diane Lanier, a psychiatrist at Pathways. “It’s very hard when you don’t have housing to take care of yourself – to take medications, to find a job. To ask someone to do all this stuff when they don’t have housing – it doesn’t make sense.”

She cautioned against getting people’s hopes up, though.

“You need a lot of time to work with people” who have been homeless, she said.

And the funding for housing first approaches is very, very low, said Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“The problem with the housing first model, it’s a pilot project and there’s very few slots being given out around the country,” Stoops said. “The funding is not there on a massive scale.”

A SUBSIDY AND MORE AFFORDABLE HOUSING

If the city really wants to help resolve homelessness, it should attack the root causes – the cost of housing, advocates said. To that end, the city introduced a housing subsidy in 2004 and in his re-election campaign in 2005, Bloomberg promised to build or preserve 165,000 new units of affordable housing over 10 years, the largest affordable housing program in the country.

But the subsidy program is a “mess” and City Council has sought to change it. Advocates have pointed to two critical flaws in the subsidy: 1.There is a 20 percent decline in the subsidy each year until it runs out. 2. It is being paid to rent apartments with serious violations of the Housing Maintenance Code.

HSP “is insane,” the HomeBase worker said. “These people have open public assistance cases meaning they can’t work. Where are they supposed to get that money?”

A spokesperson for homeless services said the department was “working on” the step-down problem. “We recognize that something needs to be done,” said Angela Allen.

“We’re still negotiating (with the state) to get that work supplement.”

But despite the problem Allen said that since the subsidy pointed was introduced two years ago. the city has used it to move 7,500 families out of shelters and into permanent housing. But only about 5,000 were placed in such housing in fiscal year 2005 – far short of the 7,400 the city had set as a goal.

The affordable housing the city is committed to is years away. Meanwhile, the loss of rent stabilized apartments and other affordable housing, like Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 projects, shows no signs of abating.

Achieving the mayor’s goal of a two-thirds reduction by the time his second term ends is ambitious. Advocates are skeptical, citing cuts to federal programs that help the poor, the erosion of the stock of affordable housing and city responses that are simply not enough. Meanwhile, however, record numbers of New Yorkers face uncertainty, difficulty and often misery in shelters and on the streets.  

Nursing Homes And Alternatives


Shirley Zaiman

Until her stroke in the fall of 2001, Shirley Zaiman had lived in the same apartment for 40 years. Neighbors, friends, and even the local congressman knew her as a "dynamo", but suddenly she was unable to communicate or even eat on her own. So when Zaiman was discharged from the hospital, she didn't return to 303 West 66th Street. She moved into the Jewish Home and Hospital, a nursing home.

Doctors cautioned that Zaiman might never be able to leave, even as they started physical and speech therapy. But the idea of spending the rest of her life at the facility was unacceptable to Zaiman, her friends, or her family. She insisted on moving back to the moderate-income co-op on 66th Street.

Luckily for Zaiman, her building has an extensive social service program whose explicit goal is to allow elderly residents to get the help they need to continue to live at home. The program, which had started a decade earlier as little more than a cat-sitting service, had been her own idea.

Lincoln House Outreach, as the program is known, allowed Zaiman to live out her life at her home. She passed away January 1.

The elderly have more options about how to spend the later years of their lives than ever before. In the past, many people with significant needs would have had to rely on hospital-like nursing homes; now many have the option of moving into more residential assisted living facilities. In other cases, seniors are staying at home with the help of programs like Lincoln House Outreach.

Pressure from advocates has combined with the high costs of paying for expensive nursing home care to force governments to consider changing how they provide services to the elderly. As the number of seniors grows, the number of nursing home residents is actually dropping.

Governor George Pataki has appointed a commission to "right size" the industry in New York State, which has the largest nursing home population in the country. This means two things: shutting down nursing homes, and expanding support for alternative forms of supportive services for the elderly. Some advocates worry that the interest in saving money will mean closures, but insufficient support for alternatives.

Addressing the needs of New York City's aging population will be a major challenge for policymakers. At 1.3 million, the senior population of New York City is already larger than the total population of all but a handful of American cities, the city's fastest growing age group is those over 85 years old, and the first of the baby boomers are turning 60 this year.

OPTIONS FOR CARING FOR THE ELDERLY

When they need health care or social services, elderly people have various options, depending on how much attention they need.

Nursing Homes: Nursing homes offer a level of medical attention that is just below that of a hospital. While they do not, for instance, provide surgery, nursing homes are arranged to give intensive, around the clock medical care. Residents generally stay in single rooms that resemble hospital rooms arranged along hallways similar to hospital wards.

Because they are so much like hospitals, nursing homes are generally not seen as attractive places to spend long periods of time. Healthier people are avoiding them as developing alternatives allow, and those who stay in nursing homes are sicker than those in the past. In 1977, 30 percent of nursing homes residents could dress themselves; by 1999 only 13 percent could.

Increasingly, people are relying on nursing homes for short-term acute care after hospitalizations, as opposed to living in them for years. The average length of stay is about half what it was in 1996. Even nursing homes themselves agree that they shouldn't treat people who could live more independent lives.

"Nursing homes are much more centered on rehabilitating people and getting them back into the community," said Scott Amrhein of the Continuing Care Leadership Coalition, a trade group whose members include nursing homes.

Assisted Living Facilities: A step below nursing homes in terms of intensity of care are assisted living facilities, residential developments where some services such as meals and medical care are offered, but 24-hour care is unavailable. These are designed to seem more like apartment complexes than hospitals. New York recently began regulating assisted living facilities in an attempt to give them the quality control and legitimacy they need to serve as alternatives to nursing homes.

A big problem with assisted living facilities, say advocates, is that they are out of the reach of many seniors. Medicaid dollars generally cannot be used to pay for assisted living care, and many people of low and moderate income cannot afford them otherwise. Affordable assisted living, said Amrhein, is a "big gaping hole in the market."

Aging in Place: Most care for the elderly, though, continues to be provided informally by friends or family members. According to the state, 70 percent of American seniors rely completely on such "informal" help. Since there will be only six potential caregivers for every senior by 2030, it adds, there is a serious need for alternatives.

New York City has the largest local department of aging in the country and "there really has been a huge investment" from the government to fund community centers and other services allowing seniors to maintain a level of independence, said Bobbie Sackman of the Council on Senior Center and Services of NYC.

New York City is an ideal laboratory for plans that allow seniors to "age in place", experts say, because the high population density makes it easier to provide services.



Evelyn Rich and Mavis Otway, two of the volunteers who help run Lincoln
House Outreach.

New York City was home to the first so-called Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. These are communities – sometimes apartment complexes or neighborhoods, sometimes public housing, sometimes single buildings – with a certain density of elderly people, where social services are created to serve people where they already live.

Both New York City and New York State offer grants for such programs, and the city is now the location of 28 of the 80 such publicly funded programs nationwide, including the nation's largest, located in Co-op City. There are 350,000 seniors in New York City who live in areas that qualify for either city or state grants for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. Of those, 49,000 live in places that actually receive such grants, according to the United Hospital Fund.

New York is considered a leader in the movement, with advocates hailing both the city and the state's commitment. Earlier this month, Senator Hilary Clinton urged the federal government to look to New York as a model for forming its own such program.

DOES NEW YORK RELY TOO MUCH ON NURSING HOMES?

Only a tiny fraction of seniors live in nursing homes. Still, New York State's rate of 4.6 percent is higher than the nationwide average of 4.0 percent, and more than double the rates in states that have aggressively reorganized the way they care for the elderly. Advocates for seniors regularly cite the reduced use of nursing homes as a goal. This desire has been reinforced by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1999 that unnecessarily institutionalizing someone is discriminatory according to the Americans with Disabities Act.

Today, a good indicator of how well a state is serving its elderly population is to look at proportion of people in nursing homes, says Don Redfoot, a policy analyst for the American Association of Retired Persons. The lower the better, he says.

"The state itself suffers too, by virtue of putting all of its eggs in the most expensive basket," said Redfoot.

Because nursing homes provide such intensive care, they are an expensive way to provide services. New York's Medicaid system pays $11 billion annually for nursing home care, and the amount it spends continues to rise. If someone can be treated somewhere else, many argue, it makes financial sense to do so.

But if nursing homes are undesirable and expensive, why does New York rely on them?

One reason is that Medicaid and Medicare were established with nursing homes – not home care or assisted living facilities – in mind. Medicaid dollars can be easily used for nursing home care, but not assisted living facilities. Using the public insurance system for home care requires states to apply for special waivers from the federal government. While some states have made widespread use of such waivers to give Medicaid recipients access to a wider range of services, New York has lagged behind.

Because poorer people tend to be bound by the restrictions of Medicaid while richer people are not, who ends up in a nursing home is also a class issue. In New York City, 20 percent of seniors live in poverty – twice the national average. A greater percentage of New York's nursing home residents are on Medicaid than in almost any other state.

The high cost of living in New York City puts additional pressure on those of modest means, making nursing homes a financial necessity for those without other options, argues Amy Paul of Friends of the Institutionalized Aged, a local advocacy group.

"It's really hard to pay for expensive medical care and maintain your apartment in this area," she said.

Among the enthusiasm to keep people out of nursing homes, Paul and others, including representatives of the nursing home industry, stress that while alternatives may be more attractive in the best of circumstances, nursing homes do serve an important role when serious problems do occur.

"If it's possible for someone to live in the home, I think everyone would embrace that concept," said Dan Curran of the New York Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, a trade group whose members include nursing homes. "But you have to have the systems in place to help people when all does not go according to plan."

RETHINKING THE SYSTEM

The financial pressure that nursing homes (and hospitals) are putting on the state are what led Governor Pataki to create the Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century, whose goal is to determine how best to reshape the state's nursing home and hospital industries.

Governor Pataki has given the commission a lot of power to close facilities. Gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer, however, said last week that he didn't think he should be bound by its recommendations if elected governor. State Senator David Paterson, Spitzer's running mate for lieutenant governor, has introduced a bill to weaken the commission's influence.

Still, the commission believes that 14 percent of residents in nursing homes could be better served elsewhere, and that New York has 7,000 too many nursing home beds. Occupancy rates are falling off, it argues, and more than half of New York's nursing homes lose money. The commission will likely recommend closing some nursing homes.

In New York City the area most likely to face closures is the Bronx, which the commission believes has too many nursing home beds, said David Sandman, the commission's executive director.

Critics of the commission do not argue that reducing the focus on nursing homes is improper. Instead, they stress the need to combine such a shift in focus with the bolstering of alternatives. This could be particularly crucial in New York City, where the commission has identified Manhattan and Brooklyn as areas with "significant need" for alternatives to nursing home care, where fewer than half of those who could benefit from non-institutional care are able to find it.

There are alternatives to nursing homes in some cases, say advocates, but simply deciding to use nursing homes less doesn't necessarily mean that those in need will find their ways to alternatives more often.

"We haven't seen that dotting i's and crossing t's in terms of support services," said Paul. "We have to make sure that those services are in place before we starting closing the brick and mortar investment that we've put into protecting the elderly."

 

Ex-Prisoners and Jobs


Marc La Cloche spent his time in prison training to be a barber, ready to apply his newfound skills upon his release in 2000. But the Bronx native found himself facing a surreal situation when he applied for a barber’s license: Because of his felony conviction, his application was denied. Owing to state law, La Cloche could only practice his trade -- taught him by the state’s Department of Corrections -- if he remained behind bars.

An administrative law judge made an exception to the law and granted him a barber’s license, but New York State appealed the decision, and the license was revoked. La Cloche died last November, never having obtained his license.

In New York as in other states, many jobs in today’s workforce -- from physical therapists and real estate brokers to plumbers and sanitation workers -- are closed to anyone with a prison record. Even employers willing to hire an ex-offender (perhaps with the benefit of a federal tax credit) are often prohibited from doing so under state law.

Critics see these restrictions as both counterproductive and extremely costly: More than 50 percent of inmates return to prison within three years of their release. If an ex-inmate were allowed, for example, to be among the 12,840 plumbers in New York City, whose median wage is almost $24 an hour, it might keep him from returning to prison, and save the state the $20,000 a year it costs to re-incarcerate him.

Few people would argue that all ex-offenders should be allowed into all occupations, regardless of their offense. There are some occupations involving children, for example, or crimes involving violence, that make certain restrictions the obviously prudent course of action.

But there is widespread objection to the automatic nature of the employment bans. “Anything that’s ‘blanket’ is a mistake,” said Mindy Tarlow, head of the Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps place ex-offenders back in the workforce. “It should be done on a case-by-case basis and I think that these laws prohibit that from happening.”

Nationally, the American Bar Association has called for an easing of restrictions on occupational licenses for those with criminal convictions. Locally, the New York City Council passed a resolution in November 2004 calling for the state legislature to end automatic employment bans for ex-offenders in many cases. Even in the state legislature itself, State Senator Dale Volker, a conservative Upstate Republican known for strongly supporting tough incarceration measures, has introduced legislation (S.7730) to revise the law so that unrelated convictions cannot be used to deny an occupational license or employment.

Despite these efforts, restrictions for ex-offenders actually have increased since September 11, 2001 and now include, for example, jobs involving the transport of hazardous wastes.

“The same legislators who vote for funding for reentry training programs support bills that...bar the formerly incarcerated from all sorts of employment,” says Glenn Martin of the National H.I.R.E. Network.

A Skewed Hiring Picture

New York State Correction Law has been revised over the years to offer some protection to ex-offenders; in some circumstances employers are prohibited from denying employment to someone simply because of a criminal record unless there is a "direct relationship" between the crime and the prospective job.

But employment bans still extend across some entire industries. Because the financial industry, for example, has certain restrictions against hiring convicted felons, those restrictions also apply to a vendor staffing a food service operation within a financial institution.

These restrictions only exacerbate the poor employment picture of ex-offenders by further tilting an already skewed playing field marred by racial inequality.

Recently, an experiment was conducted where black men and white men –- with equivalent resumes of education and experience -- posed as applicants for entry-level jobs. The white men admitted to having a criminal record; the blacks had no record. The result: White men with criminal records had a better chance of getting a job offer or a callback after an initial interview than did black men without records. And black men with criminal records were only about one-third as likely to get a job offer as were white men with criminal records.

Consider the implications of this when one in three black men with only a high school diploma will go to prison before the age of 40. Two out of five of New York City's black men are jobless, according to a Community Service Society report. A key factor in this low rate of employment among black men is the high percentage of those with felony convictions. Of New York State’s nearly 57,000 formerly incarcerated citizens out on parole, about 80 percent are black and Latino men from New York City.

Chance For Change?

The New York City Council last year created NYCWorks, appropriating $10 million to fund training programs for chronically jobless New Yorkers, targeting the structurally unemployed, out-of-school youth, and the formerly incarcerated. This initiative, which is now supporting programs offered by 31 organizations across the city, received a boost when the Council allocated another $18 million for it in this year’s budget.

Still to be seen is how Albany may change its statutory stance. Attorney General (and now Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Elliot Spitzer is no newcomer to the problem -- several years ago he worked with a coalition of community advocates on former Mayor Ed Koch’s “Second Chance” program for ex-offenders. “Spitzer is knowledgeable on this issue and as recently as last month he was in discussions with various coalitions of policymakers and advocates on the issues,” said Roberta Meyers-Peeples, co-director of National H.I.R.E. Network. “But his campaign has yet to come out with a position statement.”

Experts continue to believe that an investment in programs that help parolees attain economic self-sufficiency would yield a greater return both for the local economy and for public safety. “It’s a win-win situation when ex-offenders get jobs and have opportunities to become constructive, tax-paying members of society,” said Gabriel Torres-Rivera, a former prisoner himself who is now a colleague of mine. “But when those opportunities are continually denied, we all lose.”

David R. Jones is president of the Community Service Society of New York. 

Prisoners And The Right To Vote


New Yorkers in prison do not have the right to vote. That is the ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in a class action lawsuit brought by inmates and former inmates. Only the United States Supreme Court can reverse the decision by this federal court, and it is considered unlikely to do so.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Hayden v. Pataki, claimed that the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and its amendments applied to them and those they represented, who sought access to the ballot. In recognition of the fundamental importance of suffrage in a democracy, the Voting Rights Act forbids "denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color... ." The plaintiffs in this case argued that the high rate of imprisonment for African-Americans and Latinos led to an inference of racial discrimination.

Felony Disenfranchisement

The issue of what is called felony disenfranchisement is a long and contentious one. (See Felons and the Right to Vote.) It was a phrase heard around the world during the election debacle of 2000, when a state law in Florida that terminated suffrage for convicted citizens was erroneously applied to some Floridians who did not in fact have a criminal record.

In a far from unanimous decision in the New York case, the judges of the Circuit Court, which is one level below the Supreme Court, were divided, with eight in the majority and powerful dissents filed by five others. Judge Jose A. Cabranes writing for the majority concluded that the federal Voting Rights Act, generally considered one of the most outstanding accomplishments of the American civil rights movement, was not intended to eliminate felon disenfranchisement, and that it could not be used to infringe upon the states' discretion to deprive felons of the right to vote. The court concluded that New York Election Law, which specifies that "no person convicted of a felony 'shall have the right to register for or vote at any election' unless he has been pardoned, his maximum sentence of imprisonment has expired, or he has been discharged from parole" does not violate the Voting Rights Act and that the denial is not based on race. The court rejected the claim of disenfranchisement on account of race or color despite the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos in custody or on parole.

The concept of felon disenfranchisement is sometimes called civil death, in which anyone convicted of a serious crime loses the right to participate not only in elections, but in society in general. Thus they are removed from society by incarceration, and rights afforded others are terminated, including voting, holding public office, and obtaining certain licenses.

Dissent

Judge Barrington D. Parker's dissent focused on the vastly different rates of incarceration for African-Americans and Latinos contrasted with the white population, which he said resulted from discrimination in New York's criminal justice system, which in turn leads to discriminatory disenfranchisement. He noted that according to the complaint, African-Americans and Latinos make up 86 percent of the total current New York prison population and 82 percent of parolees, even though they comprise only 31 percent of the state's overall population. While Judge Parker conceded that the 14th amendment did allow for felon disenfranchisement but he suggested it could still be unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Upstate Incarceration

The court did return one issue to the lower federal court for resolution. That is the issue of urban (usually New York City) prisoners being incarcerated upstate or being counted for census, apportionment, representation, and revenue purposes, as residents of that area, thereby bringing funds and increased representation to northern counties, while diluting their impact in their home regions. In fact, about two thirds of New York State inmates come from New York City, and of that at least 90 percent are incarcerated upstate. The question for the District Court is whether the effect of these New Yorkers’ disenfranchisement dilutes the voting impact and representation for non-felons in their communities. . (See Imprisoned in New York.)

One way or another, both issues will surely reach the Supreme Court of the United States.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 

Can Fathering Be Taught?


Samuel Maldonado with his wife Margarita and three of his ten children - Melvin, 8, Celine, 7, and Alyssa, 3.

A little over a year ago, 32-year-old Samuel Maldonado was sitting in a jail cell. Today, he sits on the bed of his apartment in Crown Heights, stroking the hair of his three-year-old daughter Alyssa and proudly pointing to the nine framed certificates for completing various life-skills classes at the Fortune Society, an organization that works with ex-offenders.

There is a certificate for a course in anger management, for a nutrition class, and one showing that he works as a peer counselor for the organization. But Maldonado is especially proud of a certificate for a course in fathering.

“There is a difference between telling your children what do to – saying, `do this now!’ – and asking them to do something,” says Maldonado, who was estranged from his own father and for a time was on a course to repeat the pattern with his kids. “Children respond to respect.”

When he talks about parenting, Maldonado speaks not just from what he learned in the class, but also from years of experience.

Maldonado is the father of ten children, ages 17 to 3. Six are his biological offspring from four different mothers, and four are his stepchildren. Of the ten children, four live with Maldonado and his wife Margarita, but all of them cycle through the house from time to time.

“These certificates are reminders that things could be worse,” he says. “They are reminders of why I need to be here [with my children].”

For decades, low-income men who have little or no connection with their children have been seen as one of the daunting problems of poverty that policymakers have been unable to address.

But today, government is increasingly looking to the same men as part of the solution to society's most difficult problems.

In 2003, following the lead of other cities across the nation, New York City launched its “fatherhood initiative,” programs to encourage poor men to be more actively involved in the lives of their children.

But can government really teach men how to be better fathers?

WHY FOCUS ON FATHERS?

There are 175,000 single-mother households with children living below the federal poverty level in New York City - or about 30 percent of all families, according to the Community Service Society.

These children are the ones that would ideally benefit if their fathers provided more financial - as well as emotional - support. And they are a segment of society that policy makers are struggling to help.

Across the nation, fatherless children are five times more likely to be poor and ten times more likely to be extremely poor, according to the National Commission on Children. Their risks are also greater for dropping out of school, and for alcohol and drug use, adolescent pregnancy and child bearing, juvenile delinquency, mental illness, and suicide.

Over the last half century, all levels of government have responded to these statistics with a series of programs aimed at helping single mothers and their children - food stamps, after-school programs, earned income tax credits, and welfare to work programs - but has largely ignored fathers.

“[The government] has invested $50 billion in efforts for poor women,” says Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University and editor of the book “Black Males Left Behind.” “There has been little done for men.”

But by the early 1990s, researchers and lawmakers began pointing to some of the critical issues associated with children who grow up without their fathers – and looking for ways to get men to reconnect with their families.

Following this trend, New York City currently allocates $3 million in federal Community Service Block Grants to 12 community organizations working with local dads. The goals of the program are modest: help 1,400 men living in the city’s low-income neighborhoods establish some kind of relationship with their children, and move the fathers toward providing some kind of financial assistance for their families.

Each social service organization that receives a grant already has a track record in the neighborhood and has some freedom in how it reaches these goals. Depending on the agency, men have access to a range of services, including assistance with family court and custody issues, job training, supervised visitations, and even “Me and Dad” field trips to the aquarium and the Queens Hall of Science.

“More broadly, we hope for an improvement in the child’s life,” says Cindy Colter, assistant commissioner for the Department of Youth and Community Development, the agency that administers the programs. “And of course, we hope that it improves the lives of the men as well.”

While fatherhood programs are new and receive a relatively small amount of government funding, they represent a growing movement.

In 2001, President George W. Bush named Wade Horn of the National Fatherhood Initiative to a high ranking position in the Health and Human Services agency to help create such programs. And when Congress reauthorized welfare reform legislation in February 2006, they earmarked an additional $50 million a year for fatherhood initiatives across the nation over the next five years.

“Hopefully, we are now are coming to a place of more concern for men, and we are including them in the solutions to address poverty,” says Mincy.

TEACHING PARENTING SKILLS

On a Monday evening in Brooklyn, five men sit at school desks in the upstairs room of a building on Wyckoff Avenue discussing what it means to be a dad in New York City in the 21st century. The group is known as the “Papas de Bushwick.”

“Now, as fathers you can do 99 good things, and then there is the one time when you lose it,” says Julio Diaz, who leads the discussion group. “What do you think your kids will remember?”

“The one time you lose it,” answers one man, shaking his head. “That’s all they remember.”

“Now what if we were able to hold back for just a few moments between that time when you feel an emotion and you act?” asks Diaz, pointing to chart entitled “Cycles of Reaction.” “How would that help us to stay out of trouble?”

For the men, it is not a rhetorical question.

Most attend the class because a family court judge has either required or strongly recommended that they do so. For 13 weeks, the men work through a support group curriculum of weekly sessions with titles like “The Roots of Fathering,” “The World of Feelings,” and “Healing the Father Wound.”

“By the third week of the class, for most men, it is no longer about the courts, but about their children,” says Franc Villalobos, who runs Papas de Bushwick, a program of the non-profit group Coalition of Hispanic Family Services and the Medical and Health Research Association of New York.

The men who have graduated from the program say they have learned tangible lessons: financial support is only a part of being a dad; discipline and punishment are not the same thing; and it only hurts the children to say negative things about their mother.

“Most men need a little coaching when it comes to parenting skills,” says Anthony Alexander, one of the veterans of the group.

The facilitators admit they face a great challenge.

“What we are really talking about is re-socializing men,” says Villalobos.

OBSTACLES FATHERS FACE

Men find that connecting with their children after a separation or divorce is not as simple as just wanting to be involved. They face a series of legal and financial barriers to being responsible dads – and poor fathers who are the focus of the fatherhood initiatives are particularly hard hit, because they often do not have the education or cannot afford the legal expertise needed to overcome them. In addition to teaching parenting skills, fatherhood initiatives also try to help address these problems for their clients.

Custody Issues

New York is one of only 13 states in the nation that does not have a joint custody statute. In New York State family courts, judges traditionally begin with the presumption that the primary caregiver - the person most directly responsible for the day-to-day care of the child - should be awarded custody, not that both parents should have an equal role in parenting. That is most often the mother.

The standard custody arrangement for many men is two weekend visitations a month.

“You have good fathers and bad fathers, and you have good mothers and bad mothers,” says Anthony Alexander, who endured years of legal battles to win custody of his children. “They should be judged equally.”

(Read an article about divorce and custody issues in New York).

Child Support

In New York, if a man named in a child support case denies being the father, he may have to go to court and take a DNA test. If it shows he’s the father, he will be ordered to pay the child support until the child is 21 years of age.

The amount of child support is based on the non-custodial parent's income and how many children are involved. (See a detailed chart of child support obligations by income level). And while child support is often a financial lifeline for single mothers and their children, it can leave many men feeling overwhelmed with debt, and even deter some from working because a significant portion of their pay can be seized.

Fathers are responsible for child support while they are in school, are unemployed, doing time in prison, or even if the mother marries someone else. As a penalty for owing child support, the government can suspend a driver’s license, refuse to grant a passport, or even sentence a man to jail for up to six months.

“The system beats us down,” says David Cortez, a father in the Papas de Bushwick program. “It sees us as a cash cow.”

(Read an article about child support issues in New York).

Employment

Over the last two decades as the national and local economy have grown, almost every demographic group – even low-skilled women with children – have seen some improvements in employment rates. One notable exception is young African-American men.

A recent New York Times article highlighted the plight of African-American men in America:
- 65 percent of black males in their 20s who drop out of high school are jobless
- 50 percent of black males in their 20s who graduate from high school are unemployed
- And 60 percent of black males in their 30s who did not finish high school have spent time in prison.

Some experts draw strong connections between low employment rates and the 70 percent fatherlessness rate in the African American community.

"One of the reasons why black males have higher incarceration rates than other populations is because they are more likely to grow up without their fathers," says Mincy.

(Read an article about employment and job training in New York).

QUESTIONING THE MOVEMENT

While there is growing support for the idea of government programs encouraging fathers to be financially and emotionally invested in their children’s lives, there are also skeptics.

The National Organization for Women has raised concerns that fatherhood initiatives may divert money and efforts away from helping single mothers, who most often bear the responsibility for raising and supporting their children. And the organization is particularly suspicious of the federal policy that aims to promote the institution of marriage as part of its fatherhood efforts, arguing that it discriminates against nontraditional families.

“We should care about supporting the well-being of all families, regardless of how they are constituted,” Jacqueline Payne, policy attorney for the NOW Legal Defense Fund testified before Congress.

While some organizations like the non-profit group National Fatherhood Initiative have been instrumental in promoting men’s programs, other fathers’ rights advocates say the money and effort would be better spent reforming custody and child support laws, which they argue are rooted in a 1950s idea of family.

“We send these guys to all of these classes so they can learn to be involved with their children,” said Jim Hayes, president of the Fathers and Families in New York. “And many find that there is a whole system that prevents them from doing that.”

Even some advocates for the poor argue that the focus on fathers may be too narrow and question the notion that, if fathers just pay their child support or visit more often with their children, the problems of poverty will be addressed.

CAN GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS GIVE DADS AND KIDS WHAT THEY REALLY NEED?

In an ideal world, men would learn how to be effective fathers from their fathers or from the other male role models in their lives. But the majority of men in the city’s fatherhood programs did not have supportive male figures in their lives growing up.

“I grew up with a single mom because my dad died at an early age, but there was a network of black men in my community,” Walter Fields of the Community Service Society said in a recent interview on WNYC radio. “Part of it is two-parent households, but we also have to rebuild the social fabric that has been destroyed.”

Can these types of programs do that?

Fatherhood initiatives are still too new – and have such modest goals – that is difficult to demonstrate their overall success, but some initial studies of similar programs across the nation have produced mixed results. (An evaluation of a program in Connecticut, for example, found that many fathers were actually deterred from establishing a relationship with their children because the program was also seeking child support compliance.)

But some experts argue that the initiatives can be useful in providing peer groups where men can talk about the challenges they face and in helping some men get jobs to support their families.

From an economic standpoint, the amount of money being spent on these programs is small, and so a few successes can add up. “If you can change one out of 30 or 40 guys, then it’s a worthwhile investment,” says Robert Lerman, economist at American University and the Urban Institute, who has done research on the issue.

The more difficult challenge, others say, is helping fathers who do not live with their children to become the kind of parent that a kid really needs.

When most non-custodial fathers get together with their kids for the few days a month, their main objective is to have fun. They go to the park, a ballgame, or the circus, and their goal is to repair – or just to maintain - a relationship with the child.

But these may not be the activities that the child needs most.

In just a few hours a week, it is difficult to discipline, follow a student’s progress in school, and know if a child is hanging out with the wrong crowd. In other words, the fathers have to figure out how to both have fun and hold a child accountable.

“I don’t think there is any father that doesn’t have trouble negotiating that tension,” says Mincy. “A guy who is a non-custodial parent is even more reluctant to go into that space.”

Still Carlos Rivera, who helps lead parenting classes at Papas de Bushwick, says he has seen first hand that fathering skills can be taught, but not always in the ways the curriculum suggests. “The younger men learn from the older ones and that can help fill that missing role,” says Rivera. “But that is also when the book goes out the window and the real work begins.”

BEGINNING WITH THE BASICS

On a Thursday morning, half a dozen men in aprons, most in the early 20s, buzz around a kitchen preparing a lunch of macaroni and cheese, chicken and egg salad, French bread, and fruit salad dessert.

The men, all with criminal records and all fathers, are participants in a weekly ritual known as “Miss Betty’s Practical Cooking Class” at the Fortune Society, a Chelsea organization that works with people who have criminal records.

Miss Betty is Betty Wilson, an instructor who teaches the men nutrition, cooking skills, as well as table etiquette.

“Sit, sit,” says Miss Betty, instructing the men to sit down at a table and taking the baseball cap off of one young father.

“I never used to eat at the table before,” says Mike Davis, the 25-year-old father of a five-year-old son and 19-month old daughter. “I always ate in my bedroom or in front of the T.V.”

“I’d be lying if I said I ate at the table,” says another man. “But I do cook for my kids.”

The goals of the cooking class are to give men practical kitchen skills, educate them about how to prepare nutritious meals, create an activity they can do with their kids, and encourage them to get in the habit of sitting and talking with their families.

“After eight weeks, the guys can’t wait to show off their skills,” said Sophia Strong, who heads up the family programs at the Fortune Society. “Before this, the best they could offer was buying their kid sneakers.”

Samuel Maldonado says that the fathering class he took has made him calmer with his children, more conscious of what he says and does, and more of a “people person.” As a peer counselor, he now helps other men who are new to the program.

But the most practical impact is that he is even around his children at all.

“If it wasn’t for this, I’d probably be in jail right now,” he says.

RELATED LINKS:

National Fatherhood Initiative
New York City Fatherhood Initiative
NYC Fatherhood Initiative Providers
Father’s Rights Association of New York State
New York Father’s Resources
Fathers and Families New York
Fathering Magazine
New York State Child Support Services
Interactive Tour of Child Support Services

 

Homeless Prevention Programs A Year Later


Last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made reducing the number of homeless people in the city a top priority, launching an action plan long in the making.

Looking at three relevant programs, we can see some progress and some significant challenges.

Two of the programs are initiatives of the city. New Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess, who arrives from Philadelphia, has reasons to be both excited and apprehensive because of these programs. The promising one is the HomeBase program, a group of centers run by community-based organizations in areas of the city that send the most people to city shelters. But the city’s rent subsidy program, Housing Stability Plus, is widely viewed as a mess.

It also has been about 15 months since a third initiative, led by Administrative Judge Fern Fisher of the Civil Court of New York City, the Housing Help Program, was launched in the Bronx. That program shows some promise, too.

Programs to prevent homelessness are viewed as both cost-effective and compassionate. But some question whether their cost-effectiveness also translates into any kind of real effectiveness.

“There are some major over-arching problems in the housing market and government policy that prevention programs do not address,” said Andy Scherer, executive director of Legal Services for New York City. “The most important thing to do would be to have in place an adequate supply of affordable housing that low-income people can have access to.

“I use the analogy of musical chairs,” Scherer continued. “When you have 10 chairs and 11 people, someone can’t be seated. We can spend a lot of time dealing with how to help the 11th person cope with that, but the truth of the matter is [it would be better to have] 11 chairs.”

HomeBase

In the fall of 2004, the city set up six HomeBase programs in partnership with community-based organizations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. ( See my article from October, 2004 New Programs Aim To Prevent Homelessness)

In the neighborhoods where HomeBase programs are working, their preventative services appear to be having a positive impact: Homelessness has declined more in those areas than in other neighborhoods in the city.

The program has not gone unnoticed: At the end of March, Harvard University cited it as one of the top 50 innovations in government in 2006 (in pdf format).

In a January conference call organized by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (listen here), officials from the city's Department of Homeless Services said a variety of factors explained the success of the program. They lauded the community-based organizations for their grassroots links and local knowledge while also pointing to sophisticated information management technology that allows them to understand better where homeless people are coming from and why they end up at shelters.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we collect everything – everything – and it’s in that database,” one of the officials said.

The community-based organizations can then use that information to reach out to people most in need of help. They can even target specific buildings if a significant number of people have become homeless from those buildings and then visit the building to offer information and assistance, one official said.

One lesson from HomeBase is that people facing homelessness can avoid it by receiving services before they end up at homeless shelters. It’s an important lesson because using homeless shelters to deal with homelessness has been so expensive.

Another important lesson is that people facing housing problems often do not seek help. HomeBase centers’ caseworkers, who expected a line out of their doors when their programs opened in September 2004, have taken to handing out flyers on the streets to find clients.

The HomeBase program has only served about 3,000 families, according to the city. They receive services specific to their situations – caseworkers help them with everything from getting job training to resolving family problems to navigating the public benefits maze that so often ends up in an eviction because of bureaucratic errors.

The service providers know, too, that financial issues are a common denominator for many of the people facing homelessness. Rents have increased significantly in the city and that trend shows no signs of diminishing. The city tried to address that problem by launching its own rent subsidy program – Housing Stability Plus – a little over a year ago, but it has not turned out nearly as well.

Housing Stability Plus

At a national conference on homelessness last year, then Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Linda Gibbs told housing advocates that the city’s rent subsidy program, Housing Stability Plus, would succeed with the help of friendly landlords.

“Maybe landlords won’t act on evictions – when the rents go down, they’ll let it go,” Gibbs said at the time. The comment was met with some incredulity by advocates in New York City.

A year later, according to a spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services, some 6,000 families have been moved to permanent housing thanks to Housing Stability Plus, and only one percent have ended up back in shelters.

Critics are skeptical. Yes, the subsidy helped the city move people out of city shelters; reducing the number of shelter residents looks good -- from a distance. Up close, though, critics see this as bottom line thinking, and consider Housing Stability Plus to be a mess.

“What we’re hearing is that people in shelters … are very afraid of” Housing Stability Plus, said Councilmember Gail Brewer who has helped develop some of the more innovative housing policies in the city in recent years. “It just doesn’t seem to be working.” The City Council has scheduled a hearing on the program for April 27.

A person at one agency that has dealt with the subsidy program told me that people who look at just the number of homeless people reported in city shelters might consider the city’s rent subsidy successful. The recent street homeless census numbers are not yet available as of this writing, but last year the city said the number of people seeking help at homeless shelters had declined by almost 10 percent.

But what, critics ask, does that really mean? Consider the case of Cynthia Green. She is living with her two children, a one-year-old and a five-year-old, in a South Bronx building that has almost 800 violations of the Housing Maintenance Code. She could not move into her apartment for two months after signing her lease because the apartment was being repaired.

“They haven’t done anything but they still want their rent money,” Green said. Green described a nightmarish apartment, with leaks, cracks, mice and lead paint.

And that's an apartment by a cooperating landlord. Some landlords are already turned off by the program, and have no interest in continuing it -- even before the subsidies go down by 20 percent.

“It’s the worst subsidy program yet,” said Anne Peek, a long-time broker who works across the city. “You can’t really get an answer from anyone, you’re just passed around...Most of the tenants are not really able to pay the 20 percent that’s required of them. And nobody seems to know what’s going to happen at the end of the fifth year."

Advocates said they would not give up on the city’s subsidy even if some landlords have. But they urged the city to fess up to the problems, and fix them.

Led by the Coalition for the Homeless, housing advocates have asked the city to address four fundamental flaws:

  • The 20 percent decrease in rent payments
  • Rules requiring families to stay on welfare in order to receive the subsidy
  • A lax approach to housing quality that has placed families in apartments with serious housing code violations
  • No mechanism to address illegal payments that some tenants are making to landlords in order to convince the landlords to accept the subsidy

"If these flaws were addressed, it would be a very effective program,” said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Housing Help Program

When Judge Fern Fisher, who oversees the city’s housing courts as the administrative judge of the Civil Court of New York City , launched the Housing Help Program in collaboration with the United Way of New York City just over a year ago, advocates were hopeful. The program offers legal representation and social services at an infinitely logical place: housing court. Granted, it only covers one zip code, 10451, in the Bronx, but it was seen as an opportunity to make the point that homelessness, which often starts with a formal order of eviction from a housing court judge, can be prevented by providing tenants with legal representation, long a fundamental argument of housing advocates, including the organization I work for.

Simply put, housing court is too confusing and intimidating for tenants who do not obtain legal representation. And it’s made much worse because it is so unfair: Landlords almost always have attorneys representing their interests. Landlords’ attorneys frequently negotiate deals with tenants that are so favorable to landlords that tenants find themselves facing eviction very quickly.

But Judge Fisher downplayed the legal services aspect of the program she initiated.

“It’s not a right-to-counsel project,” she said. “You can’t prevent homelessness without social services. Social workers are needed for these families.”

Of 114 formal evictions that did occur in the 10451 zip code last year, Fisher noted that 42 occurred without any tenant ever responding to the landlord’s petition for eviction at housing court. This high rate of defaults reinforces what the HomeBase programs appear to have learned, too: Many people who end up homeless never get any help of any kind.

“Our approach is to catch them at court, which is the natural place to find them,” Fisher said. “But what can we do about people who don’t come to court? Clearly they got evicted so that’s serious.

“Those are people who either move out or they just sit around and they get evicted,” she continued. “How do you reach them? How do you contact them? How do you get them to come to court?”

While Fisher insists her program is a social services one, it still demonstrated that legal representation is critical to avoiding eviction. None of the 330 families that received help were ultimately evicted and the fact is when tenants are represented they are much less likely to be evicted.

“Clients do in fact come in with not just a housing problem but a large number of associated problems based on the fact that they are poor,” said Steven Telzak of Legal Services for New York-Bronx, which worked on the project at the court. The three-year project will continue without LSNY-Bronx for reasons that were unclear, but all involved said the parting of the ways was amicable.

“We’re helping families – it works,” said Jo Gonsalves, director of affordable housing and homelessness prevention at United Way of New York City. “Families are getting services. They don’t have to advocate for themselves. There are social workers and paralegals advocating for them, in addition to the attorneys.”

Gonsalves said, unsurprisingly, that poverty was the predominant cause of housing crises. But that did not mean other social services were not needed.

“There are also issues of trauma, mental health – social service issues – that are compounded by lack of financial resources,” she said, adding that the United Way hopes to expand the project.

But with economic issues obviously a fundamental factor in homelessness, Andy Scherer’s musical chairs analogy of the New York City housing market in 2006 seems even more potent. A report now 20 years old, “Stemming the tide of displacement: Housing policies for preventing homelessness” might very well have been written last week. It said that to end homelessness efforts were needed to address affordability, gentrification, dispute resolution, abandonment and emergency social services.

“The emphasis of the policy has been too narrowly focused,” Scherer said. “It’s not like they’re doing bad things – they’re doing helpful things. But the problem will continue to persist until there’s some real tackling of the broader reasons that lead to the lack of adequate housing.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

 

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren


When my grandmother was trying to raise my sister and me, she faced many hardships. At times it seemed as if she and I were coming from two completely different worlds. We rarely agreed on anything and ended up in a lot of arguments. But then my grandmother had to go to a hospital, and then my sister and I had to move to a regular foster home. It was very clear to me that, whatever the conflicts and complications, it just feels much better to live with relatives than strangers.

In fact, a number of experts have solid evidence that kids who can’t live with their parents do better in homes with relatives. Studies show they have fewer behavioral problems and less chance of abuse. This is why New York State passed a law in 2004 saying that grandparents must be informed whenever a child is put in foster care, so that they might be able to step forward and look after the child themselves. The law also makes it easier for grandparents to gain legal custody of grandchildren they’re already raising.

Growing Trend, Unique Challenges

Living with a grandparent is becoming an increasingly common experience for kids both nationwide and here in New York City. There are more than 80,000 grandparents responsible for their grandchildren in New York City, according to the 2002 Citizens’ Committee for Children’s “Keeping Track of New York City’s Children.”

Although experts say that this influx of kids into their grandparents’ homes is preferable to traditional foster care, they also note that social services is still playing catch up. Elderly caregivers face a host of unique challenges that too often go unmet, as they did with my grandmother.

Grandparent caregivers are more likely to live in poverty than other grandparents, according to “Forging Connections: Challenges and Opportunities for Older Caregivers Raising Children” (published by New York Council on Adoptable Children, Inc.(COAC)). They also tend to be in poorer health and are less educated than non-relative foster parents.

While grandparents looking after their children through the foster care system have access to more services than do grandparents looking after kin informally, they all have a harder time accessing services and supports, like housing, transportation, and medical care than do traditional foster parents.

But New York City has become a pioneer in addressing the challenges of grandparent caregivers, by opening the nation’s first housing complex specifically for grandparent-headed families,

GrandparentFamily Apartments

GrandparentFamily Apartments, a six-story apartment building on Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx opened a year ago, the nation’s first public development exclusively for grandparents raising grandchildren. The families living in the 51 apartments all get a social worker, support groups and parenting classes. Children receive tutoring and organized activities in the afternoon and evening. Apartments also have special amenities for the elderly—like cords you can tug on if you need help.

Annie Barnes, 62, one of its residents, has lived in the building since it opened. Like many grandparent caregivers, Barnes never expected to be a parent at her age. But 11 years ago she found herself raising her two grandchildren after her son was murdered. “When I turned 50 I wanted to do things for myself and travel places. I had to put my plan on hold to provide for my grandchildren,” she said.

Both Barnes’ grandchildren, Alonzo Poinsett and Shakela, had been born premature and with serious health problems. She needs a lot of help raising them, but living in the trail blazing apartment complex, she says she can swing it.

Dorothy Jenkins, 76, also lives in the GrandparentFamily Apartments. She got custody of her grandchildren when her daughter died. “There was no other alternative,” she said, meaning she refused to let them be put in foster care. So she retired to raise her grandchildren full-time. “I had to start all over again,” she said, adding that she’s a strict parent.

In her old home Jenkins used to worry about safety. Now she says she feels secure. “You know what I’m doing right now?” she said. “I’m in bed, watching TV, while my front door is open—and I’m not worried. It’s a great life for me.”

Although both women said, “These children need to stop running up and down the stairs!” they were more than satisfied with their new apartments.

Talking to them made me wish my own family had gotten that much support. But it also made me feel hopeful knowing that grandparent caregivers are being provided support in raising their grandkids. Maybe GrandParentFamily Apartments will inspire more of the same.

Pauline Gordon, a senior at Acorn Community High School, is a writer with Youth Communication, publishers of Represent. Additional reporting by Kendra Hurley  

Gay Bars


The modern gay rights movement began in a gay bar, and, for better and for worse, bars continue to hold a central place in the life of many gay New Yorkers.

It was actually illegal to serve liquor to homosexuals until 1967 when some early gay activists from the Mattachine Society challenged that regulation by the State Liquor Authority and prevailed in court. But harassment of the patrons in gay bars continued, and two years later, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, the patrons fought back for the next three nights. That is the event commemorated on the last Sunday of every June with the world's oldest and surely still largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride parade.

Lesbian bars have always been scarcer in New York and several were subjected to harassment by the State Liquor Authority into the 1980s by agents who claimed that these bars were refusing to serve men.

Today, almost four decades later, New York City is home to no less than 120 gay bars and clubs, more than anywhere in the world. As gay people have become more integrated into mainstream life, and booze has become a little less socially acceptable or desirable as the pretext for getting together in the gay world, all manner of other gay institutions have sprung up, from churches and coffeehouses to self-help groups and gay cruise ships. But establishments that serve liquor are still an integral component in the maintenance of positive gay identities, providing gays of a wide variety of backgrounds a safe space in which they are free to explore themselves, and each other.

There are complicated levels of irony then, to several current conflicts.

The most widely reported is between residents and youth on that very same iconic street where it all began.

Christopher Street, and the Christopher Street pier, have become a magnet for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, who celebrate late into the night. Nearby residents, who themselves mostly identify as LGBT, have been complaining bitterly about the collective boisterousness.

The controversy, playing out in the local community board, is the subject of some discussion in the bars that still line the street, with patrons taking different sides: A patron of Ty’s finds the kids “a little scary…and loud” while a patron at The Hangar says “they’re a part of our culture.”

A bouncer at Chi-Chiz, a gay bar one block from the pier in question, had a particular gripe: “As soon as the kids start fighting,” he said “the community wants to blame the bars, and that’s not fair. We’re tired of getting blame for [what] they do.”

Conflicts are occurring in other gay or “gay-friendly” neighborhoods as well. In the East Village, there have been a number of tussles between (LGBT) bar-goers and (LGBT) residents. In an effort to quell the noise, some bouncers have been known to yell even louder than the offending parties, compounding the problem. In Chelsea, irate neighbors have been known to throw used kitty litter on raucous loiterers, and it is not uncommon for the residents above the bustling Barracuda bar on 22nd Street to yell vulgarities at rowdy smokers on the street below.

 

Back From Iraq


Faced with homelessness, about forty veterans call Jason Ortiz each month looking for help. Ortiz is a caseworker at New Era Veterans, a residence for previously homeless veterans in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Most of the residents there left the military decades ago, Ortiz says. But recently about five of the 40 calls he gets every month are from veterans returning from Iraq.

Ortiz's voicemail has the same discouraging message for all those who dial his number: There is no more room.

It has been three years since the beginning of the current war in Iraq; it began March 19th, 2003. Thirty-five New York City residents have died there since then, and thousands more have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan and returned. Another 8,000 New Yorkers remain on active military duty. As they come home, some are suffering from physical wounds, emotional trauma, financial insecurity, and homelessness.

There are services that address these problems, but many feel they are inadequate. Whether they are or not, many veterans couldn't say, because they don't seek out what's available to them.

"We've been trained that asking for help is an admission that you've failed in some task," said Ricardo Singh of Black Veterans for Social Justice, a veteran himself. "Veterans as a group are usually very reluctant to ask for help."

TRAUMA

Soon after 9/11, Brooklyn native Henry Gomez, who was then 29 years old with a family of his own, quit his job as a computer consultant and joined the army, bringing his wife, his daughter and stepdaughter to an army base in Germany. There he was trained to operate anti-ballistic missile radar systems. In April 2003, Gomez arrived in Iraq. He spent the next 13 months in firefights with insurgents, guarding checkpoints, and checking the roads surrounding Baghdad for bombs.

War was difficult at first, said Gomez, but within a few months he had gotten used to combat. "You hear an explosion near you," he explained recently, "and it doesn't bother you anymore."

It has been almost a year since Gomez came back from Iraq, however, and he still has not gotten used to civilian life. His relationship with his family has suffered -- he is estranged from his wife and doesn't see his kids -- and he has been unable to hold a job.

"The whole thing was the worst experience I had ever been through," Gomez said. "Coming back,I found I was different."

Gomez may have had a harder time adjusting than many other veterans. But he is also something of an exception in another way; he asked for help. He was diagnosed and treated for post traumatic stress disorder at a Veterans Administration hospital, and sought assistance in finding housing from a private homelessness prevention group, Common Ground.

If each war has a signature illness, say veterans advocates, Iraq's is post traumatic stress disorder.

In Iraq, the constant threat of guerilla warfare means that soldiers can never relax. There is uncertainty about the length of tours of duty, and about whether soldiers leaving Iraq will have to return. All of these things make this war particularly trying emotionally.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in five servicemen and women returning from Iraq suffer from psychological conditions. (The rate of Afghan veterans suffering from similar conditions is about one in nine). Veterans' advocates believe the actual number is even higher.

The idea that engaging in combat is damaging to one’s psyche is hardly new – soldiers have long been known to suffer from “shell shock” and “combat fatigue”. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not defined as a specific medical condition until the Vietnam War. The Veterans Administration admits that it has not handled the psychological problems of past veterans well. It says it had learned it must focus on these problems, noting that it now spends $50 million annually nationwide on post-traumatic stress programs.

A federal report published last year (in pdf format), however, found that the Veterans Administration had not fully completed any of the 24 tasks that its own committee on post-traumatic stress disorder has recommended to improve clinical and education programs for returning veterans. The administration's committee also found that it was not prepared to handle an influx of new military veterans while maintaining services for those it is already caring for.

The veterans' hospital in the Bronx is seeing this influx: there has been such an increase psychological cases that its post-traumatic stress clinic is adding two psychologists to its eight person staff. Private veterans service organizations also say they are increasing numbers of veterans with such problems. But Rachel Yehuda, the director of the Bronx hospital's clinic, is frustrated that not everyone who needs help is asking for it.

"There's a significant number of Iraqi war veterans that are seeking treatment, though I suspect that it's not nearly as many as are in need," she said. "Not everybody comes home and rushes to a VA."

It was months before Gomez showed up at the Brooklyn veterans' hospital. Surprisingly, said a hospital spokesperson, he is one of only 69 recent veterans who have sought treatment. The Brooklyn and Manhattan veterans' hospitals say they have prepared for an influx of traumatized combat veterans, but to date only three percent of the 2,200 returning veterans who have registered for care at the two facilities have visited their post-traumatic stress clinics.

Critics of the Veterans Administration prod it to be more active in helping veterans -- making it easier for them to get the services they need, and even actively seeking them out. But in New York, advocates say, the federal government may actually soon make it harder for veterans to find care.

Like most health care providers, the Veterans Administration is facing financial difficulties. As a result, it is considering combining the services of the Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals into a single facility. The Veterans Administration argues that it may make sense to close a hospital considering the amount of health care that now takes place in outpatient clinics, but others respond that closing facilities will only make it more likely that veterans' health problems will go untreated.

FINANCIAL INSECURITY

Veterans often come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This trend is continuing, according to the National Priorities Project, which found that in New York and across the country, residents of low-income counties make up a disproportionate amount of new military recruits.

While the pitch for joining the army includes references to job skills, skeptics point out that there isn't a strong civilian market for employees proficient in combat. Often, they say, veterans are unclear about how they will make a living after they are discharged. The military has long been criticized for failing to help veterans make this transition.

City officials are attempting to help veterans with the financial strain of returning to New York through housing programs. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his state of the city address that the city would offer significant preferences to veterans when the city resells homes that the federal government has foreclosed upon. There are already property tax exemptions for veterans and for the parents of servicemen and women who have been killed; Hiram Monserrate, the head of the City Council's veterans committee, has proposed a bill that would require the city to advertise this benefit more effectively.

Currently, the city's signature employment program is to give preferences to veterans who apply for street vendor licenses. Officials say that it also helps veterans with job placement through its general homelessness prevention programs. Common Ground, a homelessness prevention organization, is combining housing aid with counseling for emotional problems and employment assistance. Gomez recently turned to the group, which is helping him rent an apartment in Bensonhurst.

But the scope of private programs is limited; Common Ground has been able to serve only 21 veterans since it started its program last August. Advocates say the city should create veteran-specific programs that both lead them to federal veterans benefits and serve to help them find employment opportunities in New York.

"We should have some resources available – some, because right now we have none – to provide these services," said Monserrate.

HOMELESSNESS

Those seeking evidence that the country is failing to fulfill its obligation to veterans, say advocates, need only to look at the huge number of veterans that end up homeless.

While they make up about nine percent of the population, veterans constitute 23 percent of the chronically homeless population. Nationwide, there are 200,000 homeless veterans on any given night, and over half a million veterans spend some time homeless over the course of a year. Eighty percent of them live in urban areas, and over three quarters have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, or both.

According to the Veterans Administration, there are 44,700 homeless veterans in New York State. There are no exact numbers on how many of those live in New York City, but advocates estimate that the total is between 15,000 and 20,000.

Homelessness, said John Driscoll of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, is generally the end result of multiple problems spinning out of control. There is a connection between the lack of supportive services and homelessness, he said, but this is not obvious immediately. It was eight years after Vietnam, he said, before Vietnam veterans began turning up for homeless services in significant numbers.

About two percent of homeless veterans seeking services have served in post 9/11 conflicts, according to the coalition, and Driscoll and other veterans advocates say it is too early to see recent veterans becoming homeless in large numbers. But they worry that the lack of visible evidence of a serious problem will make it hard to address the issues that cause veterans to become homeless today.

"You have all these veterans being created by this new war," said Ruth Shaffer of New Era Veterans, "and every indication is that they are at least as disturbed – if not more – than those from before."

 

 

311 + 3 : Adding Social Services


When three years ago this month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched 311, which consolidated 40 different city hotlines into one, he said he expected it to be more than just a non-emergency alternative to the 911 phone line. He hoped it would be his legacy to the city.

“It will be a one-stop center for questions about any city service or program, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he announced in his 2003 State of the City address. “More than that, it'll be a 21st century management tool that lets us track and quantify just how well we're serving the people of New York.”

A year later, he declared himself delighted with the results – and so, he said, was everybody else: “New Yorkers have treated it like the greatest thing since egg creams…It’s made city government accessible and answerable to the people of New York -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Over the past three years, 311 has handled over 26 million calls, each one reaching a live operator, and the option of immediate translation services in 170 languages.

311 has had its critics, with complaints that were enumerated in a Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week last year, 311’s Growing Pains. Some of the criticism has been directed toward the pace of the system’s expansion to meet its growing popularity. Some say that community boards have been insufficiently integrated into the system, making it more difficult to tackle such localized issues as noise. Others complain of a rise in false complaints, or insufficient use of 311 data as a management tool, or too long a wait time to get an operator, or to get results.

The Bloomberg administration reports that in January, 2006, with some 1.2 million calls to 311, the average wait time for an operator was actually just five seconds.

And the third anniversary marks the beginning stages of an expansion that takes 311 in a new direction. Rather than just a center for referral to city government services, 311 will now include referrals to private, non-profit social service agencies.

211 Elsewhere, 311 Here

Nationally, such information is usually disseminated through a "211" telephone number. But 311 has proven so successful in New York City that City Hall has opted to offer both services by calling 311.

There are an estimated 27,000 non-profit agencies that serve at least two million New Yorkers daily. But the initial effort, a collaboration between the city’s Department of Information Technology and Communications, which manages the 311 program, and the United Way of New York City , will rely on the United Way’s database, which includes only about 2,500 such agencies.

Social Service Expansion

311 currently does provide some social service information, but only when the city itself is the service provider or has a formal relationship with a non-profit organization. Gary Wartels, a consultant for United Way on the 311 expansion project, clarifies how this works. If a 311 caller today requests information about after school programs, they are referred to the New York City Department of Youth and Family Development. With the expansion of 311, the caller interested in after-school programs would also learn about the offerings of the Partnership for After School Education.

If a caller today reports living under threat of domestic violence, 311 would refer them to the non-profit Safe Horizon , which has a contract with the city government. With the expansion of 311, such a caller, depending on her circumstances, could receive information about child care and job training as well.

When, How Much, Who Pays

The city plans for a partial roll-out of the expanded 311 this year, with a complete roll-out by July 2007. The United Way's business plan estimates that the cost of the initial phase is approximately $14 million, with total costs approaching $60 million for maintenance of the service for three years after it is launched. The balance between the city and state share of these costs remains unclear. (According to Wartels of United Way, the State Senate has approved $3.9 million in the next budget to expand 311; there is no Assembly action yet.) The city's capital budget for fiscal year 2007 includes $15 million for upgrading the 311 system, which indicates a commitment to this expansion. The business plan also assumes that private sector support will be available for maintenance and enhancement of this service .

Technological And Other Challenges

The technological challenges in enhancing 311 are significant. The phone system needs to be scaled up to handle a new influx of calls; current plans call for construction or rental of another 311 call center. The United Way’s database of non-profit organizations must be significantly expanded. Another step would be integration of the database into the resources already available to 311 operators. In addition, 311 currently uses visual mapping technology to pinpoint clusters of similar calls by neighborhood. This capability would also be necessary for these social service or 211-type calls.

The City Council's Committee on Technology in Government held the first public hearing last month to answer questions about the proposed expansion of 311. While everyone supported the goal of increased access to social service information, one concern that arose was about the ability of 311 operators to handle highly sensitive calls for assistance. Obviously, a city resident who calls looking for somewhere to sleep has different needs than someone who calls to report a pothole.

Although staffing concerns for handling such sensitive calls are legitimate, those in charge of 311 maintain, they are not insurmountable.

Marcus Banks is a librarian at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. 

 

Taking On Poverty


I was greatly heartened and excited to hear Mayor Michael Bloomberg announce in his inaugural address that he planned to form a poverty task force for New York City. For much too long, poverty has devastated the lives of millions of New Yorkers and vast areas of this city.

The mayor stated: “Today I am committing to a major reduction in the number of children, women and men who live in poverty in this city over the next four years. To that end, this year, we'll launch a public-private task force -- modeled on our task force to end chronic homelessness -- that will attack chronic unemployment and poverty in the homes and neighborhoods where the need is greatest.”

The mayor has asked me to participate in the task force, the New York City Commission for Economic Opportunity. I am hopeful that its formation signals the beginning of an effort that will culminate in a coordinated plan to identify the causes of poverty in New York City and to marshal the energy and resources to eradicate it. Does that sound grandiose? Naïve? Do you think that poverty will always be with us? Why, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world – with all of our intellectual and material resources - should we tolerate the fact that millions of our fellow citizens live in poverty?

WHY IT'S NEEDED -- WHY IT'S HAPPENING

Urban efforts to combat poverty are on the march. Just last month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors announced that it is forming a Taskforce on Poverty and Opportunity in America.

Yet it has taken a storm of unprecedented magnitude – Hurricane Katrina - to bring the poor to the surface of the nation’s consciousness. Of course, the poor of New Orleans – like all poor people in this country - have known of their precarious situation all along. It is the rest of us who cannot imagine what it is like to live on the edge all the time.

Poverty In NYC Increases

In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report revealing that the nation’s poverty rate had increased for the fourth consecutive year. New York was the only city with more than a million residents to exhibit a significant rise in poverty in the previous year. The city’s poverty rate went from 19 percent to 20.3 percent. That’s more than 1.6 million New Yorkers living in poverty.

Forty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in America. And for most of those 40 years, we’ve been losing that war. At first poverty declined. But as each successive administration cut back on funding and commitment, optimism faded and poverty receded from the national consciousness.

The Poor Are Mostly Employed

What’s it like to live in poverty in New York City? My organization, the Community Service Society, has an annual survey conducted of low-income New Yorkers. As far as we can tell, this is the only regular polling of a low-income population in the nation. We ask poor New Yorkers – our constituency - about their views on issues of concern to them. Along the way we have learned quite a bit.

First, let’s dispel a stereotype. The great majority of poor New Yorkers live in working families. Our survey found that 62 percent of poor households include a full-time worker; 86 percent include either a full-time or part-time worker in the family.

If an emergency struck, what would these families do? Among poor households with a full-time worker, 65 percent have less than $100 in savings to fall back on; 81 percent have less than $500. Any crisis – a sick family member, the loss of a job – would mean catastrophe for most of these New Yorkers.

It’s no wonder that these families routinely suffer the kinds of hardships that rarely touch the rest of us. Our survey revealed that, last year, among poor households with a full-time worker, 48 percent were unable to fill prescriptions, 48 percent could not get or postponed medical care, 45 percent fell behind in rent payments, 35 percent had to get food from friends or relatives due to lack of money, 18 percent even went hungry.

Under $30 A Week For The Basics

Here are a few examples of life on the edge in New York City:

Real estate values may be skyrocketing but poor families face staggering rent burdens: 65 percent of the poor pay more than half their household income for rent. As a result, these households have on average less than $30 a week per person to pay for all other basic needs such as food, clothing, and medicine.

Few Poor Workers Have Job Benefits

The city has added thousands of jobs in the last year. But for low-income workers, job benefits – which most New Yorkers take for granted – are practically nonexistent. Of all low-income New Yorkers employed, only 22 percent get health benefits on the job; 16 percent have family health coverage; only 9 percent have prescription drug coverage; just 13 percent have a retirement plan; less than half get paid sick leave.

Most NYC School Children Are Poor

The city’s school children overwhelmingly come from families living in poverty. More than 70 percent qualify for the free or subsidized school lunch program. Nearly half of all students entering high school drop out before graduation and less than 10 percent of black and Latino students graduate with a Regents diploma.

 

A report CSS released last year revealed that black and Latino youth – ages 16 to 24 - were more than twice as likely to be out of school and out of work than white youth - disengaged from any framework that would provide them with a future. In total, 170,000 of New York City’s young people find themselves in this situation. This is the next generation of poor New Yorkers.

Our most common response to poverty has been to try to create more jobs. A CSS labor market report revealed that nearly 40 percent of adult black men in New York City were jobless in 2004. But relying on job growth alone will not alleviate poverty. Without proper training and adequate education, advancement to well-paying jobs is almost impossible.

WHAT IT WILL TAKE

Commitment and Creativity From Non-Profits

In New York City, we have many assets that could be brought to bear on the problems of urban poverty – enormous financial and intellectual resources. The city is brimming with creativity and innovation. It is home to hundreds of nonprofit and corporate foundations that benefit from tax relief expressly designed for them. Yet they hang back when it comes to a commitment that would benefit the city where they do business.

Most foundations and nonprofit research groups manifest a lack of investment – even a lack of interest – in poor communities. The philanthropic sector, in particular, should be providing resources as a bulwark against the right wing that has made disregarding urban poverty a cornerstone of its policies. But they haven’t anted up.

Leadership From Public Officials...And Everybody Else

We must look to our public officials for leadership, responsibility, and accountability. If nothing else, the disaster of Katrina has reminded Americans of the unique role of government as the only institution charged with the responsibility - and capable of commanding the resources - for the protection and economic security of its citizens.

The mayor has thrown down the gauntlet to the private sector, labor unions, nonprofits, and community leaders. For the future of our city, we cannot continue policies that undermine its strength and vitality by acquiescing to a situation that condemns so many of our fellow citizens to a life of poverty.

Income and class – often in conjunction with race – too often determine the fate of millions of Americans. Poverty of the scale and duration we see in New York harms individuals, destroys families, and is corrosive to the city itself.

Mayor Bloomberg has shown that he does not flinch from taking on big problems. In his first term he dealt with long-standing issues of the school system. Now, by confronting poverty, he is tackling the major scourge of urban America. I am honored to be part of this initiative that we all hope will devise strategies that successfully attack poverty in New York City.

David R. Jones is president of the Community Service Society of New York, a social services organization that deals with the problems of poverty.  



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