New York City quickly opens 5 homeless shelters

Five new homeless shelters down — 85 to go.

Almost 90 days after Mayor de Blasio vowed to build a network of 90 new shelters, the city has opened five and plans to meet with shelter providers to talk about next steps, Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks said.

“We appreciate the support of New Yorkers, who are fundamentally compassionate people, and that’s the spirit that’s helped us open five shelters in 90 days,” Banks said in an interview.

“And we’re going to continue to do that across the city so that we can implement a borough-based shelter system and undo a haphazard system.”

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One of the five shelters — the Bergen Street shelter in Crown Heights — was only able to open this week after a judge tossed out a lawsuit filed by neighbors who say the area is already overburdened.

While the city will have to grapple with neighborhoods that may not welcome shelters, it will also have to deal with the providers who will build and run them — some of whom are already pushing officials to think big.

“We’re talking about building new, purpose-built shelters. Let’s make them the best structures physically, so we can then have the highest level of services inside of them,” Christine Quinn, president and CEO of Win, a nonprofit shelter provider for women and children.

The specifics of what shelters look like — where they are, how the space is developed, what kinds of services they provide — often come from the providers who respond to the city’s bid for proposals. But the city is also updating its request for those proposals to jive with the new plan, which will be a topic of discussion at next week’s meeting.

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Banks said the city has tweaked the request for proposals to encourage building of permanent housing alongside shelter units, encouraging community spaces within shelters.

“I think the most important thing is that we talk about program, rather than beds,” said former mayoral candidate George McDonald, president of the Doe Fund and one of those invited to the meeting, recalling his partnership with Gov. Cuomo on The Way Home initiative in the early ‘90s.

“It was a novelty that homelessness was complex that some people have mental health problems, that some people live with HIV and AIDS, that some people were old and frail and elderly, that their service needs were different.”

It’s services that Quinn was worried about. Of the new shelters, 40% will be for families — and she argued that all of those shelters should include on-site childcare.

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“A homeless child is twice as likely to be a homeless adult. That is an irrefutable fact. I would argue that is in large part due to the trauma a homeless child suffers and the fact that our system has never comprehensively helped a child process that trauma,” Quinn said.

State law requires shelters provide childcare, but allows for several options — licensed on-site care, supervised drop-off care and connecting family with children to childcare in the community. Those requirements go back to the 1980s.

Since then, the city has launched universal pre-K for four years olds and will soon offer it to kids who are 3. The new shelters are intended to replace more than 300 “cluster” sites — individual apartments where providing services are more complicated. The borough-based program will allow people to stay connected to their communities — including local childcare, Banks argued.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Some providers like Win, for example, have a long-standing tradition of providing on-site services,” Banks said. “Other providers have excellent processes to connect clients, to connect children with services in the community and some clients in the current haphazard system haven’t been able to do either.”

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But shelters are often in low-income neighborhoods, where quality licensed childcare is hard to find, Quinn said, noting many homeless mothers are busy searching for work or already working.

She called the argument that cluster shelters struggle to provide childcare a “red herring.”

“The limitations of the present system should not be relevant to these 90 new. The 90 new should be the best, shining examples of what homeless families need to break the cycle of homelessness for the adults and for the children,” she said. “So I’m grateful that the city appreciates the work that we do at WIN and I’m grateful that they are open to continuing to fund us with the model we have and the model we’re committed to, but I will only be satisfied when that becomes the norm for all of the new family shelters.”

McDonald said they respond to requests for proposals from the city with their programs — “not with anything that they’re telling us to do,” he said, besides the basic standards.

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In the past, if the funding isn’t there to make the shelter work, Doe wouldn’t take it on, he said.

“Contracts like that, we’ve turned down hundreds of them because what they want us to do won’t work,” he said, noting not everyone is as scrupulous. “People wind up taking the money.”

Banks said the city is committed to funding nonprofit partners to provide the best services possible — citing funding for “rate reform,” or an effort to pay providers more to bring services they provide up to higher standards. The city’s fiscal year 2018 executive budget includes $ 36 million, $ 18 million of it from city coffers, for rate reform, growing to $ 71 million, $ 34 million of it from the city, by fiscal year 2020.

“The funding is very much focused on making sure that there’s sufficient case staffing, that there’s the resources for special needs, real-time maintenance and repairs, funding for health and safety parameters including security,” Banks said.

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And McDonald said the city seemed willing to pay — noting the city didn’t bat a lash at a recent pricey proposal from Doe in Brooklyn that had been adjusted for a new $ 15 minimum wage.

“I believe that this is the other side of the Bloomberg administration, that this administration is actually committed to doing for the people at the bottom what the government should be doing for people at the bottom,” McDonald said.

Mitchell Netburn, the president and CEO of Project Renewal — was behind the first new shelter to open, Marsha’s House, an LGBTQ young adult shelter in the Bronx.

The project found “tremendous support” from the local community. Another recent project for men 55 and older faced more resistance, but was adjusted to meet the community’s needs — and with effort, shelters can become part of the community, he said.

For Project Renewal, the locations of shelter sites are key.

“We have looked at many, many sites but have rejected them because it’s a neighborhood that we don’t want either our clients or our staff to be in, or is very hard to get to” on public transit, Netburn said. “It’s another barrier if it takes you two hours to get to a job interview and you’re late.”

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