Members of Community Board 5’s Special Committee on Homelessness clashed with a Queens representative from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) last Wednesday in a meeting to discuss Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to tackle the issue.
In February, de Blasio unveiled his new strategy, which includes getting out of 360 cluster sites hotel and commercial hotels by 2021 and 2023, respectively. Instead, the city will build or expand 90 traditional shelters across the city.
The goal, according to the plan, is to reduce the homeless shelter population by 2,500 people over five years. City officials said they will inform a community 30 days prior to opening a new shelter and create a community advisory board to help manage the site.
Amanda Nasner, Queens borough manager for DHS, explained to the committee the reasons behind rising homelessness, the breakdown of the population, and some of the city’s prevention services to keep people in their homes.
According to Nasner, in addition to rising rents, domestic violence and other causes of homelessness, another reason why the population skyrocketed at the end of 2011 was because of a lack of funding for a rental subsidy program.
“That left 14,000 people on the streets, that’s why the number skyrocketed,” she said. “They didn’t have these rent subsidies to pay the landlord.”
To keep people from becoming homeless, the city launched Homebase, which Nasner called the “first point of entry” for New Yorkers at risk of homelessness, in 2005. With 23 locations, including Far Rockaway and Jamaica, it offers services such as obtaining public benefits, emergency rental assistance, and education and job placement.
Nasner said Homebase has reduced shelter applicants by 49 percent in 2016 alone.
She then explained the goal of the mayor’s new plan, which is detailed in a 114-page document called “Turning the Tide on Homelessness.” The new borough-based approach is designed to keep homeless people near their schools, workplaces, houses of worship and other community supports.
Members of the committee didn’t buy the plan. Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association and member of Community Board 5, questioned why the city wants to abandon most of its cluster apartment units, which are mostly in the Bronx.
Nasner said they don’t provide social services like a traditional shelter, and many others are not safe. Holden responded that the Department of Buildings can force landlords to fix the units.
“All clusters are bad? I just find that ridiculous,” he said. “What percentage of clusters are unlivable? We never get that. They just say, ‘close the clusters.’”
Holden later called the mayor’s plan “arbitrary.” He was especially shocked that the plan would only reduce the homeless population by 2,500 in five years.
“You don’t know what the numbers will be. Can we believe them?” he said. “How could you predict the homeless population?”
“You would think the mayor has more of a delineated plan,” added board member Kathy Masi. “I don’t see how you do this by 2023.”
The committee also took issue with street homelessness. According to Nasner, there are 2,800 people who live on the streets daily. Masi questioned the accuracy of that number.
“Nobody wants to be on a street, obviously. If these people do, they definitely have mental health problems,” Holden said. “They really need to be taken off the streets, they need help.”
Holden got into a back-and-forth with Nasner about the creation of the community advisory board when new shelters are sited. He accused the mayor of “placating to the population in an election year.”
“We’re not buying the B.S. the mayor is selling. This is what the mayor does, he’s changing his tune now,” Holden said. “If the mayor’s going to come up with a plan, he needs to come up with a real plan, not just this.”
“This really is a trust issue. After what happened at Pan Am, there really is no trust,” Masi added. “The first thing you’ll have to do is rebuild some sort of relationship with communities. No one in the mayor’s office seems to want to take that step.”
Nasner responded that’s why DHS created her position.
“That’s why I’m here,” she said. “If we can better our relations, that’s my goal.”
Holden asked Nasner to look up the homeless population by neighborhood, rather than by community boards. According to Nasner, there are 287 homeless people within Community Board 5, which includes Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale and Ridgewood.
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, who chairs CB5’s Homelessness Committee, asked if it was possible to have a third party, such as the comptroller’s office, verify the data that ties a person to a community.
“We’re not going to believe the mayor’s office. When someone throws a number at us, it’s just a number to us,” Fedkowskyj said. “We need to get to a point where the community can believe the information. Until that happens, a lot of this is going to be a flop.”
Holden insisted that the mayor has not been transparent with the community and that he never reached out to Maspeth when he proposed a homeless shelter in the neighborhood.
“I know de Blasio, he’s mismanaged everything he’s touched, why should we trust him?” Holden said. “We’re so skeptical it’s ridiculous.”
Nasner concluded that she wants to build a better relationship with Queens communities, including in Community Board 5.
“I know that’s challenging,” she said. “I care, and I want you guys to see that.”