By Max Diamond, RealClearInvestigations
June 25, 2019
New York City has a distinctive way of dealing with the homeless: pay for them to live pretty much anywhere in the country.
Since 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has used a program called Special One-Time Assistance to relocate nearly 10,000 homeless people to over 300 cities. The program – which directly pays landlords a year of rent upfront, free to the beneficiary – is a significant departure from past city homeless relocation efforts because it does not require participants to have strong community ties to the new destination.
Under the program, which comes as homelessness is rising not just in New York but in other major cities, NYC’s homeless have moved as far away as Orlando, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala.
Despite the rental subsidy, the program saves the city a lot of money on health, safety, education and other costs related to homelessness while reducing pressure on its shelter system. But mayors on the receiving end say New York is taking advantage of them. “We have our own challenges here. We don’t need to have New York City exporting people into our communities,” said Mayor Mike Spano of Yonkers, where 101 households have relocated under the program. “That’s certainly not the right thing to do.”
Still, the program has not received much attention or pushback in part because New York has not coordinated with – or even informed – other communities about it. Spano, a Democrat, said he learned of the program only recently.
Mayor Elinor Carbone of Torrington, Conn., a Republican, found out about the program from a reporter for RealClearInvestigations. “You’re kidding me,” she said when informed that New York’s homeless have used it to relocate to her town. “That’s incredible. Wow."
Presidential contender de Blasio, who’s prepping for the first Democratic debate in Miami this week, commented through a Department of Social Services spokesperson that the city "remains committed to using every tool at our disposal to help these families and individuals find stability in the ways that work for them, including through relocation and rehousing programs that date back decades." But the city did not answer questions about why New York did not coordinate with other cities, nor inquiries about whether the program is open to people with criminal records, including sex offenders.
The breadth of the program has remained unclear until now. New York City records provided to RCI show that, in addition to relocations within New York City, participants have gone to 312 cities and towns across the country. Many have decided to stay within commuting distance – about 1,200 households have relocated to the nearby New Jersey communities of Newark, Irvington and East Orange. Nearly 1,200 households have used it to live within city confines.
Reginald Jackson-Clark, 30, used the program to move to nearby Paterson, N.J., with his wife and son. He said it has given him a “new beginning” after three years in a shelter system so bleak that he contemplated suicide at one point.
Life in the shelters is becoming more challenging. The Coalition for the Homeless, a city advocacy group, reports homelessness numbers have spiked 40% in New York state since 2010 – and about 86% of that total is in New York City. De Blasio has come under fire for resisting more housing for the homeless in the city.
And like other places, New York has long run a program to transport its homeless to other parts of the country. Previously, it required program participants to have strong community ties in the place of relocation. By erasing that rule, the Special One-Time Assistance program makes it easier for the homeless to leave the city. Between 2017 and 2018, New York City “was increasingly relying on SOTA to help people move out of shelters,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director for Coalition for the Homeless.
Other cities that RCI contacted, including Boston and Los Angeles, do not have a similar program.
The benefits for the city are clear: reduced costs and a reduced shelter population. Just to keep families with children in shelter, the city spent on average $192.10 per family per day in Fiscal Year 2018 – that's about $70,117 annually. The average cost of a year’s rent for a household that moves out of state is only $15,000, according to a city record provided to RCI. And those relocated must bear their own transportation costs.
For the city, the per-day shelter cost is only the start of savings. Homeless single adults are extremely taxing on the city’s hospital system, said Stephen Eide, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, because they have a “very high rate of serious mental illness.”
Plus the children of homeless families fare worse on standardized tests than other children, and contribute to the problem of underperforming schools. “The more that we have underperforming children and underperforming schools, the more we’re going to have to direct more resources to those schools and to our education system,” said Eide.
The benefits to clients are also clear: a home base and hope as they try to move forward. “I grew up in the projects my whole life,” Jackson-Clark said, recalling the dreary apartment living. Before living in Paterson under the relocation program, “I never had stairs in my house,” he said.
But relocation can shift the costs of homelessness to other cities and states. The Yonkers school system is already over capacity, said Christina Gilmartin, communications director for that city, and each student costs taxpayers $10,000 to educate annually.
The bottom line is that New York City “is desperate to keep the shelter census down,” said Eide. This need is becoming more pressing: In December 2018 there were about 60,000 people in shelters every day, up from about 50,000 in 2012.
The relocation program requires that at least one member of the household be working and have enough money to pay rent in the future, with the one-year full subsidy commensurate with future ability to pay. But New York City did not respond to questions for more specifics on the application process.
While relocating homeless people may be a solution that burdens other cities, local homeless advocates said they support the program. “Anything to help make homes affordable,” said Lana Stokes, executive director of Paterson Task Force, a charity in New Jersey.
“Affordable rents are very hard to find working a minimum-wage job,” said Keely Freeman, executive director of Sierra House, which provides housing for homeless youth in East Orange, N.J. “So I think that I would rather see someone in a warm, safe home in another state than a cold snowy street.”
But, Freeman added, “it would be ideal if the payment was coupled with some supportive services.”
New York City officials did not respond to repeated inquiries about whether they track how many people fall back into homelessness once relocated. Only 70 households that used the program have returned to NYC shelters, said Commissioner Steven Banks of the Human Resources Administration. But the city did not address how it arrived at such an exact figure for a population that is often hard to get precise numbers on.
Mayor Ronald L. Woodward Sr. of Fulton in upstate New York was surprised to hear that a homeless household had used the program to move to his town. While he wants the homeless to do well, moving to Fulton is a bad option, he said, because it is a “depressed” city and it is not clear if homeless people will be able to secure good jobs. “I would do a little research before,” said Woodward. “That’s only common sense.”
Another concern is the housing that beneficiaries end up living in. Some families have reported “feeling pressured by their shelter staff to move into a unit in Newark,” said Routhier. “That was basically the only thing that they could find to move out of shelter.”
New York City was “sending these families out of state and paying one years’ worth of rent up front without checking the goods,” said Jose Ortiz, a lawyer at Essex Newark Legal Services who has represented a number of program users in New Jersey.
The apartments sometimes had “no heat in the winter time, they had major rodent infestations, issues regarding broken windows, holes in the ceilings,” he said.
A New York City spokesperson said housing units in many areas neighboring the city must pass a walk-through inspection to ensure they meet a standard for quality. But for housing units in other parts of the country, the procedure is much less rigorous: Brokers “must submit photos of the unit” and New York City staff must verify the authenticity of the address “utilizing Google Street View,” said an NYC official.
Still, “the question is: What happens after the year?” asked Mayor Dean Trantalis of Fort Lauderdale, where several homeless households have relocated using the program. “Are they going to stress our already overwhelmed supportive services?”
Not surprisingly, some beneficiaries use social services even while in the program. In Paterson, Jackson-Clark said that he has been relying on food stamps since losing his job at Hale & Hearty restaurant in Manhattan in January. But he recently found work at a Shake Shack and expects to be off the subsidy soon.
Still, the path for him is unclear. His year of free rent is up in October and, while he has a job, he wants to get a better one in construction. And even though Jackson-Clark is very happy with the opportunity New York City gave him, he doesn’t want to raise his son in Paterson.
“Everybody’s selling something. I don’t want my son to be around that,” he said of the drug trafficking and a heavy police presence.
“I want my son to grow up in a good neighborhood and not have to see this, because as he gets older, he might wanna turn to that.”