By Bill Parry
As Mayor Bill de Blasio nears the midway point of his first term, the homeless crisis continues to be the 800-pound gorilla in City Hall. In an hour-long session with reporters Monday, the mayor admitted mistakes have been made.
“My job is to make fewer and fewer mistakes,” de Blasio said. “My job is to learn from everything. One thing I do pride myself on is I make a mistake, I learn from it.”
Last week proved how vexing the crisis can be. Just two days after the resignation of Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor, de Blasio rolled out his new Home-Stat program, the most comprehensive street homelessness outreach effort ever deployed in a major American city, officials said.
More than 100 police officers and 300 social workers would canvass the streets seeking out the estimated 4,000 homeless people who are living on the streets in the five boroughs to get them services with “unprecedented vigor and attention” beginning in March. The goal of the program is to get the homeless off the street and into stable housing or treatment centers.
“This is a fundamental change in how our city contends with a situation that has been intractable for years,” de Blasio said. The announcement drew praise from elected officials, advocates for the homeless and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro applauded the increased street outreach, saying “getting people into housing quickly is a critical component of ending homelessness.”
The reaction in Queens was full of hope for quick action.
“From the hallways of LaGuardia Airport to the streets of the five boroughs, homeless New Yorkers are in need of our help and we must deliver,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said.
City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) was gratified to learn of the intensified, case-by-case approach to the problem. “This new initiative should leave no doubt about the mayor’s desire to turn around the homelessness situation in our city.”
By the weekend, de Blasio tempered the enthusiasm a bit when he said it “will take years” for the new program to work. On a radio interview with Gristede’s owner John Catsimatidis the mayor said, “I’m not saying for a moment that this is easy stuff.”
On Monday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer reminded the administration that the homeless on the street are just one part of the crisis. Stringer released an audit charging the Department of Homeless Services with placing families with children in shelters with deplorable conditions.
“Over 23,000 homeless children in our city slept in nightmare conditions last night, many of them surrounded by peeling paint, some feeling the chill of broken windows, and others sharing space with vermin,” Stringer said. “And when those same children woke up today, DHS still had no plan in place to help families make it out of the shelter system.”
The comptroller’s audit sampled 101 randomly selected housing units in the city’s 155 shelters that serve families with children and found 53 percent of inspected apartments had evidence of rodents, roaches and other vermin. The audit found 87 percent of inspected units had conditions that raised health and safety concerns such as malfunctioning smoke detectors, blocked fire escapes, mold, mildew, peeling paint and walls with holes.
“The city needs to secure appropriate funding to fix these problems, and ensure that essential services are being provided,” Stringer said. “The agency must also start meeting its own standard for helping the 12,000 families living in shelters to find their way out of this deplorable, broken system and into permanent housing.”
Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks, who is overseeing the mayor’s homeless policy review, said the newly created Shelter Repair Squad has already cleared 12,000 violations and will continue until all violations are cleared.
“Unhealthy and unsafe conditions in shelters are unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Banks said. “As part of the comprehensive operational review just announced by Mayor de Blasio, we will carefully consider the issues raised in the audit and other reviews of the department’s operations so that we can continue to improve shelter conditions and safety and help more individuals exit shelter as quickly as possible.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr