• The Homelessness Crisis

Don't Forget Shelters' Role in Homelessness Crisis

Yes, solving the homelessness crisis will take more affordable housing and living-wage jobs. But it will also require a better shelter system.

On April 10th, former Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Commissioner Robert V. Hess published an article in City Limits calling on New York City’s next mayor to address the City’s growing homelessness crisis. In his piece, Mr. Hess touts the work of his former organization, DHS, and argues that the next mayor must utilize multiple city agencies to provide better access to shelters and an exit strategy out of the cycle of homelessness.

He asks a good question.  What is the next mayor going to do about homelessness? He asks the same question ringing in my head. As a Legal Advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project, I work with homeless families every day and I worry about what this next mayoral election means for my clients. I have yet to hear or read anything from mayoral candidates regarding this issue, yet over 50,000 of their constituents are in emergency shelter.  And even more families who should qualify for emergency shelter are thrown back out on the streets every day by DHS. 

I agree with Mr. Hess’s statement that homelessness needs to be a campaign issue.  But let’s address the ways that DHS can make the needs of homeless families a priority, as well.  Homelessness is the result of multiple failures in the system, such as the lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs.  But that does not let DHS off the hook and negate DHS’s responsibility in this current crisis.

I agree that the solution to homelessness lies in a citywide, multi-agency effort.  I agree that affordable housing and the creation of a new city housing subsidy program should be of top priority.  I agree that we need more living-wage jobs. Yet, while DHS does not control affordable housing and living-wage jobs, it does contribute to the number of street homeless families that are left out of DHS’s shelter census every night.

I work with families everyday as they apply and try to enter the emergency shelter system.  While the initial reasons my clients have nowhere to go does not directly implicate DHS, the reasons my clients must apply for shelter time and time again does.  These families seek out my help because, after providing what documentation they have of their required one- to two-year housing history, DHS has denied them emergency shelter.  While Mr. Hess is somehow able to compare the shelter system to both the Marriott and the hospital emergency room, I have sat next to my clients time and time again as DHS tells them that no, they will not get the help they need from the shelter system.  New York City’s right to shelter for its homeless population dates back to the 1980’s but homeless families must prove that they must have nowhere else to go.  I listen to DHS tell my clients over and over again that they do have somewhere to go, that they are not really homeless despite compiled evidence to the contrary.
DHS does not meet its legal and moral obligation to house every single individual and family that is truly homeless.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  And if we are going to address homelessness in New York City and do our best to transition our homeless population into stable, permanent housing, then DHS must uphold its moral and legal obligation to provide shelter to homeless families who have the legal right to emergency shelter. 

Stable shelter is the first step for our already homeless New Yorkers and providing that is DHS’s responsibility.  I agree with Mr. Hess that the next mayor needs to address the issue of homelessness in New York. But in doing so, the next mayor must understand how existing DHS policies are actually contributing to our city’s crisis of homelessness.

Reforming these policies, in addition to expanding affordable housing and living wage job opportunities, is an imperative if our city is to truly deliver on its constitutional promise of shelter for all.

marty oesterreich


I have no financial interest in the issue under discussion. However, I was the Commissioner of the DHS from 1999 through January 2002.

marty oesterreich


To blame the Department of Homeless Services, as Ms.Biskind does, for the problems it attempts to deal with is perverse. While I have no doubt that there are many DHS processes that should and can be improved or possibly eliminated the assessment as to alternative housing options available to family shelter applicants is essential to maintaining an "emergency" shelter system. Without such a review the system could not operate- it would simply be a "no-cost" housing resevation system. Historically, the legal oversight that closely examined DHS' operations has concurred in the options review subject to a number of of safeguards. Those safeguards are still in place, and operate well. There is no doubt that the system, composed as it ultimately is of overworked individuals, fails on occasions and makes erroneous determination, rectified ultimately through the various re-examination and appeals processes available. However, to describe errors or differences in judgement as "moral" failings does a great disservice to city workers and the agency that I was privileged to lead until 2002. No-one, from the shelter staff to the housing investigators to the attornies reviewing intake decisions comes or stays at DHS because they can exhibit or act on their "moral failings". My personal observation is that in fact it is exactly the reverse.


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