Williams: “The executive budget also includes $60 million in cuts to the Department of Homeless Services…I find this ironic and alarming given the need to isolate homeless individuals to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
NYC Public Advocate Williams is calling for more aid to combat homelessness.
The following is Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams’ testimony at a City Council hearing of the Committees on Finance and General Welfare today.
“My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank the Committees on General Welfare and Finance, and Chairmen Stephen Levin and Daniel Dromm for holding this executive budget hearing.
“Given the massive loss in revenue that our municipal economy has suffered, the City has made extensive budget cuts. Yet, the areas in which the Administration has decided to reduce funding affect agencies that, when operating effectively, serve our communities most. The Mayor has cut funding to the Department of Social Services by more than $48 million, including $6 million in cuts to job training programs. The executive budget also includes $60 million in cuts to the Department of Homeless Services, with a $35 million reduction in hotel spending. I find this ironic and alarming given the need to isolate homeless individuals to stop the spread of COVID-19. This funding needs to be maintained so that people experiencing homelessness who need to isolate themselves can have single-occupancy rooms, rather than the double-occupancy, which only puts them more at risk of contracting and spreading the Coronavirus. DHS is also facing a $25 million cut in funding for security to DHS shelters, despite several reports of safety concerns.
“The need for the support that our social service agencies provide is only growing, and vital services need additional investment. The City has seen a significant rise in unemployment, as New Yorkers have suffered massive layoffs over the past two months. As a result, our communities are depending on food pantries to feed their families, and it is very likely that SNAP enrollment will increase. HRA manages the City’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP) which has a baseline budget of $20.2 million and a network of more than 500 food pantries and soup kitchens. HRA also administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a program budgeted at 1.5 million. The City needs to ensure that HRA has additional funding to address the expected increase in SNAP enrollment and food insecurity.
“My Office recently learned that individuals can apply for emergency assistance grants as well as ongoing Cash Assistance through ACCESS HRA. The application process includes questions to assess that an emergency grant is not needed to ensure financial security of the clients. We need clarity from the administration of the criteria used to determine eligibility for these programs, the number of applications HRA has received, and how accessible an HRA representative is, should someone need help during the application process. These financial supports need to be accessible to undocumented communities who have been left out of the federal stimulus package, despite enduring the same amount of financial hardship as their neighbors.
“The reports of the unsanitary living conditions at City homeless shelters and safe havens are alarming and only increase the likelihood of the virus spreading. Shelter residents should not be assigned to a bed that has not been sterilized after an individual who has tested positive has slept in it. Soap and hand sanitizer should be abundant, not nearly existing, and shelter sites must implement and enforce social distancing.
“These conditions present an even greater disincentive for persons experiencing street homelessness to enter a shelter or safe haven. While I applaud DHS’ efforts to relocate shelter residents to hotel rooms, the sanitary and hygiene conditions of shelters can be a matter of life or death. Last month during a Council Hearing, DHS shared they had been tracking 629 positive cases across 158 hotel rooms. Today, the City needs an update on the care and well being of these folks and how many persons who tested positive are still in DHS shelters. I am eager to hear how the Administration is providing care, promoting testing, and preventing more COVID-19 infections in shelters and safe havens.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread unemployment, increased food insecurity, and created additional public health concerns for our homeless population. I urge the Administration to prioritize and increase funding for services that improve access to food, help low-income New Yorkers, protect the health of homeless individuals, and support human services providers. I am interested in hearing from the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services today, and I look forward to gaining an understanding as to how this budget will allow them to protect the welfare of New Yorkers during this pandemic.
“I might add, with homelessness particularly, I believe and have been saying for a while that the administration had been failing with homelessness and housing well before the COVID-19 pandemic, and we were assured that they were not. I think we can all agree now that actually it was, and has now been exacerbated. I appreciate how difficult an issue this is, but this is a time when we cannot go backward – particularly as the NYPD is only facing a shave in their budget, which then means that we want the NYPD to come in and forcibly try to fix something that we have failed to fix before.”