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Program to Keep Homeless Out of Shelters Terminated

Posted: 03/31/11 11:45 AM ET

On Friday, the Department of Homeless Services will officially terminate the Advantage program, which helps formerly homeless families pay rent in private apartments. The program is intended to provide homeless families with an initial push towards stability: for a period of one to two years, people enrolled in Advantage pay 30% to 40% of their income towards rent, while the city pays the rest.

The program was initially set to be cut entirely on April 1, including terminating payments to current tenants. However, the Legal Aid Society filed suit against the city challenging the legality of such a sudden cut. As a result, the New York Supreme Court issued a provisional restraining order last Monday requiring the city to maintain payments for the month of April. The city will still no longer accept new applicants.

The Bloomberg administration has blamed the cut entirely on the state budget, which eliminates $35 million previously directed towards Advantage. As with Bloomberg's threatened teacher layoffs, the Cuomo administration has decried the city's rationale as politically motivated and disingenuous, saying the city has the means to continue running the program if it wishes to do so. But regardless of the fiscal bickering between the Bloomberg and Cuomo administrations, to the roughly 15,000 families currently enrolled in Advantage, the end of the program means a likely return to life in the shelter system or on the streets.

In the Bronx, the poorest urban county in the nation, community leaders have been organizing against the cut. Bishop Fernando Rodriguez, president of the Latin/African American Chaplains Association (LACA), held a press conference last week outside of a homeless shelter in Fordham to protest the end of the program. In conjunction with the Chaplains Workers Federation (CWF), Bishop Rodriguez also held a rally last Monday outside the Bronx Supreme Court.

Carlos Baez, president of the CWF, said in a phone interview that he believed the state should restore funding to the Advantage program. Baez, who was moved to action by several complaints from Advantage beneficiaries, recalled the poverty, drugs and prostitution that blighted his native Bronx in the early 1980s. He said the city's failure to properly care for the homeless runs the risk of resurrecting these problems.

But the effectiveness of the Advantage program is a matter of controversy. The Coalition for the Homeless, a major advocacy organization with offices in New York City and Albany, considers the program a failure, calling it a "revolving door" bringing families briefly out of homelessness only to pull them back in.

Giselle Routhier, a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the root of Advantage's failure lies in the time limits it imposes: "The idea that most of these working families will be able to pay their rent in full after just one or two years of assistance is unrealistic." According to Routhier, the Department of Homeless Service's own data underscores this fact, indicating that one out of three families that exit the Advantage program do so only to return to shelters.

The Coalition for the Homeless sees the state's cuts as an opportunity to reform the city's system of homeless aid. In a recent policy brief, it outlined an alternative to Advantage that it claims would save the city and state money and would far more successfully bring the city's homeless into long-term stable conditions. The basis of the alternative program is the redistribution of already-existing federal funds (such as those used for public housing and Section 8), along with a redesigned, city-funded equivalent of the Advantage program that sheds the unrealistic time limits and instead adjusts aid to families over time based on their ability to pay.

The end result of the Legal Aid Society's lawsuit against the city remains unknown. Legal Aid argues that the city is obligated to continue making payments until its contracts with current tenants expire. In the event that the city succeeds in fully eliminating the program, there is likely to be a spike in evictions across the five boroughs. In a sign that budgetary matters are often complexly interconnected, this may in turn prove a heavy burden to the courts: New York State's judicial system is itself facing significant layoffs as a result of Albany's new budget.