Units to house all NYC’s homeless are sitting vacant: survey

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A “bureaucratic nightmare” has left 2,500 city-funded apartments for homeless New Yorkers who need mental healthcare and other social services open — enough units to house every person living on the streets or in the subways, The Post has learned.

This quiet crisis has come to light amid Mayor Eric Adams’ high-profile initiative to tackle the Big Apple’s homelessness crisis, an effort which gained new urgency as a serial killer attacked men sleeping on the streets in the five boroughs and in Washington DC.

“There is a huge need and there are vacant apartments — and there’s bureaucracy getting in the way of connecting those dots,” said Jacquelyn Simone, the policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless, whose organization runs a small number of supportive units.

“Getting an applicant into supportive housing is a bureaucratic nightmare,” added Kathleen Cash, an advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.

A recent survey by the Supportive Housing Network of New York, which represents social service providers, found that upwards of 10 percent of the city’s 25,000 apartments for homeless housing are sitting empty, a figure that was first quietly disclosed in testimony submitted to the City Council in December.

That figure of 2,500 apartments is almost the exact same as the 2,463 New Yorkers found sleeping on rough city streets or in the subway system, according to the most recent federal estimate.

A man sits under a blanket on a bench in a New York subway station.
As many as 2,500 city-funded apartments for homeless New Yorkers who need mental healthcare and other social services have been left open and empty.
AP/Mark Lennihan

Those subway- and street-dwelling homeless would not necessarily get placed in the available apartments, but people in homeless shelters would, and that would make more room in overcrowded congregate shelters for those street homeless.

The agency in charge, the Human Resources Administration, confirmed the figure in its response to questions from The Post.

“There are approximately 2,500 units of supportive housing currently available,” said spokeswoman Julia Savel, in a statement. “HRA is working alongside other agencies responsible for making referrals to supportive housing programs to ensure our clients are able to be placed.”

homeless outside the Barclay’s Center in downtown Brooklyn.
The estimate was revealed through a recent survey by the Supportive Housing Network of New York, which represents social service providers.
Paul Martinka

Activists, landlords and nonprofit social service providers say a major cause of the bureaucratic logjam is that HRA has no system to automatically match homeless New Yorkers to available units for which they are eligible.

Instead, HRA’s Office of Supportive/Affordable Housing and Services must by hand assemble the slates of prospective tenants for each apartment and then manually track who is accepted or rejected from the housing.

Sources estimated that a half-dozen or fewer people work in the overwhelmed operation. HRA did not provide a tally in response to questions.  

A homeless person sleeps under blankets next to a shopping cart of belongings in a New York subway station.
The Human Resources Administration confirmed the survey, noting it is working to fill the empty units.
AP/Mark Lennihan

The delays and frustrations are worst when it comes to re-leasing supportive units after the initial tenant departs, the sources said.

“That shop is also wildly underfunded,” added Patricia Hernandez, a top official at the Corporation for Supportive Housing. “It’s very small and not sufficient.”

The units are desperately needed as New Yorkers living in the city’s embattled shelters currently face an average wait time of more than 480 days — nearly a year-and-a-half — to find an apartment.

Brick apartment condo building exterior architecture in Fordham Heights center.
Homeless New Yorkers living in the city’s embattled shelters typically face an average wait time of more than 480 days for an apartment.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Efforts to computerize the entire process have been repeatedly delayed because of budget issues, said Hernandez, whose organization is part of a municipally-sanctioned task force to recommend improvements to HRA’s computer systems.

“There should be a quick rapid action plan to get those units filled and then there should be a task force to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she added. “We should remove the red tape to get folks into these apartments.”

The bureaucratic knots that have tied up the supply of supportive housing for homeless and needy is the latest significant shortcoming in the Big Apple’s sprawling social safety net identified by The Post in a series of recent stories. 

New York Mayor Eric Adams speaks during a news conference.
Mayor Eric Adams recently launched an outreach program to convince homeless New Yorkers to enter the shelter system.
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere via AP

The Post has highlighted how longstanding safety and sanitation woes in major city shelters are once again complicating efforts by Mayor Adams’ social services teams to convince homeless New Yorkers to come indoors. And, it revealed that most shelters — including those meant to serve the chronically homeless — don’t provide therapy and other essential mental health services on-site.

This isn’t the only problem caused by HRA’s technology woes.

The agency’s failure to create a comprehensive database also means it has no way to systematically evaluate if landlords are complying with requirements that they accept one tenant from the slate of three applicants provided by HRA.

Surveillance footage of serial killer.
The police are looking for a serial killer who targets New York City’s homeless population.
NYPD

Tenant advocates argue that some providers will reject all the candidates in a bid to find clients who need fewer mental health and social services, a process known as “creaming.” Providers have fiercely disputed the allegations.

The City Council recently passed legislation requiring HRA to track those rejections, but the agency won a one-year reprieve after revealing to lawmakers behind closed doors that it had no way to compile the statistics currently.

“The sense that I got at the time is that they did not have the capacity to collect the data and they needed time to be able to build up the system to do that,” said former Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), who was the lead sponsor on the “creaming” bill.

The legislation all but confirms Levin’s recount, requiring HRA to “review” and “incorporate” the relevant records into its system for tracking clients in time to have a report ready by Sept. 1, 2023.

NYC subway homeless
Sunday.
Providers allegedly reject homeless clients who need more mental health and social services than others, according to some tenant advocates.
Paul Martinka

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