Staring down criticism from shelter-averse neighborhoods across the boroughs, the Department of Homeless Services says it's going to compensate thousands of families willing to take in their homeless friends and relatives next year with gift cards and rental subsidies. The so-called "Home for the Holidays" program, first reported by the Daily News, is intended to move 5,000 families who have been homeless for at least three months in with hosts.
"This new City effort will reconnect homeless families with families and friends, assisting them to permanent housing," said DHS Commissioner Steven Banks in a statement.
The shelter population in NYC hit a record high of 60,000 children and adults in September, up from 51,470 in January 2014, when Mayor de Blasio took office. Advocates say that number is a lowball, since it excludes the hard-to-pinpoint street homeless population, as well as specialized services for veterans, and drop-in centers. Taking those beds into account, the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless tacked the count at 60,456 back in July, and 62,306 as of October.
In recent months, Banks has said that the city has no choice but to house homeless families temporarily in commercial hotel rooms—a "stop-gap" measure while DHS juggles simultaneous efforts to pitch new shelters to wary communities and phase out cluster site housing—a Bloomberg legacy that resulted in homeless families being placed in sordid apartments at high cost to the city. According to the Department of Homeless Services, 6,000 New Yorkers were living in commercial hotel rooms as of last month.
This latest project will be less expensive per-family than the cost of traditional shelter. According to the city, it costs about $40,000 per year to shelter a homeless family. This new program will provide monthly payments of $1,200 to $1,800 for host families depending on the size of the shelter family, plus a $500 gift card for the the homeless family, and the host. The maximum cost per-family comes to $22,600 for a full year.
A DHS spokeswoman added that host families on public assistance will get a slightly different subsidy—the city will pay the difference between their public assistance and monthly rent.
The program will focus on small families, who will still be considered part of DHS, and therefore eligible for rental and permanent housing assistance.
Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at Coalition for the Homeless, said that while she had yet to be officially briefed on the new program, it sounds "very reasonable" to her. Last year, she said, the city had success with a similar incentive for landlords to house homeless veterans.
"This does a good job of addressing what their needs are," Nortz said. "Housing is expensive and this helps build the support around [these families], helping a host family with concrete financial support, without eliminating the homeless family's eligibility for permanent housing."
"Let's say you can't really go home and stay with your mom because that setting is too crowded or there is a lead paint problem," she hypothesized. "But maybe you could go live with your aunt if she has some financial assistance. I mean, it makes sense."