NYC Eyes Homeless Shelter Fees (Again)

New plan would require homeless to work to qualify for rent subsidies

By Jennifer Millman
|  Wednesday, Apr 14, 2010  |  Updated 1:22 PM EDT
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NYC Eyes Homeless Shelter Fees (Again)

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Should the homeless pay rent to stay in city shelters?

Strapped for cash, the city plans to charge rent to working families living in public homeless shelters starting next fall. 

It's not a novel idea.

Last May, city officials implemented a similar fee-based program only to retract it less than a month after it began.

The 3-week-old state-mandated policy applied only to shelter residents who had income from jobs, and they could have been forced to pay up to half their earnings for room and board. The concept met with staunch criticism from the homeless and their advocates, some of whom threatened to sue.

The shelter fee is already a state requirement. It stems from a 1997 state law under which shelter managers started to require families to pay a portion of their income, depending on the shelter and family size.

City officials cited "technical issues" when they suspended the program last year, but it appears they want to revive it. 

State Sen. Daniel L. Squadron, a Brooklyn and Manhattan Democrat, says it should be blocked.

There are about 36,000 people living in public city shelters, including 8,500 families with children.

Families should be encouraged to "save their meager wages'' so they can afford to leave shelters, said Legal Aid Society attorney Steven Banks. Many families don't know how they would be able to do that if they had to fork over up to 50 percent of their income.
 
But the city says it's got to find a way to cover the costs of state housing aid. Current budget constraints have already forced officials to make tough cuts; they're pressed to maximize spending efficiency. Officials had to pay back $2.4 million in 2007 that they said should have been paid by residents of homeless shelters who could afford it.
   
Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs says the shelter fees would be modest. She told The New York Times that a family earning $10,000 a year would pay $36 a month in shelter fees. The scale for determining the fees wasn't immediately clear, and Gibbs' office has yet to return NBCNewYork's request for comment.
 
Says Gibbs: "Open-ended handouts'' don't work.

The city has been giving shelling out vouchers to some homeless families for three years – including 7,500 last year -- that entitle them to steep rent discounts. In most cases, at least one member of the family works, which qualifies them for the voucher.

But families probed by welfare investigators also get vouchers – ones that entitle them to up to two years of free rent – because of the precariousness of their situation, according to the Times.
      
In an effort to curb what they perceive to be the inefficiency of such "open-handed handouts," the city wants to require more families to get jobs before qualifying for rent subsidies. The state, which pays half the cost of the subsidy program, would have to approve that proposal.

"The goal here is to create a rental assistance program that helps people move out of shelter and provides an appropriate government subsidy," Gibbs told the Times. “Anybody who can work, is capable of working, and we should help them work."

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer called for the state and city to host immediate hearings on both the shelter fees and the proposed requirements to earn subsidies before more New York families are forced onto the street.

"By proposing to charge homeless families rent at city shelters, the city is treating our shelter system like it’s a luxury hotel. Let’s agree on one thing - no one chooses to live in a homeless shelter," Stringer said in a statement. "Forcing families to pay rent for the “privilege” of staying in a shelter can have only one result – keeping them there that much longer."

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