Since taking office in January 2014, Mayor de Blasio has invested great sums of money — now more than $1 billion a year — in the city’s homeless shelter system. These efforts have been prompted, in part, by a seemingly endless stream of revelations about persistently unsafe and unsanitary conditions in those facilities.
But the mayor’s attempt to respond to the crisis in shelter conditions has eclipsed an equally important issue: how well shelters are doing at moving people into permanent housing. The promise of shelter for the homeless has never been simply about providing a safe, clean place to stay — but about moving clients back into stable living arrangements as promptly as possible.
So, how’s the city doing on that score?
We don’t know. De Blasio has no program in place to benchmark, much less reward, shelter provider outcomes.
Provider accountability was a much higher priority for his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Performance Incentive Program monitored shelter outcomes and gave financial rewards to high-performing organizations.
There is a crucial connection between shelter outcomes and conditions. One of the main drivers of the present crisis in shelter conditions is simply that the system has become too big.
De Blasio has no program in place to benchmark, much less reward, shelter provider outcomes.
Though homeless New Yorkers are guaranteed a right to shelter under city law, historically, a right to quality shelter has always proven elusive. Under his “Turning the Tide” plan, de Blasio committed to ending the city’s longstanding reliance on substandard “cluster” sites and expanding the number of facilities designed specifically to house and provide services to the homeless.
But the reality is that jury-rigged shelter arrangements like cluster sites will always be tempting when the existing system is overcapacity because homelessness is growing.
Keeping the shelter census at manageable levels requires both prudent front-door and backdoor policies. With regard to the front door, in many respects, de Blasio has followed the Bloomberg administration’s lead — with his homeless prevention programs and restricting access to shelter to only those truly without other options, at least in the case of families. (The city maintains it currently lacks authority to institute an eligibility process for single adults.)
But improving things in the backdoor — which is to say, making sure more families and single adults leave shelters for more permanent housing as quickly as possible — will require strong action.
Bloomberg’s plan is a model. Launched in 2003, the Performance Incentive Program monitored shelter provider outcomes along several metrics, the most important of which were clients’ average length of stay, the placement rate and the rate of return to shelter.
Performance data and rankings were published regularly in public reports that showed how different shelters stacked up relative to one another and the benchmark set for them by city government. High performers could increase their funding by up to 10% of the base shelter contract .
Toward the end of the Bloomberg administration, state government withdrew approval of the incentive system for families. Then, the de Blasio administration let the incentives for single adult shelters lapse and ceased publishing the performance reports. On the city’s website, the most recent reports on provider performance date from 2013.
The mayor should bring an incentive system back. A provider that strains to work with clients to quickly find them stable permanent housing should be paid more than one that reports high lengths of stay and low placement rates.
Even apart from that fact, debate about the state of homeless services will be enhanced by clear, publicly available data on provider performance.
In the world of K-12 public education, we constantly debate the merits of various charter school operators. Though homeless shelter services are mostly delivered in the same way — through government-funded nonprofits — the same level of transparency does not currently exist.
An important caveat: In benchmarking and rewarding providers, we must not incentivize those who “churn” clients in and out of shelter to artificially boost placement goals. We want to reward sustainable moveouts, which is why keeping tabs on how often former clients return to shelter is as important as how many are moved out in the first place.
The de Blasio administration is touting reports that it has stopped the shelter census from rising. That’s the least that we should expect, given that under this mayor, spending on homeless services has doubled and the economy has continued to expand.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of the new report, Benchmarking Shelter Performance in New York: A Modest Proposal for Easing the City's Homeless Crisis.