Equal funding for supportive housing

Robert Blake Resident Of Haven Apartments

Robert Blake, 43, a resident of Haven apartments who was formerly homeless, enters his apartment, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, Bronx, N.Y. Facing a swell in homelessness, the city is embarking on investing in “supportive housing” like Haven, where homeless and mentally ill residents have their own apartments with comprehensive on-site services. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Op-ed by Tori Lyon in the Daily News, January 6, 2024

A stark state funding inequity is holding back New York nonprofits from doing our best to reduce homelessness.

New York City and State can be applauded for their pioneering roles in championing supportive housing as a proven path to stability for individuals and families. Yet a stubborn blind spot remains as legislators grossly underfund one of the oldest programs in the state — creating barriers to the housing outcomes we all seek.

The New York State Supportive Housing Program, known as NYSSHP, was created in the 1980s as the first statewide initiative to provide individuals experiencing homelessness with housing and onsite counseling to get back on their feet.

The supportive housing model — where a tenant pays one-third of their income for an apartment with access to those services — is widely recognized for its success in keeping people housed. Yet the dollars allocated to NYSSHP have barely budged — currently $2,736 for individuals and $3,672 for families annually. In a seemingly parallel universe, state supportive housing units funded by the Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative (ESSHI), now in its sixth year, receive $25,000 annually. Moreover, the city’s NYC 15/15 supportive housing program sites receive $30,000 per unit.

The result of this gap is that nonprofits receiving NYSSHP funding must dip into their general coffers to meet industry-wide standards of care and cover the basics of safety and maintenance in older buildings. A $200,000 boiler replacement doesn’t fund itself.

We here at Jericho Project are a nonprofit that owns and manages nine supportive housing residences in New York City — three of which are solely NYSSHP funded — and we have invested $9 million in maintenance alone for those three.

To rectify this inequity, the state could spend a relatively modest $32 million in the next year as a first step in a five-year approach converting 9,000 severely underfunded NYSSHP contracts to ESSHI levels.

Why the discrepancy to begin with? In part, it’s due to the evolution of the NYSSHP program which began providing housing and services for a broad swath of people, including those who had fallen on hard times but not necessarily due to mental health or substance abuse issues. Today, as our industry follows a “housing first” approach — getting people into the stability of permanent housing before tackling these kinds of challenges — we support residents with vastly greater needs than originally funded.

Jericho compensates our staff equally. Yet due to funding inequities, our social workers at NYSSHP sites carry a caseload that is 40% greater than their peers in NYC 15/15 — an average 25:1 ratio compared to 15:1.

In considering this, think about a school classroom. The smaller class size allows a teacher to focus on students’ learning styles and special needs; the overflowing one results in overtime, burnout and less individual attention paid to each child. It’s also true in a supportive housing program.

Jericho was founded 40 years ago by community and faith leaders whose ethos of compassion for aging, street bound New Yorkers inspires our work today. Our extraordinary staff are the lifeblood of our mission, delivering vital services to 2,000 individuals and families annually, and running nine supportive housing residences where tenants have the dignity of their own lease and key. And it really works: 95% of our residents maintain stable housing.

Regardless of a building’s age, we create a holistic environment of support with onsite counseling and access to medical, mental health, employment and recreational services. We talk with clients about their hopes and dreams, often for the first time in their lives.

At the heart of our work are everyday heroes like Sabrina Lopez, our managing program director, who sleeps with her phone by her bed in case of emergency. She says, “many of our tenants have very difficult histories and find themselves on lonely, unprotected paths. But with our trauma-informed and non-judgmental care, they discover that they belong.”

For some, the trauma began with the loss of a parent or abuse. For veterans, it might be hidden wounds of war. For LGBTQ young adults, being ostracized by their families. Trauma does not distinguish between NYSSHP or ESSHI or NYC 15/15.

That’s why we deliver the highest level of services to all our clients. But it comes at a price. By subsidizing those services with Jericho’s general funds, we are also strangling the opportunity we have to channel them into meaningful growth and the ability to reduce the pain and change the lives of more New Yorkers.

We entreat Gov. Hochul and the Legislature as they prepare to work on the state budget for the coming year, to please reaffirm our great state’s leadership in meeting the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Lyon is the CEO of Jericho Project.

Originally published in the Daily News on January 6, 2024.