Thursday, March 24, 2011

How do Homeless Families survive without the Advantage Program?

The Advantage Program is a housing subsidy program for homeless families which began in 2007 and is operated by the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS).  Families who go through the shelter system receive a voucher which pays a substantial part of their new rent, making it affordable for people to move to permanent housing (providing a home to house a family is less costly than utilizing the shelter system for the homeless).  This arrangement lasted for two years, during which families were expected to become stabilized, find work and begin paying their own full rent.

Unfortunately, after the two year period, about 51% of the families were unable to pay their unsubsidized rent and subsequently returned to the City’s shelter system.  Because of its high recidivism rate, the Advantage Program has come under attack and the State has proposed eliminating the program completely.  The City responded by ceasing the signing of leases for current shelter families effective March 14, 2011 and will stop rent payments to landlords effective April 1, 2011 (more info on elimination of services).  The termination of the Advantage program will affect New York City families and, in turn, some of the families with disabled children served by the Tier II program and Housing Assistance Program at Sinergia.  We are already feeling the effects, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

One of our consumers, a mother, along with her non-verbal son with intellectual and developmental disabilities, were living in severely overcrowded conditions. The young boy's behavior in school was affected by this, as was his relationship with everyone in the household. While living under these conditions he regressed substantially and became withdrawn and depressed. The family moved into one of Sinergia’s Tier II apartment, which is meant to be transitional housing until families find permanent, affordable housing. Nevertheless, it provided space for the son to move freely, and he did not have to wait in line to use the bathroom and was able to sleep in his own bed.  His teacher noted his behavior and functional progress had improved remarkably. Once her son was stable, Sinergia helped the Mom to secure a job. She then met the requirements for the Advantage voucher, and she identified an affordable apartment that accepted it. Now this dream is on hold.

Another couple with three children, one with developmental disabilities, came to Sinergia’s Housing offices this week with a letter from DHS informing them that beginning April 1, 2011 they would no longer subsidize their $1,600 rent. The couple is devastated.  A year and a half ago they entered the shelter system and with the help of Sinergia were able to get an Advantage voucher and rent a three bedroom apartment.  The husband works, but doesn’t earn enough to pay the total rent.  They are concerned about returning to the shelter system; they remembered how much their kids suffered because of the conditions and instability of being homeless.

Both families are in limbo, overwhelmed by the lack of affordable housing in the city and what the impact of facing an unknown future will have on their children. We hope the City and the State will find alternatives to the Advantage program because low income families have few options for securing affordable housing in the marketplace. Otherwise we will see the return of families living on the streets or forced into inhumane homeless shelters. Children, especially those with disabilities, will suffer the most from the instability of a family adrift without a home.

UPDATE (3/31/11) - Legal Aid believes these terminations are unlawful and filed a lawsuit on behalf of tenants whose benefits were terminated.  As a result of this filing, the City was ordered to pay Advantage rents for current Advantage tenants for the month of April pending a hearing later this month. (We don’t know if the lawsuit will resolve anything, but we’re hopeful.)

Related resources:
Legal Aid’s flyers with additional information in English and Spanish, from the New Destiny Housing website. 
NYC: 15,000 Ex-homeless Families Losing Rent Help (WSJ)
Updates from the Coalition For the Homeless

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