Homeless Get a Seat at the Table

Ten mayoral candidates face questions directly from New Yorkers experiencing homelessness

| 06 Feb 2021 | 03:28

The significance of Thursday night’s mayoral forum on the city’s homeless crisis was not lost on local activist Shams DaBaron. DaBaron – better known as “Da Homeless Hero” – and other New Yorkers experiencing homelessness had the rare opportunity to directly ask candidates what they would do to end homelessness if put in charge of New York City.

“To dignify those of us who are directly impacted by homelessness, by being present to listen to us, to hear our questions, to make us a part of the conversation – today you’re not talking over us, you’re talking about us, you’re talking with us,” DaBaron said in welcoming the candidates to the forum. “That says something so powerful.”

DaBaron, who emerged as a leader in the fight to keep homeless residents at the Lucerne Hotel during the pandemic, gave moving personal testimony about his experience living on the streets, and in doing so, challenging candidates on their answers.

In one instance, he described the trauma he‘s endured through encounters with police during a street sweep.

“I’m a victim of the diversion unit, and the problem I had with it is that, where they were telling me they were going to help me, and I submitted to the help, I ended up in handcuffs,” he said. “They brought me to a police station, made me take off my sneakers and threw me into a cell and then threatened to give me a ticket unless I entered the shelter system — and because of the fear of ending up with a warrant, I stayed in the shelter system.”

DaBaron co-moderated the forum with Corinne Low, who heads up the Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative – which was created in part to advocate for those staying at the Lucerne. Together, the pair pushed candidates for specific solutions to the crisis and confronted them for clarity.

Across the board, the 10 candidates participating agreed the city needs to embrace a housing-first policy and move away from the shelter system, where conditions can be unsafe and often inhumane. Converting defunct hotels and vacant commercial space into permanent and supportive housing was a popular idea among the panel. The candidates also committed to providing housing vouchers for undocumented people.

Here are the takeaways from each candidate:

Loree Sutton, retired Brigadier General and former city commissioner of Department of Veteran’s Services

Sutton pointed to her experience of decreasing veteran homelessness as the head of DVS as evidence she would be the leading candidate on this issue. For veterans, Sutton said she was able to reduce the time spent in the shelter system from 600 days down to 89 days before transitioning to permanent housing. The former commissioner deviated from other candidates on NYPD involvement in homeless outreach, saying she would pair law enforcement with mental health professionals to do the job, while others said they would eliminate police involvement altogether.

Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio

In order to address the homeless crisis, Wiley was insistent that the city must also address the housing affordability crisis. She said the city needs to think beyond just Area Median Income percentages and partnerships with private developers in order to create housing for those who are low income and extremely low income. As part of her “New Deal New York” policy, Wiley said she would invest $2 billion in new spending in NYCHA in order to provide housing to those who need it most and help create jobs.

Kathryn Garcia, former sanitation commissioner

“Housing heals” was a common refrain for Garcia in talking about her approach to eradicating homelessness. Garcia said she would prioritize housing over shelters, and would want to create “drop-in” centers where individuals could do laundry, take a shower, use Wi-Fi or take part in a social event, like watch a movie. These centers, Garcia said, could help build trust with people living on the street and help in the transition to permanent housing.

Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President

In neighborhoods where homeless individuals are currently living in hotels in Brooklyn, Adams said he has pushed the community to be welcoming and to build relationships the hotel residents, and stressed that restoring dignity to the system would be a key part in fixing the system. “Homeless people are not strangers; they are family members who have fallen on hard times,” he said. In order to create more permanent affordable housing, he would start by partnering with faith-based institutions, which he said “builds for people and not for profit.”

Shaun Donovan, former HUD secretary

Donovan said he was inspired to pursue a career in public service because of the homeless crisis in the city, and as mayor he would reimagine the right to shelter as a right to housing. Donovan said he would end the congregate shelter system in his first term and move toward safe haven model with private rooms. In the transition to permanent housing, he said he would push for greater rental assistance, including increasing housing vouchers to match market rent, making Section 8 vouchers universal, and by ending landlord discrimination against voucher holders.

Scott Stringer, City Comptroller

Like Wiley, Stringer believes that the homeless crisis and housing affordability crisis are aligned. He blamed de Blasio and former mayor Mike Bloomberg for building affordable housing that was not affordable for people who needed it most. Under a Stringer administration, he said he would take vacant city-owned properties and give them to community-based organizations to create subsidized housing for low income people. As part of his Universal Affordable Housing plan, Stringer said he would set aside 15 percent of housing for homeless individuals. The comptroller also stressed that during the transition to housing, shelters need to be made safe and humane.

Dianne Morales, the former head of Phipps Neighborhoods

For 15 years, Morales said she’s been listening to homeless individuals about their needs, and she said she is committed to drastically changing the system in this city in order to meet those needs. In doing so, Morales stressed that the city cannot recycle the same old tactics that won’t solve the long-term problems. She said that instead of the AMI system, which gives kickbacks to developers, she would prioritize social and cooperative housing that centers tenants.

Ray McGuire, former Citgroup executive

During the de Blasio years, McGuire believes a lot of money has been left on the table by not pursuing more partnerships with the private sector. “There are many available dollars out here that are prepared to be invested in solving what is a fundamental issue in this city,” he said, adding he was well suited to lead that effort because of his tenure at Citigroup. Additionally, he said he would invest in proven solutions, raise voucher value to market rate, and build housing for people who make under $30K.

Joycelyn Taylor, entrepreneur

In addressing this crisis, Taylor said policymakers need to be flexible and remember that not all solutions are one-size-fits-all. Taylor said government needs to meet unsheltered people where they are and invest in solutions that work for the people. She said she would move away from relying on private developers that prioritize profit and work towards a system that centers people. Taylor added that the city needs to award grants to landlords in order to prevent evictions amid the pandemic.

Carlos Menchaca, District 38 City Council Member

Unlike McGuire, Menchaca is skeptical of partnering with private businesses to solve the homeless crisis, saying it is the government’s responsibility to ensure its citizens are housed, and that it has the resources to do so. Menchaca said he would boost housing vouchers to give people stability, and he would also start a Universal Basic Income program that could assist people in paying for housing. The council member said he supports canceling rent and extending the eviction moratorium to prevent more people losing housing because of the pandemic, and that with the Democratic supermajority in Albany, it could be easily done.