Seizing the Moment to Fix the Safety Net – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, October 2014

I recently had the opportunity to accompany Lisa Pearlstein, who leads the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless, her colleague Fiorella Herrera, and two pro bono volunteers on a visit to the Justice Center’s monthly legal clinic at the Children’s Rescue Fund House East, a homeless shelter for families.

Many of these families are comprised of single mothers and their children, and my first impression was how little had changed since I worked as a legal services attorney in Chicago thirty years ago. Some twenty years ago, Conrad Harper, one of my predecessors as president of the New York City Bar Association, wrote a column in this space entitled “Homelessness.” Among other things, Conrad lamented that it had become fashionable to complain about the visibility of the homeless and “to endorse energetic efforts for removing the destitute from heavily trafficked areas. It is easier to blame the victims than to help them,” he wrote.

Today, in comparison to prior years, the homeless are mostly out of sight, having been moved off the streets and into shelters. But a shelter is not a home. Today, the homeless population in New York City has soared to record levels not seen since the Great Depression. Over 56,000 people slept in New York City homeless shelters in July, including 23,979 children; families comprise 75% of the homeless population.

In the face of these daunting statistics, the City Bar Justice Center and other legal services organizations do what they can, which is quite a bit considering the difference they make in the lives of homeless families whose benefits are cut off, often in error. In the last five years, the Justice Center and its partners, including WilmerHale, Reed Smith, Alston & Bird, Herrick Feinstein, Hunton & Williams, Citigroup, and Columbia and NYU Law Schools, have won 99% of their cases against New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) at administrative fair hearings and forced the agency to restore thousands of dollars in Cash Assistance and SNAP (food stamp) benefits to homeless families so they can feed and clothe their children while in shelter. The Justice Center has honored with Jeremy G. Epstein Awards for Outstanding Pro Bono Service several volunteer attorneys for their work on the project: Ross L. Hirsch of Herrick, Feinstein LLP; Ann Kramer of Reed Smith; Ben Kusmin of Cooley LLP; Mara Byrne of Citigroup and Matthew W. Mamak of Alston & Bird LLP.

It’s true that in services for the homeless, there have been some positive trends to acknowledge. Today, for example, it’s possible for same-sex partners to stay together in a shelter with their children. But what are the prospects for significant systemic change? What are the chances that bearing witness to the scourge of family homelessness won’t once again fall to one of my successors as president of the City Bar in ten, twenty, or thirty years?

This may be a rare moment to seize for fixing the safety net for homeless families in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled his seriousness on the issue by appointing the former head of The Legal Aid Society, Steven Banks, as Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration. Given the view of the Coalition for the Homeless that the lack of affordable housing is the root cause of homelessness in New York City, and given the City Bar’s 2013 “Policy Recommendations for New York City’s Next Mayor” advocating  policies and programs that move people from homelessness into housing, it’s good to see that Mayor de Blasio reportedly will require that new residential buildings include affordable housing units. The City is also working with the State to create two new rental subsidy programs.

Having also urged the next Mayor to remove administrative barriers to families obtaining Cash Assistance and to end punitive welfare policies, the City Bar is pleased that Mayor de Blasio and HRA Commissioner Banks have already initiated reforms. These changes are designed to reduce the number of welfare case closings and reductions and make it easier for poor New Yorkers to access government benefits to which they are entitled.

The City Bar’s Social Welfare Law Committee, chaired by Peter A. Kempner, contributed to the mayoral report and hosted a program at the Association in which Commissioner Banks spoke about and answered questions regarding his first initiatives. HRA has invited the Justice Center and other legal services providers to participate in working groups with HRA Assistant Deputy Commissioners to formulate proposals to improve the system. Our Lisa Pearlstein is Co-Chair of the Applications Work Group, leading efforts to make it easier for mentally disabled, indigent New Yorkers to access public benefits and to eliminate unnecessary appointments, documentation requirements, and other barriers in the Cash Assistance application process. She is also pressing the City to reform specific policies and practices that lead to food insecurity in shelters and jeopardize the health and well-being of homeless children.

In the meantime, until we can get families into permanent homes and put the homeless shelters out of business, we all must continue to do what we can. Please volunteer with, or donate to, the Justice Center. As Conrad said so well twenty years ago, “In the long arc of life it is certain that we shall be touched as well by tragedy as by good fortune. We should help while we can before our own needs exceed our capacity to help others.”