S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.
S2: You’re listening to working the show about what people do all day. I’m your host. Jordan Weisman. And this week we have reached our final episode of my ongoing series about people who work in homelessness services. This is a really special interview. I’m really excited about it. I spoke with Steven Banks, who is the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Social Services and also its Department of Homeless Services. You know, his title is a little bit complicated. He’s got the dual role. What’s important to realize is thanks is the guy in charge of overseeing the programs for New York City’s poorest residents, everything from food stamps to the sorts of homeless outreach that we spotlighted in earlier episodes of this series. But what makes him a really, really fascinating character is that before he was in charge of all this, he was known as a lawyer who sued the city over the inadequacy of its services for the homeless. He spent decades as an attorney and the Legal Aid Society, and he eventually ran it as the attorney in chief. And he was part of these landmark lawsuits that helped establish New York City’s right to shelter, which I’ve talked about in previous episodes.
S3: Just for review is this idea that if you live in New York state, you have a right to a roof over your head, even if it’s a bed in a temporary shelter somewhere. He was the guy pushing the city through the courts, making changes, an activist. And then in the de Blasio administration, he came inside the government. He joined as a commissioner and he’s now trying to make change from the inside. And what I love about this episode is it gives you some perspective from someone who came in, as, you know, a rabble rouser, decent guy who tried to, you know, make change the courts.
S4: And now, as a perspective of what it takes to actually push policy when you’re in charge, when you’re at the wheel. I learned a lot. Hope you do, too. Enjoy.
S5: What is your name and what do you do?
S6: My name is Steven Banks. The commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services and the Department of Social Services.
S5: What exactly falls under its umbrella?
S6: Well, you know, the the Department of Social Services provides help to probably three million New Yorkers every year. And we do so through two agencies that are now integrated. The Human Resources Administration, which provides help with cash assistance, with Medicaid, with food stamps, services for domestic violence, survivors services for adults who need protective services. New Yorkers with HIV. New Yorkers that have disabilities. And a range of other basic safety net type services, including employment services, legal services, rent arrears, payments to prevent eviction. And also the Department of Homeless Services, which is charged with providing shelter as a result of court orders to go back to the 1980s and making sure that people are provided with a roof over their heads and people on the streets bringing them in from the streets. And we do that with a workforce of daily 17000 staff members. And the overall annual budget of the departments of services is approximately 12 billion dollars. Most of that is in the form of assistance provided to our clients.
S5: So you’re the man in charge of the agencies that help New York’s most vulnerable. That makes sure everyone from HIV patients and domestic abuse victims to the homeless get some sort of help from the city where we provide the safety net with all other safety nets fail.
S1: I think in order for our listeners to understand your current job and why it’s interesting that you are in your current job, they have to know about your old job. You used to be known as the guy who sued the departments you now run. That was your main job.
S7: I’m getting that about right. Correct.
S6: That’s true. Ed Koch once said no one sued him as much as me, but he thought I was a good kid.
S1: So why were you terrorizing Ed? Why were you suing the city back in the day?
S6: I was a legal aid lawyer for 33 years.
S8: The last 10 at the Legal Aid Society, I was the attorney and chief responsible for running the organization. And the clients of the Legal Aid Society are clients that have desperate needs. And sometimes those needs would not be met by government. And my role and the organization’s role is to bring litigation on behalf of individuals and also on behalf of groups of clients in cases that are often known as class actions in order to help individuals in desperate need of help, children, adults who needed a helping hand and to offer from government got the back of the head.
S1: And you were you were instrumental in the cases that established New York’s right to shelter. Correct?
S8: That’s right. And the Coalition for the Homeless was a longstanding client of mine, the Legal Aid Society’s, through many years of that litigation.
S5: Tell me a little bit about those cases. How did they get started and exactly what did they accomplish in the end, though?
S9: Litigation that the Legal Aid Society brought on behalf of New Yorkers experienced homelessness, sort of the classic way in which the Legal Aid Society helps people as a group of neighborhood office lawyers.
S8: We began to see particularly families of children coming in for help. And we identified a problem across the city of of homeless children, adults who needed assistance and were being denied that assistance. And that led to a class action litigation which eventually led to major court orders. And in the world that I had and Legal Aid Society had as counsel to the Coalition for the Homeless. We also litigated the cases that involve enforcement of a right to shelter for single adult women and single adult men as well.
S5: It’s really interesting to me because it seems like the entire infrastructure that New York has created for helping the homeless is really built on these court cases. It’s all derived from these court cases that you filed. And it took, in some cases, 25 years to kind of finally settle on them. Is that is that right?
S8: The Families with Children case, for example, was only settled in 2008 after 25 years of hard fought litigation through a multiple mayoral administrations. There were repeated efforts to try to limit the government’s role in providing, as I said, a helping hand. But I have to say that, you know, one of the problems that. I always saw through these years of litigation on behalf of families, of children and on behalf of single doubt and single adult women. It was the government’s response to litigation was to manage to the court orders as opposed to having a comprehensive response to prevent homelessness in the first instance, whenever possible, provide decent shelter and provide re-housing services to connect people to permanent housing, as well as addressing New Yorkers on the streets. So, you know, a missing ingredient through all those years of litigation was a comprehensive plan that resulted in really a very haphazard shelter system being developed that again was responsive to court orders, but not attempting to transform the way that the city approached homelessness.
S1: I want to make sure I understand that correctly. It sounds like you’re saying is that you’d win a case or get a settlement and the city would respond by trying to do maybe the bare minimum or stick to the black letter of what the judge had ruled and fulfill its obligations that way. But as a result, you got kind of this wacky, not necessarily coherent system that didn’t necessarily serve people now.
S8: Well, absolutely. I think it’s important to remember what the sort of underlying legal basis for the right to shelter in New York City is, which is the state constitution, has a provision in Article 17 of the state constitution that makes providing aid and care to the needy, state and local government responsibility. And it was developed in a constitutional convention that was held in New York state in 1938 against the backdrop of shantytowns in Central Park and along the East River and the Hudson River. You ever saw the movie Cinderella Man? You’d be able to relate to what people are going through at that time. And the delegates at the convention said this should not happen, that we have to do more for those in need. And that was the basis of this constitutional provision, which for many years there had been efforts to enforce it, to make it a living, breathing, legal provision to to protect people from harm. And that was eventually when when the courts were confronted with modern mass homelessness in the late 70s, early 80s, that courts began enforcing this constitutional obligation, which resulted in the series of court orders in your city requiring the provision of shelter to two adults and to children.
S1: When did you decide that you wanted to go from suing the government to actually being a part of it?
S6: Well, you know, when I knew the mayor for many years, when he was a community activist, when he was a member of city council public advocate, you ran against him for city council in 2001, right?
S8: 2001 was the first term limit year, which the council was changing as a result of the charter change. And to me, it was an opportunity to potentially have an impact in a different way.
S6: The mayor and I ran a I would like to describe it as a high level debate on the issues or six candidate race. He came in first. I came in second. But as I always like to say, if I knew, I could have become head of the Legal Aid Society, which I eventually to pick up had I went to run for the city council. It’s a terrific role to be in the city council. But, you know, my heart and soul was with the legal side as an institution. And when I got the opportunity to lead it, when we were about a half a second from bankruptcy to really help save a fundamentally an organization which is fundamentally part of the social fabric of the city, that was a tremendous opportunity. But if I knew I could have become ahead, I would have I would have focused on that. But I knew the mayor’s career. I knew that he knew these issues. He had been the chair of the General Welfare Committee. And after suing for mayors and six governors, I knew he was somebody that understood the needs of our of the clients that I represented for so many years. And that by becoming the commissioner initially, I was the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, that this would be a way to meet the needs of clients that I cared about very deeply, because for the first time, I had had a mayor who actually understood the challenges of my clients and wanted to do something about it. And frankly, by appointing the head of the Legal Aid Society to be the head of the Human Resource Administration, the mayor was clearly demonstrating that he wanted fundamental change, that at the Human Resources Administration two years into the administration, I was mayor asked me to conduct a 90 day review of homeless services, which I did during the early part of 2016. And that. Really was a way to look at how we could serve clients more effectively who are interacting with both the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services.
S9: In the 90s, when there was a proposal to break the department’s homeless services out of the Human Resource Administration, there were three people that opposed it. One was Mary Brosnahan, on behalf of the Coalition of the Homeless and other was Charles Ardsley on behalf of Local 371, the workers union, and one was me. On behalf of the Legal Aid Society. And all of us said that by breaking out the homeless agency from the Human Resources Administration to be more difficult for clients to navigate these agencies. In the end, the agency had the tools to prevent homelessness and to help rehouse clients with financial assistance. HRA Resource Administration would be cut off from its role in trying to address homelessness and that one agency, the Department Homeless Services, would be left to simply try to provide shelter. And what we saw beginning in nineteen ninety four when the power of homeless services was taken out of HRA was between 1984 2014 there was one hundred and fifteen percent increase in homelessness in the city. Most pronounced between 2011 and 2014, when the city and the state ended the Advantage Rental Assistance Program. So by the time we got to 2016 and the mayor asked me to do an audit area of homeless services, one of the key reforms was to integrate DHS back with HRA so that clients could get a comprehensive approach to their needs and the city could have a finally now a comprehensive approach to homelessness as opposed to the haphazard approach that resulted from managing to court orders for almost four decades.
S5: You know, it sounds like when you were a lawyer, there was a part of you that was saying, man, if I was if I was running things, I’d be doing it differently. Like, did you used to kind of imagine what you’d be doing if you were in the position you are now?
S8: Well, I learned a lot about institutional reform at the Legal Aid Society. I learned about it from two different perspectives. One was by litigating class actions against the government, principally these two agencies that I now run. I took a lot of depositions of government officials and I learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t work from a management perspective. And then when I became head of the Legal Aid Society, when it was, as I said, a half a second away from bankruptcy. In other fundamental reforms that were needed to to make the Legal Aid Society an even better organization. So I had experience with institutional reform, both as an outsider with the two government agencies that I run, as well as other government agencies that I brought litigation against at multiple levels of government. And then I had direct experience in managing institutional reform that as a legal aid say, I always like to say that the legal aid was a great proving ground for to be a manager and to have this job in particular because know the managed workforce of about 900 people. But eleven hundred of those people were lawyers and not just lawyers, but legal aid lawyers who are hired, for one, you know, over arching qualities, the ability and the skill at questioning authority. And when you’re running the organization, you are authority.
S10: So that certainly prepared me for having a job running to agents.
S5: Yeah, it’s it’s sort of like running a newspaper or a Web site. Right. You got a bunch of people who whose entire job it is to give people in authority, flack. So it’s hard to manage them yet.
S1: I think when a lot of people hear the words institutional reform, their instinct is probably to like to be blunt is to tune out. Right. It sounds boring.
S10: Absolutely. Absolutely. But totally unnecessary.
S5: No. But at the same time, what you’re saying right now about how important is that these two agencies were separated. Right. The social services and the homeless services. And they were they were, you know, rendered apart back in the day they separated. And how that was making it hard to to help the homeless. I think that if people been listening to these interviews I’ve been doing, that kind of brings them together. Because one thing, things I think I’ve been learning, talking to people who who work in these services is how integrated everything is. Right. Like how it matters that you get your snap benefits and your work support and people help get you on Medicaid while you’re also looking for housing, that it’s all part of one big process. You can’t have all these different people and services operating independently of each other.
S8: Absolutely. Is looking at it, you know, on a human level. I come to this work we’re having represented, you know, thousands of thousands of clients over the years. And, you know, I came to too government with a client perspective of. The challenges that clients had interacting with the two agencies that I I run and in developing the forms first did HRA and then during the 90 day review of homeless services, I did focus groups with with clients, focus groups, the conversations of clients that came to the agency. HRA originally with a clients perspective and I used the direct discussions with clients to help shape the reforms we had. We implemented a HRA. But you know, one of the sort of basic ways to look at this is for anyone who’s listening is to have one agency is responsible for providing rent arrears to prevent evictions and another agency is responsible for providing shelter. You know, the commissioner and the leadership of the agency that’s responsible for providing rent arrears. Does it also have the challenge of everyday making sure there’s enough shelter? So every individual eviction matters. And so making a determination on the client level to provide a renters grant is what’s going to keep a roof over that person’s head. And then for the Department of Homeless Services not have to provide shelter, that individual. So by joining the two commissioners and to one commissioner, they let the commissioner, the Department of Social Services, I think it enables the agency to see individual client needs in a more comprehensive way and enables the individual client to experience the services of the agency in a more comprehensive way.
S7: I want to get back to the policy stuff in a minute.
S1: But, you know, I have a more of a a management question for you right now, which is you walk into these agencies on day one that you were you know, again, you spend a lot of your time challenging and suing and making life difficult for. And how did you assure people who might’ve been wary about you that you were gonna be able to work with them, that you weren’t just showing up to a clean house?
S8: So the mayor appointed me on a Friday morning. And I wanted to come talk to the senior staff of the Human Resources Administration. And I should say, with the Human Resources Administration slash Department of Social Services, that was the name of the agency a little.
S7: Um. Yeah.
S6: And read out to me, you can see why re-integrating HRA and adjust together under the umbrella of the Department of Social Services. It made sense to do. But on that first day and in February 2014, I went to the headquarters of the Human Resources Administration, which is literally a block away from the headquarters of the Legal Aid Society, both on Water Street. And you know, there’s some great descriptions by some of my colleagues who who describe the when it was announced they were listening to the announcement of the Human Resources Administration commissioner, who would be the head of their agency.
S9: There were gasps when it was announced that someone who had sued the agency for somebody years on behalf of clients was now going to be the head of the agency.
S6: But I looked at the leadership of the organization in the same way that I looked at the leadership of the Legal Aid Society when I became head of an organization that I had grown up in. I went I was an intern at the Legal Aid Society and became the head of the organization. And one of my favorite things when I was the head of Legal Aid was addressing the interns every every summer and telling them that one of them could run the organization, that they should make the most of their time as an intern. But by my approach to working with the leadership of the Human Resource Administration was to understand what their challenges were and what was standing in the way of what they wanted to accomplish, because the people that came to the Human Resource Administration wanted to work and serve people. That was the lawsuits that I brought. All those years were never about the people there, about the policies. And, you know, my very first conversation with the leadership was really convey to them that I was interested in and policy changes. And I was interested in working with people in that room who knew how to operate the agency and that I was going to be very much a hands on manager. And I wanted significant policy changes that after 20 years of policies that I thought resulted in not helping clients in the way that I wanted them to be helped in the way of the marijuana, them to be helped. And what I actually found was a leadership very hungry to change 180 degrees, frankly, because they came to serve low income people. And now the agents who be moving in that direction, as opposed to many of the punitive policies in the past which didn’t serve clients well. So I came with an open mind and a desire to build a team of leaders and. I was met with people who were leaders who wanted to make the kind of fundamental changes that I wanted to make. Look, I need not not to dwell on management. Management is a major part of being able to make institutional reform. When I became head of the Legal Aid Society at that time, there were a series of direct reports, about 20 direct reports to the attorney chief and I reduced that to a much smaller number because in order to effectively manage, I think you have to have direct contact with your key team of managers on a regular basis to to drive policy changes and to help support people in driving policy changes.
S9: And so what I came to HRA, the commissioner had again, 20 plus reports, direct reports, and I wanted to organize the agency in a way and which made much more sense to have less than half that number of direct reports that would organize the agency in a more effective slated to deliver services to clients. So rather than having multiple programs reporting directly, the commissioner, I appointed Lisa Fitzpatrick to be the head of all the programs. And rather than have multiple sort of services. Heads of services be to the commissioner went to someone named Dante. So I brought into the agency to be the head of special services. And I created a homelessness prevention part of the agency in order to really to highlight even before I had done the night, there were group homes, services that I felt that HRA could do more to prevent homelessness. And that was the part of the agency where we built up the initial pilot programs to provide legal services to prevent evictions and to provide legal services for for immigrants in need of legal help. And so just reorganizing the management, that was a key part of changing the direction of the agency.
S5: So you walked in and said it’s time to fix this org chart, number one.
S8: Above all, you also said spent the time I knew I needed time to wrap up my leadership of the Legal Aid Society. And I also took myself out of involvement with all litigation as soon as I was appointed. But I spent the month of March before my first day on the job, which was April Fool’s Day. I spent the month of March conducting focus groups with advocates and legal services providers and client groups to really hear what an agenda from the change would be. And literally beginning my first day, we began to implement significant changes. The changing the management was part of it. Changing the policies was the other part of it. But we needed to change the management structure in order to drive the policy changes that people who were outside the agency thought were needed. And frankly, people inside the agency were needed was going into government.
S5: Like you expected I mean, were there things that surprised you about it?
S11: A friend of mine in the council said to me, I think after I was in government for about a year, they said, you must be so frustrated given the pace of change. And I said, actually, things are so much faster as the commissioner than by bringing litigation. You can make change so much more quickly by running the agency than by suing the agency.
S5: So let’s take an example of change. I think people are interested in how an idea you might have, you know, goes from just an inkling, a thought to actual policy. Let’s take attorneys for people in housing court. You know, I talked to someone who who does that for my my first episode of the series. Where did that idea start?
S8: Well, you know, this is something actually the mayor and I had spoken about a lot when he was the chair of the General Welfare Committee and a council member. You know, we used to both engage in the in the budget dance, and I used to come and meet with him at and request funding from the council because it wasn’t forthcoming from the administration to be able to prevent tenants are being evicted. And so the importance of providing funding for civil legal services to prevent evictions was something that he was committed to. I was committed to obviously having run the Legal Aid Society for along for 10 years. Penalty Benally Laidler for 33 years. Providing counsel to level the playing field is critically important.
S6: I remember when I was beginning Legal Aid lawyer that one out of every hundred tenants would have a lawyer and virtually all of the landlords would have representation. And you could see the difference with a lawyer in a house and court case. You know, used to say that, you know, providing a lawyer would make something that seemed impossible to prevent the loss of your home possible.
S9: And, you know, typically tenants were literally David against Goliath, but a lawyer could beat Goliath on behalf of David Dunn. It’s the week. So the concept was one that was I was very committed to coming into government, but the mayor had a deep understanding of this issue and of the importance of council.
S8: But, you know, it’s like so many things I found at the Legal Aid Society that we’ve done once I’m in government, it’s important to test programs, put them in place. See what what how they should could operate most effectively and then take them to scale. So we came in and and one of the very first reforms was taking all of the disparate legal services programs that were partially funded in different city agencies and bringing them all under one roof at a tray. So maximize impact for low income families, individuals by having it be one place where where leadership and management of the legal services programs would be. When I came in, the city had been funding legal services to prevent evictions to the tune of about six million dollars. And in that very first year, there was additional funding that we added to the budget in order to increase the availability of legal services in certain key zip codes. We’re on a parallel level. The Robin Hood Foundation had funded the Legal Aid Society to develop a new a new method of providing services called housing help to be court based and seek to serve virtually everyone in particular neighborhoods. And so we had models that we began testing right in the beginning in 2014. And then there was a significant increase in funding in 2015 to take the initial models further. And then by the time we got to 2017, we negotiate an agreement with the council to create the first in the nation right to counsel universal access to counsel law, which takes that original $6 million in funding when fully implemented will be one hundred and sixty six million dollar program.
S6: And you know, what we’ve found is between 2014, when we first began to pilot universal access right to counsel availability in housing court through last year through 2018, evictions are down about a third in New York City, which means that more than a hundred thousand people have been able to keep a roof over their heads. And so we went from a world in which one out of every hundred tenants had a lawyer to a world in which now one in every three has a lawyer. And then the key zip codes that we’ve targeted implementation. It’s now more than 60 percent of the tenants have representation. And when we get to full implementation in 2022, that fiscal year, we will be investing a hundred sixty six million dollars annually to help 400000 New Yorkers avoid losing their homes.
S5: When you have an idea or you have something you want to run by the mayor, I mean, do you sit down with him in a formal meeting with a slide deck and do a presentation? Or since you know him or have numbers along that, you just kind of sit down to chair and say, hey, how about this? Or let’s let’s try that. How does that relationship work?
S8: Well, first, there’s almost constant contact discussion with the mayor about a whole range of topics. But it’s the key people in government are, you know, the head of the Office of Management Budget, originally Dean the head. Now, Mel Hartzog, who headed his role as first deputy mayor previously Tony Shaw, as you know, the intergovernmental team, I’m a wolf. These are all key people who care about the clients of the agencies that I run. There are people that I’ve known for many years. DB Going back to Albany, you know, when I first started representing clients, the interests of clients before the legislature, state legislature. So there are a lot there are like minded people in this administration who care deeply about the clients of the agencies that I run. And so therefore, ideas like expanding access to counsel emerge when like minded people who care about the clients or involved are looking for ways to improve services. But like, as I describe to you, what’s most important is to show that it works.
S9: And so by implementing a series of pilot programs beginning in 2014, we’re in a position in 2017 to take access to counsel. Right, to counsel to scale.
S5: What is your day like now?
S8: I mean, literally, no two days are necessarily the same.
S6: I guess if you’re interviewing my wife, she would give up all its secrets. So I’ll just tell you, you know, my day begins sometime between 5 and 5:30 in the morning, looking at what the night before look like. Numbers of people seeking shelter from our agency, what the emergency is over the course. It may look like my wife says I should send e-mails to staff after midnight and I should go to bed already, but I have to admit the exceptions are swallowing up the rule.
S9: So, you know, this is a these are this is an agency, the departments of services, and it’s to constituent parts, HRA and DHS that are fundamentally about serving people. And so throughout the day, whether it’s in a challenging individual client problem or implementation of a policy change or making a policy change itself, they’re always grounded in people. And they’re people that are both are clients that we serve at our frontline workers who are who are the keys to to delivering effective services. And so a lot of the reforms that we’ve implemented are have been implemented with an aim of being positive for clients as well as your staff.
S5: You said something very interesting there that you said. You said whether it’s an individual like a challenging individual client. Do individuals come to your attention? Yes. Like a single family. Well, we’ll come to your attention, possibly.
S6: Single family can come to my attention or single individual client and come to my attention in a range of different ways. During my work day, I get e-mails from people who sent me e-mails directly. I had direct e-mails at the Legal Aid Society about client concerns. And I get direct e-mails now about client concerns.
S5: Is that like I have I’m having trouble, you know, getting my my housing application done or my food stands out? And what what kind of e-mails are you getting directly?
S8: I’m going to be evicted. I need help. I found an apartment. I need help looking into it. Having a challenge with my food stamps. I need additional services because I’m a survivor. Domestic violence. I mean, they’re very poignant requests for help. And they come directly to me and I ask his staff to look into the concerns of the clients so we can address them simply. I get e-mails from individual staff raising concerns about their work life. And I take the same approach there as well. But one way is individual clients reaching out directly to me. Another way is individual client cases being brought to my attention by key leaders who know that I’m interested in individual clients and struggling through how we might meet someone’s needs more effectively, which could lead us to making a policy change that could affect large numbers of clients. Again, it’s the same approach that has the Legal Aid Society, which we represented individual clients and then could see potentially systemic challenges or systemic problems. By understanding an individual’s challenge and we apply the same approach here, which is an individual case might reveal the need for policy change.
S9: In addition, I know I participate in town halls, I participate in focus groups, I shop directly to clients. I got our outreach with our outreach teams. I see clients in shelters. I see clients in centers that are run by HRA, whether they’re food stamp centers or job centers or the other kinds of centers we operate. So there’s a whole range of client facing. I meet with leadership on the hands on manager. I meet with key leaders on a regular basis series of standing meetings so that people have access to raise concerns. We when I first came, I wanted to really drive policy changes. And so we had a weekly policy meeting where we’re looking at each individual deliverable of the reforms we made in order to move forward. Let me give you an example, which maybe maybe two different examples would would be helpful here. So again, on April 1st, 2014 was also my first day on the job. It was also the day which the state budget was passed in that state budget. There was a 10 million dollar penalty to New York City, to the human resources ministration fraud necessary the hearings, unless the city reduced the numbers of challenges that clients had to how they felt they were being treated in terms of their cases and other issues with cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid and other other needs. And so I saw this challenge of potentially facing a ten dollar penalty as an opportunity to look at what kind of reforms we could make and how clients experienced our agency. And so by delineating the serious reforms to reduce unnecessary for hearings, client challenges before the state to how they’re being treated, we’ve been able to actually reduce the number of hearings by 47 percent. So nearly 50 percent decrease in the numbers of instances in which clients are challenging actions taken by the agency.
S6: And when I met with frontline staff, staff said we no go back to my very first day. I wanted to be meeting with frontline staff at all five boroughs where we have offices. My first year went to literally every office, but my first day I didn’t want to leave behind a. I wanted to be out in the field with our staff here to talk to them about what my vision was for moving forward with the agency and making the reforms that I knew the mayor wanted to make and that I wanted to make. And I was part of that initiative. I should say, by the way, I went to Staten Island, the first office that I visited, which is somewhat ironic because I began my legal career in the state holiday but office of a Legal Aid Society. But I went to Staten Island. I made a big speech about all the changes that we needed to make.
S8: First question, Commissioner. After suing us for for all these years, what qualifies you to be the head of this agency, which I thought was a great question.
S9: And then I also got questions. That first day was like, we know you for the clients, but are you for us? But the fair hearing reform and the fair hearing process was part of addressing both client needs and worker workload. And I said to the staff on the very first day. And so let me ask you this. The client is receiving assistance in January. We cut off their benefits effective in February. They bring a fair hearing. They win the hearing. And then in March or April, you have to reopen the case or restore the benefits. So you’re touching that case multiple times for hearings that we could have avoided in the first place if we had taken a different approach to whether or not that case should be closed or those benefits should be reduced. And by looking at the challenges of clients in the clouds and challenges of staff on the front line, what I have been communicating is by addressing client needs, we can also address worker workload. And so that was one of the key pieces of constructing ways to change the approach to to hearings in that way. Similarly, you know, there used to be a rule in which if you violated a work rule, you would be essentially subjected to durational public assistance challenge. So even if you came back and said, hey, I want to comply with that rule, you would still be in effect sentenced to have your benefits reduced for a set period of time. That was a state law requirement when we went to Albany and we worked with the state legislature and eliminated durational sanctions. So if the client wanted to have their case reopened by re-engaging with work, we have now our workers have the authority to do that. So those are the kinds of things that I think, you know, illustrate making positive changes for both workers and staff.
S5: So what you’re saying is taking a slightly less punitive approach with these benefits kind of reduces bureaucracy to.
S9: On the question of durational sanctions, we have. We have an historically low number of people who are subjected to sanctions now. About 1 percent. But on the other hand, we have all series of engagement. Isn’t it better to try to engage clients in our work programs to simply impose a direction, durational sanction? I think that that’s what we’ve been able to show. And a lot of people said, oh, by the way, when we implement all these reforms, that will result in a dramatic increase in the caseload. I think if you look at the press at the time, people said it’s going to go to the bad old days. You know, a million people were receiving public benefits. Actually, I said all along that the annual number of people receiving our cash assistance would stay roughly flat. What would change is this sort of monthly churning by putting down on an unnecessary case closings and unnecessary sanctions. And I think what we’re doing in the food stamp area sort of exemplifies what our approach has been, which is, you know, you and I do our banking online. Right. We don’t go we don’t go to a bank to do our basic banking. And our clients fundamentally are the same as you and I in the sense that why require someone to come into our office if you can give access to do things online?
S8: So we received a series of waivers from the federal government, from the state to essentially create a online portal, access HRA to give people the ability to do phone interviews for eligibility and recertification and to allow people to submit documents online, including their application and to submit documents literally from a smartphone. And so what we’ve found is, you know, like 97 percent of clients are able to do their interviews on the telephone.
S9: And, you know, almost 90 percent of clients use the online submission process to for their application. And that is cut down the foot traffic and our food stamp offices by more than 50 percent, thereby dramatically improving both the client experience and our staff experience. And we have plans to replicate that approach for cash assistance, which will be again, lasting change for clients and for our staff. But each one of these institutional reforms requires tremendous management by our our key leaders and requires staying on task in order to. This thing is a reality for both staff and clients.
S5: It sounds like you’re kind of you’re all over the place during the day or in meetings you’re in, you know, staff visits, your town halls. I mean, how much of your day is is scheduled? Do you have any just downtime to think? And do you have any control of your day or is it all just sort of they’re laid out for you?
S6: Well, you know, our clients have emergency needs. So I schedule frequently reflects the emergency issues that we that we have to address on behalf of our clients.
S9: Look, I carve out some time in every day. Typically not between nine and five to be able to plan. What are the key tasks that need to get done in that day and what are the key tasks that need to get done the next day? And what are the things that are takeaways from the activities that I’ve been involved during the day? I am blessed with a great senior staff. We’ve built a leadership team here that is very much focused on the reforms that we’re implementing, the needs of clients. And so this is not a one person show. This is a team effort. And we’ve put together a team that I think this really made tremendous changes for clients. But we know there’s more to do. You know, I am acutely aware of the reality of making major reforms, the kinds of reforms that people have wanted for, you know, 20 years.
S8: When I first came in first to age or identity adjusted 2016, that on any day of the week, any client could walk into any one of our offices, any one of our cell shelters and not receive the full benefit of the reforms. I want to let out my frustration always is we have, you know, tens of thousands of clients who have benefited from the reforms that we’ve put in place so we can talk through, you know what I mean by that in a minute. But still, on any given day of the week, we have clients that might not realize the full benefit of their form. So that’s what’s driving us to continue to make the changes that we know our clients need.
S5: So you’ve faced criticism. People talk about how the city’s homelessness problem is intractable, how you know, the numbers of street homeless individuals are in the the numbers in the shelters aren’t going down enough. You know, you’ve had, you know, a congressman from Queens show up at your door front and call for you to be fired because of where you were citing shelters. I think he may have called you that, you know, the worst director of homelessness ever, which. That’s I think he was I’m not sure I would agree. But what is it like to be on the receiving end of these criticisms now after being the one who was lobbying them before?
S9: So let me also try to. For those who are listening, try to set some other factual record straight, which I think is helpful. And then let me respond to what I think is a very good question. You’re asking me let me go back to the beginning. I’m a legal aid lawyer.
S8: I’ve learned the hard lessons that what it takes to really Laidler, which is sometimes to have everyone against you accept your client. And ultimately, if you stay client focused and client centric, that’s the most important way to be. So that’s the attitude I came into government. I had very thick skin for being at the legal age for 33 years, including last 10 running the place. Remembering, as I said, that at the Legal Aid Society, people are hired to question authority. And when you’re the head, you are authority. So modern mass homelessness is really almost a 40 year phenomena. And as know we said, we were talking before there was a 115 percent increase in homelessness between 1994 and 2000 and 14. And, you know, that increase in homelessness came against a rents going up nearly 19 percent and income going up less than 5 percent and the loss of about 16 percent of the rent regulated apartments, 150000 units.
S9: So the deep affordability crisis that has built up over many years and that’s a driver of homelessness. But, you know, as we said, for all of those years, the government really didn’t have a underlying vision of how to address homelessness. I remember when we were seeking contempt against officials in the Dinkins administration that one day an executive deputy commissioner of HRA by the name of Jeff Capos, he’s passed away, was really a dedicated public servant. I asked him under cross-examination in court what it would take to comply with the court orders that the government was was violating. So it really requires a combination of prevention, decent shelter and rehousing services to help people that are shelter. It’s really that simple and that simple comprehensive approach was missing for many years. Imagine the quarters when I was asked to conduct the 90 day. Review and homeless. Homeless services and then we announced the turn of the tide plan two thousand seventeen. We’ve been fundamentally transforming the approach to homelessness. Literally the last three years. Against a background of a 40 year problem. But we laid out a program that was really built on four pillars. And let’s just look at where we are now. A couple of years later. So the first pillar was prevent homelessness where whenever possible. As Jeff Karpel said somebody years ago in the early 90s, and by investing in legal services and providing rent arrears payments now to a more than a quarter of a million instances in New York City, we’ve been able to drive down evictions by about a third while, whereas evictions are going up all around the country. So on that first pillar. How are we doing driving down evictions by by about a third is a significant entered kater that the reforms are taking hold there in terms of rehousing, the element that Jeff Carpas talked about, one hundred and thirty three thousand people have been rehoused by the Department of Social Services using every social service tool that we have. The vast majority of those hundred thirty three thousand men, women and children are people we moved out of shelter. A third pillar of that turning the tide plans that sort of had its roots to the 90 day review in 2016. And we announced a plan to 17 third pillar was transforming the city’s approach to shelter. So instead of this haphazard approach, wherever the city could open shelters, it would we said we’re going to close and get out of 360 substandard shelters and open a small number of 90 borough based shelters to give people an opportunity to be provided with shelter closest to the anchors of their lives, like jobs, schools for children, health care, houses of worship, family and friends. Reasoning that by getting people closest possible to those anchors of life, people would be able to regain stability as quickly as possible. Move back into the community. And where are we with that? Well, in less than three years, we’ve gotten out of more than 200 substandard sites. Well, on the way to hitting the 360 sites and we have cited 60 shelters out of the 90, 30 of which are already up and running. And the fourth pillar, addressing street homelessness, bringing people off the streets. More than two thousand four hundred and fifty people have been brought off the streets to that sixteen who remained off the streets. That’s life changing for four, 24, 150 plus people. And as we just announced today, we’re going to take their progress further by opening 1000 or safe haven beds and a thousand more permanent housing apartments through the departments of services tools. And as a result of all this, we’ve been able to hold the shelter census flat for the last two years for the first time in a decade. Breaking that trajectory of growth. And we’re confident that we’re going to begin to see reductions in the shelter census. And with a new approach to bringing people off the streets, that’s resulted in 20, 450 plus people coming in or remaining off the streets. With the new tools we announced today, we will be able to eliminate and long term street homelessness in your city. Those cities tried to do that. So these are challenges. These are serious problems that have built up for many, many years. But we do see signs of progress. But as I said, look, my concern is always so many people have benefited from their forms. You know, more than a hundred thousand people have remained in their homes because of the prevention initiatives. One hundred thirty three thousand people securing permanent housing because of the social services provided housing tools. Twenty four hundred.
S10: Well, it’s these are these are life changing. But my challenge is always there are more people we need.
S5: That was going to say it sounds like what you’re saying is you’ve got a 40 year problem and you’re being asked to fix it in five years and you just want to shout back. Look, we’re doing be patient. We’re fixing the system is kind of, you know, the number. The number of homeless people in shelters might have been hovering at 60000 for a few years, but not going up anymore. Progress takes some time. That’s that’s how that’s what I’m hearing as you explain all that.
S9: Well, I appreciate your reaction, but I want to just caution once I don’t see my role as shutting back. I see my role as delivering for the clients that the agency is to serve. And so if you look at those four pillars, you can see how we’ve been able to deliver. Now, as to the council member who protested at my house as a member, Erlich Grass as a county member, and others who protested my house about shelter citings, look for the people who are going to be able to be sheltered closer to. The anchors of their lives. That’s the life changing process that we’re in. And if the price I have to pay is said council member and others are going to protest and from my house. My obligation is to meet the needs of our clients. I self-images factually one of the reasons why he said I should be fired is because I had no plan to prevent homelessness. I would I would just refer everyone to the facts here, which is near cities leading the nation in innovative approaches to prevent homelessness, which is the reason why evictions are up all across the country and down by Morna or in New York City. So having actually innovative programs and a vision on preventing homelessness is not a fair criticism to say that that’s lacking.
S5: Let’s talk about shelter siting. This is a controversial issue all across the country. It’s everyone says they want the homeless to be housed or to have shelter. And no one wants that shelter in their neighborhood. How much resistance have you found to building new, improved shelters from local neighborhood groups?
S9: I say this with all with all humility. I think a lot of the focus is on the disputes and it’s not enough focus on the communities that are welcoming their neighbors back into their community. You know, with cited 60 shelters in less than less than three years, 30 of them already up and operating more will be coming online out of the ones who been cited. They’ll be siding more. But I think to me, what has been gratifying is the fundamental compassion of New Yorkers welcomed their neighbors in the form support networks for the families and individuals in our shelters. There’s been a focus on the disputes. But what we see every day are New Yorkers being compassionate and and wanting to help us help families and children and adults who need help.
S5: Still still, you do have people protesting at your house every once in a while. I mean, do you get used to being yelled at publicly? It’s hard enough for me to get used to being yelled at on Twitter for things. I write it say. I can only imagine what it’s like having Zionazi show up at your door to shout at you. So how have you adjusted to that?
S9: Well, I look at it differently. I testified before the council frequently on how our agency is delivering services to clients. I’ve known members of the council for many years, both in prior roles. I’ve had at the Legal Aid since I prior roles. They’ve had included their roles on the council and I find the hearings to be very respectful of the policies I listened to. What suggestions are I see whether or not we can make changes and I provide information. So I actually experience the public debate as constructive and respectful with the obvious exceptions, when people want to come to my house and frequently voice criticisms that aren’t actually informed by the facts. But the other day I’ve got great neighbors. They believe in giving people a helping hand. I’ve got a shelter a couple blocks from my house that’s been there for many years and blessed with good neighbors in the same way I’ve been blessed with great colleagues at the agencies that I run.
S7: Commissioner, thank you for taking the time to talk. I really appreciate. Come on today.
S6: Happy to talk to you. I have to just I’m sure I will upset my communications team by saying, you know, you didn’t ask me one question that I thought you might.
S7: Oh, yeah.
S11: That’s all you can ask me. Do I have any regrets about anything?
S7: I sort of have asked the votes. Do you have any regrets?
S8: I have one regret, actually. You know, the limitation the Advantage Rental Assistance Program was so fundamental in accelerating homelessness. They set a 14000 person increase, literally almost a 40 percent increase in that department. Homeless services, shelter, census in three years alone. 2011, 2012, 2013, on a trajectory that this administration inherited that really helped drive increases before we put in place the reforms during the 90s, a review during the turn, the tide that’s now resulted in holding it flat for the first time in two years in a row for the first time in a decade, and now beginning to move forward to reducing the sentence finally. But, you know, we brought a case challenging the city’s elimination, the Advantage Rental Assistance program that we’ve had injunctions all the way up to the court of appeals to keep the program going to prevent people from losing their homes and entering into the shelter system. And I lost the appeal four to three. And I find it haunting that if only I had been more articulate on that one day. And that commits one more judge to prevent the city from Medicare Advantage program, the trajectory of homelessness in the city. Maidment different.
S7: Yeah. I want I want to ask at the risk of taking up more of your time. I do want to ask one other question.
S6: This is where the communications team is going to shoot makers. You are ending this. The interview and I went on, and Richard’s the new topic.
S7: I know they’re all taking him. Is that right now?
S5: It’s Isaac. Don’t do it, man. What what is something you think you’ve gotten wrong? What would you say is your personal biggest screw up as the head of an agency?
S8: You know, I think there’s certainly the challenge of the pace of change. Sometimes requires course corrections. I’m a very impatient person in terms of wanting to see change happen more quickly for both our clients and our staff.
S9: And sometimes that requires a course correction. So I would never want to give up being impatient for change. But I’m always chastened whether I was at Legal Aid or since I’ve been in government, that you have to be willing to constantly monitor how things are implemented to make sure that in the urgency of addressing client and staff needs, that the program is operating the way you want to operate.
S5: Is there a specific program they have in mind that you maybe went a little too far, too fast on high?
S6: I think that you could look at how we rolled out universal access to counsel, for example. You know, we had to make sure that there was enough capacity in the legal services community to be able to expand as quickly as we wanted to expand. And I know I pushed for expansion, you know, very aggressively at the beginning, maybe too aggressively in terms of the capacity of the community to hire as lawyers as quickly as we wanted that to happen. Now, I think certainly in partnership with the provider community where I focused on how to bring as many lawyers as possible on their agencies so that we can fulfill this critical mission of expanding right to counsel to haul low income tenants in the city.
S7: You wanted more lawyers than were available to clients need them.
S8: The organizations wanted to hire them. But turning on a dime and and changing the availability of lawyers in 2014 2015, what we are moving very quickly to expand pilots in order to get to the position we could. We’ve got to eventually 2017 to implement the right to counsel. I certainly was anyone who was in meetings with those who have very impatient and 2014/2015 because I saw the urgency of the moment to get to where we got to in 2017 to actually be in a place to be the first in the nation, to take on the program to provide universal access to counsel. And I wanted to move as quickly as possible. I want to do it before 2017.
S9: But at the end of the day, we got to we’ll get to and I think when we look back on the things we’ve done here, having a right to counsel, universal access to counsel will be one of the most game-changing initiatives that we put in place.
S7: All right. For real this time, Commissioner, I appreciate your coming on. Yeah. Thank you so much. Anythign.
S4: That’s it for this week’s episode of Working, I hope you enjoyed the show. Moreover, I hope you enjoyed series.
S2: I learned a ton recording these interviews and I hope you enjoyed listening to them. And I hope it maybe changed your perspective a little bit either. On now what homelessness is, who it affects and the work that goes into helping those who fall into it, even temporarily. As always, working is produced by Jesmyn Mollie’s special Thank You to Justin directed to Add Music and to Melissa Kaplan for recording me in the booth down in Washington, D.C., where I have recently moved from New York. I’m Jordan Weisman. Please join me next week for more working.