Testimony: Ending Veterans’ Homelessness and Hunger in NYC

Testimony of Kevin Kenneally, Supervising Attorney, before the Committee on General Welfare w/ the Committee on Veterans
Oversight: how to end veterans’ homelessness and hunger in New York City

November 10, 2014

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Committees on Veterans and General Welfare about the effort to end veterans’ homelessness and hunger in New York City. My name is Kevin Kenneally and I am a Supervising Attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves veterans, immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services. I am joined today by Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director at NYLAG1 and this testimony was written with input from David Falcon, Staff Attorney in NYLAG’s Veterans Legal Assistance Project.

We commend all those members of the committees who have worked to end veterans’ homelessness and hunger. My work at NYLAG is to provide free legal services in hospitals across the city, specifically through weekly clinics at the VA medical centers in the Bronx on Kingsbridge Road and Manhattan on 23rd Street. We see every day how veterans are affected by the threat of or actual loss of housing on a daily basis. As this body is acutely aware, this problem is particularly severe for veterans with serious health problems, both physical and mental. The stress and uncertainty of facing eviction exacerbates their conditions. Having adequate housing is also vital to ending hunger and stabilizing a person’s or a family’s food source. Permanent housing allows for storage of food, buying in bulk, cooking one’s own meals, and knowing where to find healthy food locally, all things that save money and that are impossible without a place to live. Simply put, when you are homeless, you don’t have a stove, or a refrigerator.

Since our legal clinics at the VA medical centers started two years ago, we have opened 861 housing and benefits-related cases. Many of our veteran clients are the formerly homeless who receive a Section 8 subsidy through the federal HUD-VASH program. In order to be eligible for this type of Section 8, a veteran must have experienced some form of chronic homelessness. If the veteran is evicted, then he or she loses his or her Section 8 voucher and repeats the cycle of homelessness. Therefore, legal assistance and preventing the loss of these vouchers is essential.

For example, one NYLAG client is Paul, a 57 year old veteran whose current income is public assistance. He was homeless but now receives a Section 8 housing subsidy through HUD-VASH. Paul was referred to us because his landlord sued him in Housing Court for nonpayment of rent. NYLAG discovered that his Section 8 share was too high because NYCHA did not change his income when a temporary job ended several months earlier. We represented him in Housing Court and subpoenaed NYCHA Section 8 to appear. NYLAG delayed the case in Housing Court by arguing that the tenant’s Section 8 was incorrect and must be fixed before entering into a settlement for the arrears. Four months later, NYCHA reduced Paul’s Section 8 share to the correct amount and issued retroactive payments. We then entered into a settlement agreement for the remaining arrears which were later paid by a one-shot grant from the Human Resources Administration. Due to our representation, Paul preserved his Section 8 voucher which would have terminated had he been evicted from his apartment.

As Paul’s experience illustrates, an important component of ending veteran homelessness, and therefore also veteran hunger, is to preserve veterans’ housing and Section 8 subsidies. Housing court is an intimidating and chaotic place where landlords almost always have attorneys and tenants rarely have legal representation. As a result, NYLAG works closely with HUD- VASH case managers at the VA to ensure that veterans who face eviction are referred to our staff. Furthermore, our legal clinics are located in the outpatient mental health departments. Most of our veteran clients who face eviction receive treatment for mental impairments. They are easily overwhelmed and impaired in their abilities to perform basic tasks. Consequently, they find it challenging, if not impossible, to interact with government officials and they cannot navigate complex agency structures.

NYLAG’s attorneys who work with the veteran population outside of VA clinics see different, and equally troubling, issues affecting homeless veterans. Many of these veterans are not eligible for the federal HUD-VASH vouchers because they have not yet been chronically homeless and we try to ensure that they never are. However, because ongoing rental assistance in this form in not available to them, they often face eviction on the basis of falling into arrears because of temporary loss of income, increase in rents, roommates moving out, unexpected medical expenses, and similar matters. Our Veterans Legal Assistance Project is able to connect veterans with substantial arrears or those facing eviction with local nonprofit providers that administer funding from Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) programs and traditional emergency rent programs.

The organizations that administer the SSVF funds have some latitude to develop their own criteria when choosing which candidate to serve. Often the criteria match the requirements for a one-shot deal. However, the candidates are instructed to apply for a one-shot deal before they can apply for SSVF funds. We believe that there is an opportunity for HRA to coordinate with these organizations to ease the burden of the application process and prevent unnecessary delays. Furthermore, the organizations that administer the funds should provide veterans and city agencies with greater transparency of their personalized criteria.

Since the sequestration in 2013, we have also seen many public housing residents and Section 8 voucher recipients forced to downsize based on the number of adults in the household or risk losing their subsidized assistance. In one particular case, Joseph, a disabled veteran living with his mother in a two bedroom apartment was downsized to a one bedroom apartment based on the update HPD Section 8 Voucher payment standards. Ultimately, Joseph qualified for a reasonable accommodation due to his medical conditions, but this family was subjected to a lengthy administrative appeal process.

Additionally, the New York City Housing Authority, as well as other agencies, often takes several months to process income change requests which then results in rent arrears and thereafter housing eviction cases being filed in civil court. The Legal Aid Society has filed a class action case to address this issue within NYCHA but in the meantime, many formerly homeless veterans continue to face delays and are incorrectly budgeted with high Section 8 shares.

Accordingly, based on our experience, we urge the Council to consider the following policies which would support the effort to end veterans’ homelessness and hunger in New York City:

  • That the New York City Housing Authority implement reforms to more quickly process income changes so formerly homeless veterans with HUD-VASH Section 8 vouchers do not fall behind in their rent shares
  • That the Council continue to support one shot funding so the Human Resources Administration can continue to provide rent arrear assistance that prevents evictions and preserves veterans’ HUD-VASH and Section 8 vouchers.
  • That all city agencies be trained on ADA compliance requirements so veterans with physical and mental impairments receive the appropriate accommodations that would allow them to full access to government benefits, such as help in applying for and recertifying Section 8 and income-related benefits.
  • That all city agencies be trained on how to screen for veteran status so eligible New Yorkers are directed towards the income support and housing programs.
  • That HRA coordinate with those groups administering SSVF funding to streamline the application process and that other groups that administer arrears assistance be encouraged to provide more transparency in their applications and approval processes; and
  • That HPD and NYCHA place those residents who have received service-connected disability benefits from the VA on lower-priority for future downsizing.

We would be happy to discuss our proposals further with the Council or other advocates and work together to end veterans’ homelessness and hunger in New York City. Again, we commend all those who have already worked on these important issues, as well as improving them. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,
Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director
Kevin Kenneally, Supervising Attorney
David Falcon, Staff Attorney

1 For full disclosure, Kamilla is a former employee of the New York City Council where, at one time, she served as counsel to the Committee on Housing and Buildings, as well as counsel to the (at that time) Subcommittee on Public Housing.