Testimony: Preventing Homelessness with Legal Services

Testimony by New York Legal Assistance Group Before the NYS Senate: Task Force on the Delivery of Social Services in New York City

October 7, 2015

Chairman Avella, Senators, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the current state of homelessness in New York City. My name is Megan O’Byrne and I am a Staff Attorney with LegalHealth, a division of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers.  NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, veterans, 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.  My testimony today was co-written with Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director, Housing Law in NYLAG’s General Legal Services unit.  NYLAG works to prevent the evictions of thousands of New Yorkers each year.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend the State Legislature for examining the growing problem of homelessness in New York City and for continuing to seek solutions to ensure that all New Yorkers have safe and adequate housing.  Preventing and eradicating homelessness is an essential step in addressing poverty and improving the lives of New Yorkers.  Homelessness is a drain on city and state resources, from shelters costs to increased healthcare costs. Finding solutions to provide housing and keep individuals and families housed will benefit all New Yorkers.

NYLAG represents tenants in Housing Court and before various agencies in the five boroughs, where we see firsthand the threats to safe and affordable housing faced by our clients.  The majority of these cases come through a satellite office in the Queens Housing Court, and NYLAG works with hundreds of tenants every year in the borough of Queens. At this office, NYLAG sees many cases where non rent-stabilized tenants are constantly forced to move from one apartment to another, often annually leaving neighborhoods, friends, family, support services, and medical providers, and forcing children to constantly change schools. A lot of these families are unable to find alternate housing once their leases expire and, are brought to Housing Court where they are sometimes able to gain some time to move. Even with additional time, however, they are often unable to find alternate housing and end up entering the shelter system. It is clear that there is inadequate affordable housing and housing subsidies available in New York City.

As an attorney with LegalHealth, a division of NYLAG with legal clinics at 25 hospitals, I staff legal clinics at the Bronx and Manhattan Veterans Administration Hospitals.  I see many of the same problems that my colleagues see in Queens. Fortunately, there is a special Section 8 subsidy for veterans, HUD/VASH.  The creation of this subsidy has gone a long way towards ending veterans’ homelessness and is proof that providing marginalized communities with affordable housing and/or subsidies can result in reducing homelessness. However, despite the great strides made toward ending homelessness for veterans many of my clients are perpetually at risk of becoming homeless because it is difficult to find safe, habitable and affordable housing in New York City, even with a subsidy. Further, there are far fewer supportive housing units available than we need to provide for the many veterans in our city who are struggling with mental illness.

Another critical issue is the plight of the medically homeless: individuals who are not sick enough to require inpatient treatment at a hospital, but who are not well enough to stay in a non-medical shelter. Currently, there are only two shelters in New York City that could be considered medical respite centers which  are equipped to deal with those who are severely ill and homeless. All other individuals who are medically unsuitable for a shelter placement end up remaining inpatient at their treating hospital. Without a way to house and stabilize sick people, resources are being spent keeping individuals in hospitals when a hospital stay is no longer medically necessary. New Yorkers with acute and chronic illnesses require supportive house and access to medical respite, which will help stabilize their housing and improve their health, hopefully allowing them to transition out of homelessness..

One of the most effective ways to address homelessness is to provide access to legal services for vulnerable communities. It is easier and more cost-effective to preserve housing so that an individual or family does not become homeless than it is to house an individual or family that has become homeless. Attorneys are able to protect tenants’ rights, keep tenants in stabilized apartments, assist tenants with obtaining appropriate subsidies, preserve subsidies, ensure housing is safe and habitable and arm tenants with knowledge regarding their rights. When a tenant has an attorney, a landlord is much less likely to pursue a frivolous claim or try to initiate an unfair buy-out of a stabilized unit. Individuals facing the threat of homelessness who are given access to an attorney are less likely to become homeless than those who do not have access to one.

For example, I recently assisted a disabled veteran who had lived with his mother in her Section 8 apartment for several years. The landlord did not believe that he had a right to succeed to the apartment after his mother passed away, even though the law did in fact provide a route to succession. I was able to advocate on my client’s behalf in Housing Court and, after several court appearances, the landlord gave my client a lease to the subsidized apartment. Without legal assistance, he would have had difficulty finding suitable and affordable housing and would have likely ended up homeless.  NYLAG and other legal services providers in the city handle thousands of cases like this every year, and without our help tenants would be at a very high risk of homelessness.

In conclusion, New York City must take care of its most vulnerable by providing supportive housing and medical shelters, but most importantly, there must be more affordable housing options for everyone, including viable and permanent rental assistance subsidies and further protection of the stabilized housing stock. It is also critical for all individuals and families at risk of homelessness to have access to free legal counsel.

We would be happy to discuss our proposals further with the Senate or other advocates and are committed to continuing to work together to eradicate homelessness in New York City.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Respectfully submitted,

Megan K. O’Byrne, Staff Attorney

Kamilla Sjödin, Associate Director