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Housing for Mentally Ill Homeless Loses Support

Plans to Fund Supportive Housing for Mentally Ill Homeless Falls Short

By John Spina | @jsspina24
May 12, 2015

Published by Gotham Gazette

Over the past decade the number of people who spend the night in New York City’s homeless shelters has nearly doubled, soaring above 60,000, with an additional 3,500 living on the street. Estimates suggest roughly one-third struggle with untreated mental illness. Many of the afflicted find themselves trapped in a turbulent cycle between jail, psychiatric wards, homeless shelters and living on the street or inside subway tunnels.

Harris editing video at his media station.

Harris editing video at his media station.Having his own space in supportive housing provides him the freedom and security to pursue his dream of becoming a videographer for the Barclay’s Center.

Supportive housing, a program developed in the early 90’s that provides affordable housing units with internal support services to the mentally ill and chronically homeless, has proven singularly successful in combating this cycle. Yet despite the program’s often-lauded success, New York State plans to slash its funding in the next year, leaving the number of available units drastically short of ever-increasing need.

“More, we need more,” said Cynthia Stuart, the Chief Operating Officer at the Supportive Housing Network of New York.

Stuart is not alone in this sentiment. More than 130 advocacy groups have stressed the need for an additional 30,000 supportive housing units over the next ten years. Nevertheless, while Mayor Bill de Blasio supports funding for an additional 12,000 units over the next decade, Governor Andrew Cuomo has outlined a budget for just 3,900 additional units. With a 10 percent turnover rate, most of which is attributed to death, in 2014 just one in six qualified applicants was actually placed in one of New York City’s 28,000 units of supportive housing.

According to Dr. Daniel Herman, a professor and associate dean at the Silberman School of Social Work, the key to supportive housing is that it “links the provision of housing with social services, instead of treating illnesses first, then attempting to find housing afterwards.” The freedom and responsibility of owning their own apartment, while still providing important services, allows those lucky enough to gain a spot the opportunity to normalize their lives and experience the pride and self-reliance that often motivates people to alter detrimental behavior.

“The treatment is the relationship,” said Stuart. “These are individuals who, for one reason or another, basically lost all of the ties to friends and family that we rely on to keep us going. Supportive housing artificially and professionally replicates this.”


Along with providing a space to call their own, supportive housing affords job training, counseling, therapy, medication, housing maintenance, security and even dentistry. “If you need anything, they’ll direct you on the right path,” said Philip Harris, 53, an army veteran who was placed in supportive housing after suffering from severe depression and chronic homelessness.


Harris at his “media station” editing a video he recently shot. Having his own space in supportive housing provides him the freedom and security to pursue his dream of becoming a videographer for the Barclay’s Center.

Harris at his “media station” editing a video he recently shot. Having his own space in supportive housing provides him the freedom and security to pursue his dream of becoming a videographer for the Barclay’s Center.

Once he was placed in supportive housing he said, “Wow, somebody’s actually concerned for my well-being. That gave me inspiration.”

After being homeless for more than three years, Harris now works as a chef and home improvement freelancer. He also attends the New York Film School where he studies film editing and rarely experiences bouts of depression anymore.

“It has a very positive effect,” said Scott McDonald, a peer specialist for assisted competitive employment services for the Renewal Project, a New York City-based homeless services organization. “When they have a purpose to get up everyday it makes the individual excited about life.”

In addition to being a highly effective solution to chronic homelessness, supportive housing is extremely cost effective. According to a study by New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the cycle of chronic homelessness drains tens of thousands of dollars from governmental administrations each year. Ultimately, the study concluded that when compared to homeless people who remain in the shelter system, each tenant in supportive housing saved taxpayers $10,100 annually.

New York began to invest in supportive housing in 1990, soon after the state issued a “deinstitutionalized” policy that emptied mental institutions around the state. In response, former Governor Mario Cuomo and former Mayor David Dinkins finalized the funding agreement that created supportive housing known as New York/New York.

The platform was an instant success. It reduced homelessness in New York City to its lowest total in nearly a decade and, as a result, was renewed in 1998 and again in 2005. However, New York/New York III terminates in 2016. As its terms come to an end, the future of supportive housing appears uncertain.

Gov. Cuomo’s plan of creating just 3,900 supportive housing units over the next ten years is just half of the New York/New York III agreement, which was signed when homelessness was twice as low.

In a letter to Gov. Cuomo, 17 of New York’s top homeless advocates wrote, “As New York, New York III comes to a close it is time to raise production up to a level that begins to responsibly meet the staggering need, not to reduce production by half. The lives and well being of tens of thousands of fragile New Yorkers depend on bringing this proven solution to homelessness to scale in New York.”

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CityMind explores mental health in New York City. The articles produce reflect the mental health concerns of particular communities, explores access to quality care and delves into larger social issues concerning stigmatization. The stories are New York based but reflect the larger issues of mental health nationwide. We hope the project will serve both as a news source and a resource.

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