Created On Cuomo's Recommendation, Homeless Agency's Future Now in de Blasio's Hands

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Faced with record numbers of homeless, Mayor de Blasio may merge homeless services with a larger social-service agency.

Mayor de Blasio receives recommendations Tuesday from a review of the city's homeless system that he announced back in December.

Among the things, he’ll consider is whether to eliminate the Department of Homeless Services as a standalone agency.

DHS was created at the recommendation of a commission convened by Mayor Dinkins in 1991 and chaired by Governor Andrew Cuomo — back when Cuomo was running a non-profit called H.E.L.P, which built homeless shelters.

“The Mayor has charged this commission with an awesome responsibility to conduct an overall review of and make recommendations on the city’s homeless policies and programs,” Cuomo said at the time.

The commission’s recommendations formed the basis for the system we see today: smaller shelters, run by non-profits such as Cuomo’s. Another was the creation of DHS.

“Based on the recommendation of my commission on homelessness, chaired by Andrew Cuomo, we are submitting legislation that will officially create a new agency with the goal of preventing homelessness, not just moving it around,” Mayor Dinkins said in his 1993 State of the City speech, the same year DHS was created.

The recommendation was not unanimous among the 22 members of the commission.

“I never felt that … the re-organization of city government was the right answer,” said one of them, Jack Krauskopf, in a recent interveiw.

Krauskopf now teaches at Baruch College; under Mayor Koch, he was Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, a gigantic agency that was in charge of all social services, including homelessness.

“There was a sense on the part of the commission and its leadership that there ought to be a separate department to give more focus and attention to problems of homelessness,” he said.

Nancy Wackstein, who was also part of the Cuomo Commission and director of the Mayor Dinkins’ office on homelessness and SRO housing, said she wasn’t a “proponent” of the new agency and that her fears have been realized.

“Homelessness to me is the responsibility of many agencies,” she said. “I was afraid that everybody would then throw up their hands then and say. 'Oh well, it's DHS’ problem, Department of Homeless Services' problem, not ours.' And I think that's happened.”

The shelter system today functions better, but there’s one problem the city hasn’t solved: homelessness itself. In the early '90s, 22,000 people lived in shelters. Today there are 58,000.

DHS oversees these shelters, but HRA provides the services: food stamps, cash assistance, job training. And there’s little coordination between the two. That’s why de Blasio, who’s already clashed with Cuomo over homelessness, is considering reversing the Cuomo Commission’s recommendation — making DHS once again part of HRA.

The majority of non-profit providers who run the city’s shelters say they oppose this bureaucratic shuffle, because it would be a distraction from the crisis itself. Joan Malin, the second DHS Commissioner who was instrumental in setting up the agency, agrees.

“You could spend an enormous amount of time on the intricacies of knitting together two agencies: the civil service rules, the bureaucracy, the administrative stuff, different positions,” she said. “Is that the best use of our time? Is that the best use of our resources?”

Before coming to HRA, Commissioner Steve Banks, who is leading the review, spent more than 30 years at the Legal Aid Society, working on behalf of the homeless. Mary Brosnahan, president of the Coalition for the Homeless, said she supported the creation of DHS. But now she’d like to see Banks in charge of both agencies.

“A lot of people, including myself, are hopeful Steve can bring that type of manifest reform to DHS, which believe me, it needs more than ever,” she said.

The mayor’s office said he’ll announce his decision in a couple of weeks. The governor’s office declined to comment on the review. Sources say he’s working on his own plan.