Senators vow to investigate NYC program that relocates homeless families upstate

Photo courtesy of Tom Vazquez, via Wkipedia
Looking east along the Court Street Bridge towards Downtown Binghamton, May 2007. Broome County officials have alerted state lawmakers about an influx of homeless individuals and families from New York City who are being sent to upstate counties with one year’s rent and not much else, as part of a Special One Time Assistance Program.

Two Senate Republicans are planning to launch an investigation of a New York City program that shuttles homeless people to upstate counties.  

Upstate counties say they are just learning of the de Blasio administration’s New York City Special One Time Assistance (SOTA) program, a program that encourages New York City homeless to leave the area and live in apartments upstate as per a first full-year rent stipend provided by the the city’s Department of Social Services. SOTA began on August 31, 2017.

According to Sen. Terrence Murphy, R-Yorktown, the New York State Senate will launch an investigation into the SOTA program, as he, Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Binghamton, and other upstate county officials are questioning the legality of the program due to an absence of notification and communication between New York City and the counties these homeless are being relocated to.

Murphy and Akshar are opening a probe into the de Blasio administration’s SOTA program and plan on holding a public hearing on the matter sometime in April.

Murphy and Akshar take issue with SOTA, claiming the city does not notify upstate counties of the incoming homeless, leaving counties unprepared to provide the additional social services these migrants might need.

Broome County Department of Social Services Commissioner Nancy Williams said the department’s supervisor first identified the existence of this program in February when SOTA recipients came to the Broome County Social Services office seeking assistance programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“When we were helping with support, we were told verbally we didn’t need to help with rent, because it was taken care of by the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA),” Williams said. “The supervisor did more investigation to find out what this program is, and it didn’t seem right to her, and she brought it to our legal team. We then tried communicating with the city’s HRA, but we’re not getting anywhere with that.”

Williams said Broome County Attorney Howard Schultz found that SOTA violates the state’s Social Services Law which includes penalties for unlawfully bringing a “needy person” into a public welfare district.

Section 148 of the law specifically states “no person can be sent or brought to a public welfare district without legal authority for the purpose of avoiding the responsibility of assistance or care in the public welfare district from which they are brought or sent.” The penalty for violating this statute is a fine of fifty dollars, recoverable in the name of the public welfare district.

However, New York City’s Department of Homeless Services says the SOTA program is perfectly legal under state law, as it is a voluntary program that does not look to “send or illegally transfer” homeless, according to a statement provided by department spokesman Isaac McGinn.

The department specifically affirmed that recipients identify where they may have support networks, employment, and where they are seeking housing. The DHS maintains that it facilitates connections to those housing opportunities, and that the “DHS and not-for-profit service provider partners work closely with [recipients] and the landlord to help them through the process.”

According to the department’s data, about 800 families comprised of nearly 2,600 people have utilized this program to transition from shelter to affordable housing, one-third found housing within the five boroughs, another ten percent found housing within New York beyond the five boroughs and “just over half found housing outside of New York state.”

Despite assurances by the New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, Broome County officials remain apprehensive that the county’s social services will be strained and recipients will be unable to pay their rent after the full-year stipend has expired.

Specifically, Williams said the biggest issue with the SOTA program appears to be that the recipients did not meet the “eligibility criteria” for the program, which could further burden local taxpayers down the road.

“We are also concerned that the apartment rent the recipients have been placed in are far above the means in which they would be able to continue paying for,” Williams said.

As per a statement by the New York Association of Counties Executive Director Stephen Acquario, NYSAC recognizes the movement of social service recipients between counties in New York as a “longstanding issue.”

“This [issue] has become highlighted more recently because of increased county fiscal pressures brought on by the state-imposed property tax cap, and the increasing costs of state mandated programs and services at the local level,” Acquario said in the statement.

According to NYSAC Deputy Director Mark LaVigne the organization has been advocating for state to fund mandated programs such as Medicaid in place of the county taxpayers. Due to limited resources, LaVigne said the SOTA program could be more negatively impactful to upstate communities now more than it would have been 10 years.

Conclusively, LaVigne said NYSAC is not taking a position on the legality of the issue, and overall would like to encourage officials from upstate counties and New York City to come together and discuss the SOTA program with the guidance from the state Office of Temporary And Disability Assistance or another agency.

“The main problem here seems to be a lack of communication,” LaVigne said.

Murphy calls the alleged inadequate communication and lack of transparency a “sleight of hand” on the Mayor Bill de Blasio’s part.

“The bottom line is there are a lot of questions to be answered,” Murphy said. “There has been no communication and no notification, as usual, de Blasio is doing whatever he wants.”

After Murphy and Akshar were quoted on the matter in a New York Post article dated March 12, New York City Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks responded in a letter sent directly to Williams.

The four-page letter cites the right to travel enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, invoking the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Shapiro v. Thompson, which concluded that “neither deterrence of indigents from migrating to the state no limitation of welfare benefits to those regarded as contributing to the State is a constitutionally permissible state objective.”

Banks called Williams’s allegation of illegally sending homeless families to Broome County for the purpose of shifting the responsibility to the county’s care “patently false.”

Banks’s scathing letter reflected his disappointment in Broome County officials for disclosing information about five families who used the SOTA program to the New York Post. These families, according to Banks, were determined to “be able to assume their ongoing rent obligations 12 months after their voluntary moves.”

In ending the letter to Williams, Banks notes that his agency is available to discuss these matters with Broome County officials and wrote “you chose it attack these families and a program designed to help them in your media blitz.”

Broome County Executive Jason Garnar promptly rebutted:

“It is clear New York City has no intent to stop sending people to Broome County through this cynical and illegal program, we will see them in court.”

Williams responded to Bank’s statements on alleged confidentiality breachings in saying “there was no confidentiality breach, our county’s legal [department] made sure of it.”

Williams said although Schultz has attempted to communicate regarding the legality of the program with New York City, they were not getting answers.

Murphy said he and Sen. Akshar will be filing a Freedom of Information Law request with the New York City’s Department of Social Services and Department of Homeless Services for more specific information on the SOTA program.