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Homeless NY'ers to Get Relief With Rental Voucher Increases Going Into Effect In September

While the increase in vouchers is seen as a victory for the homeless, questions remain about the City's decision to move thousands out of hotels back to congregate shelters.

The City announced Friday that the increase to CityFHEPS rental assistance vouchers that was initially passed in late May will go into effect in September, answering the calls of homeless activists who have fought for fast implementation.

The CityFHEPS program had long been considered a false hope for the homeless, as the value of the vouchers was not high enough to cover the majority of city rents. Only about 5% of voucher holders were able to secure housing through the program each month. 

With the passage of Intro 146, which was sponsored by Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin, the value of CityFHEPS vouchers will be brought in line with Section 8, the country's most successful rental voucher program. It is estimated that this will significantly increase the amount of rental units that will be covered by the vouchers.

Thousands in need

This comes at a time when 500,000 New Yorkers will owe back rent and face eviction when the moratorium comes to a conclusion at the end of August, the New York Times reports.

"Increasing rental vouchers will help thousands of New Yorkers find stable housing or avoid the shelter system altogether," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "It's a transformative change."

"It's a huge victory for a lot of directly impacted people who have been fighting for this, both to get it passed in May and keeping the pressure on to try to get them to do this as quickly as possible," Joseph Loonam, Housing Campaign coordinator at the Brooklyn-based advocacy organization Vocal-NY told BK Reader.

Vocal-NY has been among the many homeless rights organizations who pushed the charge to make July Homeless Rights Month in order to keep issues facing the homeless population in the conversation.

One of the main goals of Homeless Rights Month was to keep the pressure on de Blasio to move forward with Intro 146. Following the bill's passage in May there was a level of uncertainty as to when the voucher increase would actually go into effect. Some believed it could be as late as December or January, leaving New Yorkers experiencing homelessness in the dark.

Protests over shelters

This strategy proved effective in getting the mayor to move forward with the CityFHEPS increase, but activists are still unhappy with the administration's decision to move as many as 8,000 homeless New Yorkers out of 60 hotels and back into congregate shelters. While the city says that conditions at the shelters have improved in regards to preventing the spread of Covid-19, some disagree.

"There is no definitive standard for what's a congregate shelter -- it could be twelve people in a room or it could be sixty people in a room," Loonam said. "There's just no way to convince the people who are living in that situation that this is the safest place for them to be."

As a result, demonstrations and protests against the removal of the homeless population from hotels have sprung up across the city. Earlier this month, hundreds marched to the mayor's home, Gracie Mansion and days later, members of Vocal-NY were arrested while protesting outside of the NYC Department of Homeless Services headquarters. Just days ago, 11 were arrested at a City Hall protest organized by Housing Works.

Last week at a press conference outside of the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side, the site of the most high profile debate surrounding the use of hotels to house the homeless, activist Shams DaBaron referred to shelters as "congregate death traps." 

"Here we are at the Lucerne, one year later, pleading with [the mayor] as we did in September of 2020 to take into consideration the humanity of our city's most vulnerable," said DaBaron, himself a hotel resident facing a return to the shelters.

The concern has been heightened with the rise in COVID-19 cases in the city and the threat of new COVID-19 variants, such as the highly-transmissible Delta variant. The CDC recently recommended that everyone, including vaccinated people, in parts of the country with over 50 infections per 100,000 residents return to wearing masks in indoor, public settings. All of New York City falls under this category, with Brooklyn recording 112.5 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents.

The urgency for homeless New Yorkers remains, even with the voucher increase. Now heads will turn to the state level, where a similar piece of legislation was recently passed that would raise the state FHEPS vouchers to Section 8 levels. Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign the bill.