Velvet Johnson Ross felt she was doing everything right in her quest for a city housing voucher.
She had won a lottery apartment in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town apartment complex; she had gotten all her documents together; local elected officials were cc’d on her email chains with city services providers; she had a lawyer.
The lottery had turned Ross’ name up at the end of October, after more than two years of struggling through an eviction, homelessness and a major health crisis. She planned to move in before Christmas.
Then she waited until January to be assigned a city caseworker with the Department of Social Services. She finally moved into her apartment in April — a six month process that often left Ross, who was staying with friends, concerned she would lose her housing placement.
“It seemed like the agency really did not care about me being housed,” said Ross, whose unexpected struggle with homelessness led her to become a social welfare activist, for which she goes by the moniker Fannie Lou Diane. “I said, ‘If this is happening to me, what is happening to people who can’t speak up for themselves?’ ”
Several factors are putting increased strain on the city’s social services offices, advocates say, leading to some of the longest delays in recent years in accessing services or securing vouchers for permanent housing.
With a pandemic-era eviction moratorium lifted, more households need financial support to stay in their homes. The number of families in the shelter system has been rising for months, after declining in the first year of the pandemic.
At the same time, advocates and nonprofit service providers say that high caseloads, low pay and the vaccine mandate pushed many caseworkers to leave their positions. According to an analysis from the Citizens Budget Commission, the city’s social services department has more than 2,000 open positions — a 16% vacancy rate, the highest in more than five years.
“We have members who have lost apartments because it’s taken so long for their paperwork to be processed,” said Amy Blumsack, the director of organizing and policy at Neighbors Together, a services provider in Brooklyn. “It’s a lot of spinning wheels and wasted energy.”
In a statement, Neha Sharma, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, said it was working on innovations to streamline access to services.
“We are laser-focused on using every tool at our disposal to help vulnerable and housing insecure New Yorkers achieve long-term stability,” Sharma said.
Long processing times for services at shelters and for housing vouchers are a longtime issue, advocates say. The number of staff at the social services agencies has declined sharply in recent years, from about 15,000 in 2019 to about 12,800 as of the end of March.
At the same time, the city also took steps last year to expand housing assistance, increasing both the value of the CityFHEPS rental voucher and the amount of income a household can earn while still renewing the voucher.
As of February, nearly 21,000 households were able to use the voucher to secure housing, according to Sharma.
Yet those numbers have created additional stress on the city’s social services bureaucracy, Blumsack said: More voucher assistance means more apartments are now affordable for struggling families, which in turn makes the voucher program a more attractive source of assistance.
“Which is what we want,” Blumsack said. “We want people to move out of homelessness. But we have to create a functioning infrastructure to make that possible.”
The city has sought to streamline voucher access, first with an app from the Human Resources Administration, ACCESS HRA, and is currently developing a dedicated portal for processing rental subsidies and for landlords to submit necessary documents.
Sharma said the city is also trying to identify barriers that prevent certain groups, such as large families, from accessing housing supports.
Yet even changes from the city aimed at improving the services process with technology have bred confusion for people who are not able to navigate the app, or in some cases because the specific benefit they are seeking is not available through the app, said Jacquelyn Simone, the policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless.
That makes interacting with a person all the more important, she said, and makes shortages of caseworkers at shelters especially frustrating.
“The main issue that we hear is that people are worried about shortages among housing specialists in particular,” Simone said. “When you talk to people in shelters, the main thing they want is to move out of shelters.”
Because each services or housing assistance application is unique, caseworkers who take on a new case mid-way through the process — a common issue through the pandemic, as shelter staff got sick — may simply start it over completely.
“What’s happening is that someone else, whoever happens to be available, picks up the case, and you have to re-explain, over and over and over again,” said Catherine Trapani, the executive director of Homeless Services United.
Wait times for phone assistance have increased from 37 minutes on average in July through October 2020 to 76 minutes for the same time period in 2021, according to the preliminary Mayor’s Management Report for the current fiscal year — another casualty of the staffing shortages, advocates say.
During the same period, according to the report, the average number of days spent in a shelter across all measured categories — adults, adult families and families with children — went up as well, as the number of families exiting to permanent housing dropped.
Advocates say the numbers are evidence of the impact of the staffing shortages.
The wait times can strain relationships between people using vouchers and prospective landlords, who advocates say already rampantly refuse to rent to people using the vouchers. A lawsuit filed last month by the Housing Rights Initiative accused more than 120 landlords and brokers of illegally discriminating against voucher holders.
On Thursday, several groups protested in front of City Hall over the city administrative issues like delays and failures to curb discrimination that they contend are undermining the usefulness of the vouchers.
Read NY1’s 2021 investigation into routine discrimination against people seeking housing with vouchers.
Even amid purposeful discrimination, Blumsack said, the wait times and processing headaches with city social services agencies don’t help the case of voucher holders.
“It doesn't paint the vouchers in a good light, and doesn't help the vouchers reputation,” she said.
Caseworkers themselves have also struggled with the staff shortages, said Anthony Wells, the president of SSEU Local 371, which represents city social services workers.
Currently, about two-thirds of these workers — about half of whom are women of color — live in poverty in the city, according to a recent report from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School. A campaign for increased pay for those workers is aiming to set the salary floor at $21 an hour. Most caseworkers make $48,000 a year on average, according to city budget documents.
“As the need increases, the need for workers is going to increase,” Wells said. “We can only do so much in a day, sometimes very little.”
Wells said he is looking to the city to approve hiring more caseworkers, but added that new workers go through months of training, meaning there may not be an immediate end in sight for the staffing issues.
“It’s gonna take a long time to fill these gaps,” Wells said.
Sharma said the city is adding $5.8 million to increase hiring for caseworkers to help people in the shelter system find supportive housing.
Trapani said she hoped the city would add even more funding during ongoing budget negotiations for the coming fiscal year, since economic conditions and rising housing costs will only increase the number of households seeking city services.
“It’s sort of penny-wise and pound foolish to say that we're not going to invest in the workforce necessary to support these folks,” Trapani said.
The city currently had enough open budgeted positions to increase its social services staff, said Ana Champeny, the vice president of research for the Citizens Budget Commission. Yet they appear to be facing administrative or managerial issues in hiring quickly, she added.
“Even if the city is hiring, they're not hiring as many as they appear to be losing,” Champeny said.
Advocates for homeless New Yorkers said they are looking to the Adams administration, and the social services commissioner, Gary Jenkins, to bring further efficiency to the system.
“We have a commissioner who's interested, so that's good,” said Craig Hughes, a senior social worker at the Urban Justice Center. “We don’t have evidence that we've seen of an increase in getting people moved out quicker.”