Testimony at New York City Council Joint Hearing by Committee on General Welfare and the Committee on Women’s Issues

September 19, 2019

Presented by Alyssa Keil, Director of HousingLink, New Destiny Housing Corporation

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today at this Joint Oversight Hearing for New York City Human Resource Administration’s (HRA) Domestic Violence Shelter System. My name is Alyssa Keil and I am the Director of HousingLink at New Destiny Housing, a 25-year old not-for-profit committed to ending the cycle of domestic violence and homelessness by connecting families to safe, permanent housing and services. New Destiny currently operates seven affordable housing projects with on-site services for domestic violence survivors, with 208 units in 3 projects in development.

I would like to start by saying that New Destiny supports Introduction 152, Introduction 1712, and Resolution A.2381/S.5471 and thanks the Councilmembers for their efforts to create much more transparency around the New York City shelter systems.

Domestic violence is one of the main drivers of family homelessness in New York City. In the 2018 HUD Point In Time (PIT) Count for NYC, victims of domestic violence were the third largest homeless sub-population in NYC after individuals with a mental illness and those with substance abuse histories.  

Yet, despite their size and significance among NYC’s homeless population, domestic violence survivors have remained a marginalized and often neglected group. The choices available to them are limited. Considerable resources have been invested in the domestic violence shelter system but very few investments have been made in alternatives to shelter and post-shelter housing and services.

Temporary, safe shelter is a critical part of any continuum of care for survivors. Some victims of domestic violence need the service-rich, short-term respite that domestic violence shelter provides. But not everyone fleeing abuse wants to, or can, go into shelter. The reasons are many – including the fear of dislocating children from schools and friends, or of leaving a supportive religious or cultural community, or the desire to maintain a job. 

Unfortunately, those victims are too often presented with only one choice: go into shelter or remain in a dangerous situation.  

In other parts of the country, however, groups serving domestic violence victims have begun looking at new and different ways of helping victims achieve long-term safety and stability – including rapid rehousing and safety in place.

For over 4 years, New Destiny has operated a rapid rehousing program –modeled on similar programs in Washington and Oregon – that connects victims of domestic violence with vacant units managed by private and nonprofit affordable housing providers.  This unique program, co-located at NYC’s Family Justice Centers, offers an alternative to shelter for survivors fleeing domestic violence who are trying to avoid becoming homeless. New Destiny identifies potential apartments, matches applicants to them, provides financial and technical assistance as needed, and offers support services for up to 2 years after a survivor is placed in a unit. Landlords and tenants know they can call on New Destiny if there are problems after the move. With a lean staff and minimal funding, New Destiny has been able to place 100 households in permanent housing – helping them to avoid shelter or to significantly shorten their shelter stay as well as the trauma of homelessness for themselves and their children. Based on our experience, we know rapid rehousing is an innovative and cost-effective approach that can reduce the number of survivors using shelter and that it can be implemented even in a high-cost housing market like New York City.

Safety in place is another approach which could reduce the use of costly shelter. The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that victims of domestic violence would often choose to remain in their current housing if they could afford it. Unless safety dictates moving to a confidential location, remaining where they are is often the least expensive and least disruptive option for domestic violence survivors, especially for families with children. Frequently, however, victims cannot cover their housing costs once the abuser leaves. Rental assistance, at least for a short time, would help victims remain housing stable, assess their options, and determine their next steps without up-ending their lives and those of their children. 

HRA currently operates a safety in place program, Home + Safe program. While it has been used by only a small number of clients thus far, this program could be scaled up with three changes: (1) providing temporary rental assistance to allow victims to cover housing costs, (2) conducting more nuanced safety assessments that do not rely on an Order of Protection to qualify for the program, and (3) providing linkages to social services to support families as they remain in their housing.   

Both of these approaches – rapid rehousing and safety in place—complement the existing shelter system and make the services and options available to survivors more robust. They are also less expensive and less traumatic than shelter. Again, shelter is necessary and the optimal place for some survivors. However, other shelter residents might not be there if other options were available. And, we need to provide safe options for victims who choose not to use shelter if we are to address and reduce domestic violence in NYC.

Finally, a few words about the choices that confront survivors leaving a short-term stay in domestic violence shelter. For the fortunate ones, a rental subsidy may provide a way to find housing in the private market.  For others, they leave without stable housing and services—forced to rely upon friends and family to take them in temporarily or to apply for shelter in the general homeless system. 

Permanent supportive housing, the evidence-based housing strategy for the chronically homeless, is not an option for most victims of domestic violence, due to the eligibility criteria of long-term homelessness or medical disability, as well as the small number of family units available. 

In response to the dearth of permanent housing for domestic violence survivors, New Destiny has developed, and implemented over the past two decades, a service-enriched rental housing model which is a promising alternative for vulnerable survivors. With at least 50% of the units reserved for survivors and the remaining units for the so-called general population, services are provided on site by a small staff as well as through referrals to trusted community partners. Services are tailored for survivors and their children with the goal of helping them achieve housing stability, freedom from violence, economic security, and family well-being. Based on New Destiny’s experience, the outcomes have been very positive – with 98% of tenants remaining housing stable and violence free each year.

We can end the cycle of domestic violence for individuals and families at risk of homelessness and domestic violence by increasing the choices for victims beyond shelter. New models – rapid rehousing, safety in place, and service-enriched housing – provide opportunities for survivors to move directly or soon after shelter to safe permanent housing. Moreover, we need to seek parity between homeless victims of domestic violence and other homeless groups. Survivors of abuse should have equal access to existing resources financed by New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). 

Shelter will always be an important resource.  But, it should not be the only resource.

We thank the New York City Council for the opportunity to speak today and welcome any questions you may have.

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