When asked after the Democratic primary whether he’d keep any of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commissioners, Eric Adams cited just one possibility: Steve Banks.
Banks, the Department of Social Services commissioner for the past eight years, won’t say if he’s had an offer from the mayor-elect — or whether he’d take it.
“Right now, my future is unwritten,” Banks told THE CITY.
As the de Blasio administration ends, the commissioner has quietly amassed a report card he’s pleased to tout — including the recent end of the city’s use of notorious “cluster” shelter units to house people experiencing homelessness, and a decrease in the overall shelter population.
As part of their “Turning the Tide” plan, Banks and de Blasio vowed to phase out all cluster shelters — the transitional housing located in scattered, private apartments with no on-site programs or services — by the end of 2021. They’re later to be replaced with 90 new shelter facilities to be located in every community district by 2023.
The city got out of its last cluster site on Oct. 30, Banks said, closing or repurposing all of the 3,650 units the city once utilized for emergency shelter.
Some 1,246 of those cluster units were converted into permanent housing for the formerly homeless in three deals costing $370 million as the city bought 45 former cluster buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and The Bronx, DSS said.
The shelter system’s general population, while remaining high, is now falling as well. The total number of people living within the system has dropped 14% over the span of de Blasio years.
The administration began January 2014 with 53,615 people in shelters and saw that number rise to nearly 64,000 in early 2019, according to shelter census data compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless. As of this week, the figure is down to under 46,000.
More to Do
Banks also acknowledged that the agency’s work “is not done.”
“I’m not going to rest on our laurels until we can drive down the numbers of people who need shelter in this city even further,” he said.
Jacquelyn Simone, senior policy analyst at the Coalition, called the zero cluster-site milestone a “huge accomplishment.” Overall, however, she stressed that the city is still lacking in its efforts to create or spur the creation of places for people to live — something that remains outside the purview of DSS.
“Housing is the answer to homelessness,” she said. “Our main critique has always been that if there was more of a focus on moving people into permanent housing, we might not actually need 90 new shelters.”
Still, the department has made headway in its goal to revamp the facilities that make up the city’s sprawling shelter system. The department has now found locations for 99 new shelters, at least one in each of the city’s 59 community districts. A dozen of those will be in neighborhoods that have never housed a shelter before.
Forty-eight of the 99 have now opened to clients, including one on West 58th Street in Manhattan that was stuck in litigation with neighbors on Billionaires’ Row for three years.
The accounting of the DSS shelter revamp comes as Adams and his newly minted transition team has begun choosing City Hall’s next slate of leaders, including agency heads.
In a recent virtual interview with THE CITY about his time in the de Blasio administration, Banks — one of only three commissioners to serve the full two terms, with the FDNY’s Daniel Nigro and Victor Calise of the Office for People with Disabilities — was quick to praise Adams.
“He’s shown extraordinary leadership on this issue in particular,” Banks said of the mayor-elect, citing Adams’ support amid local opposition as the city opened three homeless shelters in Crown Heights in 2017 to kick off its “Turning the Tide” effort to revamp the system. “He came out and was very clear about his own experiences — that he can see himself in our clients. And to have a mayor who can say that, I think, is a very powerful message.”
Whether Banks deserves to keep his job depends on whom you ask.
As the commissioner of the sprawling DSS — the agency under which de Blasio and Banks merged the Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration in 2016 — he draws fire from all sides.
Homeless people struggling in shelters and on the streets and their humanitarian advocates say there is too much violence and incompetent bureaucracy around the shelter system — and not enough social services, housing or genuine care.
Banks’ detractors also include those who see too much homelessness on their streets or subways — and those who don’t want shelters in their neighborhoods.
Shams DaBaron, a vocal advocate for the homeless and former resident of the Lucerne Hotel shelter on the Upper West Side, said he’s “not a Steve Banks fan,” partly because of how the commissioner handled the uproar around that site last summer.
“He didn’t have the power to push back enough to actually challenge the mayor,” he said, citing a report by POLITICO that said the DSS head privately opposed the mayor’s abrupt move to empty the Lucerne.
Áine Duggan, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for the Homeless, is undecided on who the next Social Services commissioner should be. But she credited Banks with bringing “about a lot of changes that have benefited thousands of low-income families in the city.”
Whomever gets the job next has their work cut out for them, she noted.
“The numbers are down. But there are still 15,000 children inside the system tonight,” Duggan added during a conversation on Wednesday. “Those things have to be said.”
Single Homelessness on the Rise
And while the total number of people in the city’s shelter system is down over the past eight years, if families are removed, the picture is reversed.
The number of single homeless adults, overwhelmingly men, hit a record high in late 2020, and they remain up nearly 48% from de Blasio’s start, from 11,352 people in January 2014 to 16,749 as of Tuesday.
During the same period, the number of homeless people in families — meaning at least one parent or guardian and a child under 21 — in shelters dropped from 43,000 to today’s 26,000.
Driving down homelessness among single adults is a tough problem, Banks said, especially as more people are released from prison with little to no help to find housing.
“There’s significant numbers of people on parole being discharged directly from state prison to shelter because of the lack of reentry services to match,” said Banks.
Nearly 1 in 10 adult shelter residents fall into that category today, according to DSS.
Banks added that by the end of this year, “there will be no families with children in commercial hotels,” which have for years been used as stopgap housing despite protests from advocates. DSS is on track to close the remaining eight hotels housing families in December, he said.
Duggan said the progress that’s been made with families in shelter is encouraging, but cautioned that the gains are fragile, especially with the eviction moratorium ending on Jan. 15 and the Emergency Rental Assistance Program running out of funds.
“We want to see a day where more money is being spent on prevention than shelter provision,” she said.
On one method of preventing homelessness, Banks and advocates agree: the implementation of the right to counsel for eviction cases, which gave all low-income New Yorkers an attorney in Housing Court as of June. The funding for the attorneys comes from HRA; since the law passed in 2017, spending on civil legal services by the city has increased sixfold.
Banks, who came to the DSS job as a former Legal Aid Society attorney who fought the case that won all New Yorkers the right to shelter, has advocated for better access to housing attorneys for years.
Hotels used for emergency shelter during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 have also been closed, save for two used for isolation and quarantine only, Banks said.
Simone cheered the move to move homeless children and families out of commercial hotels, where they rarely had access to services, full kitchens or laundry, to family shelters, which typically do.
But she feels differently on Banks’ decision to start moving homeless people out of the COVID-19 hotels this summer.
“You can say that hotels aren’t the right place for homeless people. But you also need to acknowledge that we’re in the midst of a pandemic with an airborne virus, where a hotel is much safer for people than a dorm where they might be in a room with a dozen people,” she said.
Assessing Wins and Losses
Banks stressed that an accounting of what has worked is critical for future solutions to homelessness.
“If we don’t acknowledge that the investments in legal services and rental assistance and rehousing worked, I think that the perception then is that those investments should end — when, in fact, those are precisely the investments that have driven down family homelessness,” he said.
Banks is looking to the next administration for new approaches. That includes using hotels to create supportive housing — a type of residence long heralded by advocates as key for caring for homeless people struggling with mental health or addiction issues.
“The availability of empty hotels in the city is a once in a generation opportunity to create more supportive housing,” he said. “We’ve been developing plans to do that in some locations where the zoning will permit it. Frankly, I think Eric Adams’ plan to make significant zoning changes is an important pathway forward to take advantage of this moment.”
Simone cautioned that converting hotels to supportive housing may not “be the panacea that they’ve been portrayed as,” especially as tourism rebounds. But more housing, and quality housing, is critical, she said.
She’s hoping the Adams administration combines what DSS does — providing social services, aid and emergency shelter — with other parts of city government that focus on housing.
“We really do need to bridge that divide,” she said.
DaBaron, who spent four years raising his son in a shelter, agrees.
“What I want Adams to do is appoint a housing and homelessness czar — to have someone just focus on that. That’s your job, you oversee that,” he said. “Both things have to go hand in hand.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that only two commissioners, Steve Banks and Daniel Nigro, have served since the start of the de Blasio administration. The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities Commissioner Victor Calise has also served for all eight years.