As summer begins, thousands of families throughout New York City may soon have to choose between the shelter system and the streets. The New York City Housing Authority, faced with decreased federal funding, is on track to close the budget gap by cutting as many as 10,000 Section 8 rental-assistance vouchers for low-income tenants.
The Indypendent sat down with Jill Gerson, a lecturer in Lehman College’s Social Work Department and an expert on low-income housing and homelessness in New York City, to discuss the impending Section 8 cuts, homelessness prevention and the importance of empathy.
Mary Williams: Why are Section 8 vouchers important?
Jill Gerson: This housing program has helped a lot of people and it’s a very useful policy. Section 8 is a way for people to know that there’s a safety net between having to live in a shelter and living in an apartment.
MW: How will the cuts to Section 8 vouchers affect New Yorkers?
JG: From a psychological point of view — nobody knows what’s happening, nobody is getting information. People with vouchers who want to leave the shelter system are told that their vouchers aren’t valid. This is the issue: When something happens with a voucher program or a work stability program, when something happens to an individual in the program, there’s nothing. No safety net. They don’t get treated in a reasonable way, in a civil way. You feel even more stigmatized. People get panicked — it’s harder for them to cope, to think. It becomes hard for them to approach their caseworkers and ask — how can we work together to fix this? Caseworkers need to understand and empathize with the person, to walk in their sneakers.
MW: How did this happen?
JG: I don’t know how this was allowed to happen. My guess, one part of the system wasn’t talking to another. And nobody was accountable. That’s what happens when people are reacting all the time and not being proactive. I don’t know why the hell they didn’t have a contingency plan. They make their clients have contingency plans — for example, what do you do if the day care doesn’t work out? What are alternatives?
MW: Do you think more people will be living in shelters, and are shelters prepared to service a large influx of residents?
JG: No. How could they be? There’s going to be a press from the front door and more people coming. Unless I’m wrong, nobody’s building affordable housing not related to Section 8.
MW: In an ideal world, how would we be dealing with homelessness?
JG: Ideally, when people start paying rent late, we need to have some understanding of why this is happening. Any early prevention needs to start right when the trouble begins. We need to train landlords to deal with these issues.