Originally Broadcast on July 30, 2012
Michael Keegan: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I’m Michael Keegan, your Host and Managing Editor of The Business of Government Magazine.
Governments at all levels are operating in an era of fiscal austerity. The revenues may be falling, demand for critical services continue. Within this new reality Government executives are confronted with very difficult choices that go to the heart of effective public management.
As we continue to engage Government executives who are changing the way Government does business, we are here in New York City. The New York City Department of Homeless Services oversees one of the most comprehensive shelter systems in the nation, bringing real support to homeless New Yorkers when they need it most.
While providing shelter and services to those in need is critical, the City has sought to go beyond simply managing to ending homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, creating viable permit solutions, enhancing support systems, and ultimately transitioning those seeking assistance from shelters to self-sufficiency.
What is New York City doing to prevent chronic homelessness? How is the City working to transition homeless New Yorkers from shelters to self-sufficiency? And how is the City using common sense approaches to make a difference where it counts?
We’ll explore these questions and so much more with our very special Guest, Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services. Seth, welcome back to the show. It’s great to have you.
Seth Diamond: Great. Thanks very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Michael Keegan: Before we delve into specific initiatives, I’d like to learn more about the Agency, the New York City Department of Homeless Services. What’s the history and mission of the Agency?
Seth Diamond: Well, a relatively new Agency in City terms, it has been around since about the mid ‘90s, so almost 20 years. And it really was created to focus City resources very intensively on the homelessness issue.
We have three main parts to our Agency. The largest part and perhaps the most well known is dealing with the City’s shelter system. We, working with 90 or so not-for-profit agencies, administer shelter in about 250 locations throughout New York City. And on a typical night, this time of year, last night for example, about 40,000 New Yorkers who had no other alternatives stayed in one of our shelters, a combination of single adults, meaning people with no children, and the families.
That part touches communities throughout the City because we have shelters in almost every neighborhood in New York, but for most New Yorkers they’re not aware that there’s a shelter in their community. I think that’s a tribute to the not-for-profit organizations we work with and to the people at the Department of Homeless Services, that we blend into communities, that we work effectively with communities, and we’re a partner in the neighborhoods that we’re in.
Michael Keegan: So with an important and critical mission like that, could you give us a sense of the operational footprint of the Agency, the size of the budget, location, how large is the sector that you operate?
Seth Diamond: Well, we have about 2,000 Governmental employees working with us, working for us. And, of those, about a quarter, the largest single part, are security, and they do security in shelters and in our intake facilities where people come because we always need to maintain a safe and secure presence throughout the City that we operate.
The other staff work, some of them work in what we call directly operated sites. The Agency administers, as I say, about 250 shelters, the overwhelming number are done by not-for-profit organizations with which we have contracts, but about 10 of them are directly run with Governmental employees of the Department. So a lot of staff work in those facilities, those are 24-hour operations. And then we also operate intake, what we call intake facilities, where people come to access or apply for shelter. Those are also seven days a week, 24-hour operations. And then we have a small contingent of administrative staff.
So we have about an $800 million budget, almost 90% of that goes to not-for-profit providers who provide the services and run the shelters, and then the rest goes to the Governmental staff that I mentioned.
Michael Keegan: So what about your role in leadership of DHS? Could you tell us a little bit about some of your specific responsibilities and what the week or month or a day in the life of the Commissioner is like?
Seth Diamond: Well, it’s a very important role, obviously. You realize when you have a job like this, and I’ve been privileged to have it for about two years now, what it means to be the leader of the Agency, and that you are the public face of the Agency. The comments that you make, what you say, both internally and externally, have great significance. And so you always have to be conscious of your role.
You’re the person that is talking to New Yorkers about homelessness, about the problem, about the solutions, about what your Department is doing, and you’re the person who is looked to for answers on these very critical issues.
Within the City Government you are also, obviously, responsible for not only developing policies but advocating for your Department, making sure the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor and the other key figures are aware of key issues. So you really have to have knowledge of what’s going on, you can’t, obviously, know all the detail, but you have to have knowledge of all the important issues that are in your Department and especially things that may become visible or noticeable to the press.
So one of the things that’s very important is to make sure that you’re in touch with your Agency, that you’re meeting regularly with people, that you’re gathering information, and that you have a good awareness, and that people are comfortable reporting to you because, again, you’re the person that is going to be conveying that information.
It’s, also, obviously, a very important management job. You manage 2,000 employees, and that could be, no matter of homelessness or whatever the subject, City Agencies are big management challenges. You are dealing with employees and unions and rules and structure, and you have to learn how to navigate that and how to be effective in that kind of environment.
It’s similar in many ways to managing anywhere, but Governmental managing has its own particular challenges because of the restrictions and the bureaucracy and can be difficult. It helps to know the system. That’s one place where having worked in New York City Government for awhile I think you have a bit of an advantage because you know some of the rules and how to navigate them, and where to call and where to go to get the problems addressed.
And you’re also dealing with a number of Governmental partners. We deal with other City agencies, we’re one agency of among dozens that are part of New York City Government, but we are all in a sense working together, and so we need to work with our sister agencies effectively, have to develop relationships there. They can help us, certainly, in accomplishing our goals, but we’re also working together very collaboratively, hopefully, on accomplishing things.
So the typical day is incredibly varied and incredibly exciting. And I always try and make sure that I realize how much of a privilege it is to be doing it every day. And in a typical day, we’d be dealing with City Council members on concerns they have or shelters we may be building. You’d be meeting, of course, internally with staff to be briefed on any issue which could be as varied as how we’re going to get a contract in place for a critical service, to how we’re going to design a new initiative that we hope will significantly transform the system.
You’re also dealing with the press very often. We have a very high amount of press interest in what we’re doing. Some of it about particular neighborhood concerns about shelters and some of it much broader concerns about homelessness policy and what we should be doing.
New York is also seen as a leader in homelessness policy throughout the country, so we get inquiries not just from New York based media, but from media throughout the country. Just yesterday, I was meeting with a national reporter about the City’s leadership role on veterans’ policies. So we have a whole range of policies that we’re asked about, some of which, again, directly affect New York City, but some of them have national implications.
Michael Keegan: Well, you gave us a wonderful overview, and you can infer some of the challenges you deal with, but I’d like for you to identify maybe three that you deal with? With such an important mission, a critical, expansive role, what are some of the top three challenges that you’re dealing with, and how have you sought to address them?
Seth Diamond: One of the things that we really have tried to do a lot of, more in recent years, is to prevent homelessness before it occurs. There are in New York City thousands of people, who are in precarious housing situations and have difficulty at any one point in time with their housing. Some of those people could come into shelter, and some of those people if we work with them early enough in the process, will be able to sustain themselves in the community.
So we’re always looking for the critical issues that make people who are in these difficult situations come into shelter, and are there things we can put in place that will help them stay in the community, stay in their housing, and not have to access the shelter system.
The shelter system is available and, of course, needs to be there for people, but it’s a very expensive resource for the City. It costs on average about $3,000 a month to keep a household in shelter, and also can be very disruptive for families, particularly; children who may have to leave school or move to different places, their community ties may be disrupted to some extent.
So our priority is to keep families in shelter, but we are confronted with trying to keep families out of shelter and in the community, but we’re always confronted with how do we identify which families are potentially at risk and how do we put services in place that can help them.
We’ve tried to do a lot of work in this area. It’s been one of the fields that has been emerging, both in New York and nationally, called prevention, which is how to do services to prevent homelessness ahead of time. So that’s a real challenge every day that we face.
Another challenge that we have come to every day is there are always issues, unfortunately, in the shelter system that come up about the basic management of the shelter. Things like heat might go down, or there might be a security issue, or elevator is out, and our basic challenge is to make sure every one of the 200 facilities we administer is safe and secure every night for the people that live there.
So we always have to make sure we have the resources quickly in place, so if the heat goes off at 10 o’clock we have something we can do to make sure people are not freezing through the night, or if the boiler breaks in a building, or if a pipe breaks and there’s flooding, that we’re addressing that very quickly and that the families are not at risk and that they’re safe and secure every night. So that’s very important.
And then I guess the other major challenge is always making sure that the public face of the Agency conveys the kind of message that we want. I believe very strongly that the most important job of a leader is conveying a very clear and direct leadership message, and you always have to do that, you can’t do that often enough. It can get difficult in the face of the day-to-day difficulties that you face to keep the focus, both internally and externally, on what you’re trying to accomplish and conveying that, but you have to do that again and again.
Michael Keegan: I’d like to learn more about you. This is the second time I’ve had you on the show. It’s great to have you back, but when you were here last you were leading the New York City Family Independence Administration, overseeing one of the largest cash assistance and employment, food stamp programs in the City. Would you tell us a little bit more about your career path and, more importantly, how has that previous role prepared you for your current leadership position?
Seth Diamond: Yes, I’ve had the privilege of working in New York City Government for almost 25 years at this point. I grew up for most of my young life in New York City and went to high school here. I went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island, and Law School back in New York City at NYU. I always wanted to get involved in public service.
I was lucky in the late ‘80s to go to work for Andrew Stein, who was the City Council President at that time and was involved in a whole range of citywide issues. And then it gave me really a great exposure to New York City Government and the critical issues and the agencies that were involved in running that.
After his term ended I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to go work for Mayor Giuliani at the beginning of his term, and I worked right in City Hall, which was really just a great vantage point. It was the beginning of the Administration. He was very much trying to implement a whole new way of governing New York City. And I got to see that really in a firsthand way and participate in that, and meet the people who were really trying to struggle with these very difficult issues.
One of the issues that we worked on at City Hall was welfare reform, and so there was an opportunity for me in the mid ‘90s, in 1995, to go work at HRA, which is the Agency that administers the City’s welfare programs. And, again, that was fortuitous because it was really at the beginning of the welfare reform movement, and legislation had not yet actually passed in Washington, the Personal Responsibility Act that President Clinton signed in 1996 was being talked about but it had not come to fruition.
So I was able to get involved in an issue really that was in its infancy and ride it for a long time. And I helped formulate the City’s policies at both what we wanted to do locally, then the response to the Federal legislation. At that point in time, welfare was not seen in the mid ‘90s, 1995 as a huge issue, so I was doing a lot of this, had a lot more freedom and flexibility to do things on my own. Over time many more people would get involved, which was great to have the help, but it was really kind of neat to be in that critical role where I was doing it a lot more on my own and designing the programs because it wasn’t as much attention focused on it.
I had the privilege and the good fortune to be able to stay at HRA for 15 years, which is really unusual in Government to have that right. And I was fortunate enough to be able to stay when Mayor Bloomberg became Mayor in 2001. I had different roles, but always maintained oversight and management for the employment programs and the welfare programs, in general, and the food stamp programs.
HRA in some ways was a bigger job in terms of the numbers I supervised. When I left the Agency there I had over 6,000 employees reporting to me, but it was at a level below the commissioner. And one of the things you sort of appreciate is no matter how big your span of supervision, there’s a difference between being a subordinate and being the commissioner.
One of the things that I really learned from my role at HRA was just how to implement things. I think you have to, especially if you’re going to survive in Government, you have to learn what’s involved in putting an operation in place, how to work with a range of partners, how to make the bureaucracy work for you. And that was my role at HRA, and I was very happy doing it. I really loved the challenge of taking some policy and making it work for the employees and for the people we served. And so I think I learned more than anything, the lay of the land in terms of the management of that.
Michael Keegan: So it’s important, making the bureaucracy work for you, it takes leadership. And I want to get a sense from you, what makes an effective leader and who has influenced your leadership style?
Seth Diamond: Well, I think the main thing that I’ve concluded, you need a lot of skills to be a good leader, but if I had to pick one, if you said you can only have one what would it be? It’s got to be communication. That’s not even so much the external communication that I do a lot of now, although that is critically important. But if you have people who work for you or you work for other people, if you are effectively communicating, if people feel that they can come to you and talk to you about issues and you can have a good discussion with them, if they’re comfortable raising issues in meetings, if you’re communicating effectively what you’re thinking and why you’re doing things, if people are not surprised, you know, out of left field by decisions because they understand the process in developing them, and then if you’re communicating effectively to the public and to the people you’re serving what you’re doing, that really goes a long way and makes everything else more difficult.
So many of the problems I see in Government come from there not having effective communication. People being upset about the way they were treated because they weren’t told. Leaders being surprised by things that happened because people are afraid to raise them because the staff is afraid they’ll get yelled at if they do, the public not understanding what’s going on when they read an article in the newspaper because people aren’t effectively communicating what they’re trying to accomplish and why.
There are obviously limits to what you can communicate, especially in the public, but so much of it is about good and effective communication, and I really had that lesson, learned that lesson. Sometimes painfully, sometimes I’ve been at fault myself for not – somebody will come in and be very upset, and they might say, well, I wish you would have told me that. And that’s a lesson to me that I have to maybe sometimes broach issues earlier, even if they are difficult to raise.
I learned very early that one of the things people would rather be fired than be yelled at I think. In meetings if people know that they’re going to be yelled at or if you’re in a meeting and you start yelling at people, they learn very quickly that they will not raise things, not to raise things. And you end up being an isolated person, unaware of what’s really going on.
So I’ve tried to always remember that and you can get very upset at things and you want to scream, but people, you want people to always come to you and always feel comfortable coming to you, so you don’t feel that you don’t know what’s really going on. And you can’t govern by just knowing a little bit, you really have to get involved.
The other message and the other thing is if you want to be a good leader, I think it takes a lot of work. And I, you know, everybody has this image of their bosses sitting somewhere in some office with their feet up, you know, or leaving at noon on Fridays and think, oh, wouldn’t it be great to do that?
But really the most effective leaders, I think, you just have to put the time in, and there’s no excuse or there’s no shortcut. The most effective organizations are the ones where the bosses work as hard as the employees or maybe even harder. And it can be difficult, and you want to have a break. And I always feel like in these big jobs if you don’t feel overwhelmed you’re doing something wrong. If you feel comfortable, it’s because you’re not checking things out, you’re not looking at the real problems, you’re relying too much on a very superficial understanding of what’s going on.
If you get into any kind of issue, any kind of agency, any kind of structure there are lots of problems. You can’t address all of them, some of you may just make a decision at a particular time not to address, but you have to know about what’s going on. And if you don’t, as I say, if you don’t feel overwhelmed it’s not because everything is wonderful, it’s because you’re not doing a good job in trying to understand and trying to appreciate with the challenges that you’re facing.
Michael Keegan: How much of this can be learned from folks who you’ve worked for? You’ve mentioned Andrew Stein, you mentioned Mayor Giuliani, Mayor Bloomberg – have they, by working with them sort of formed your way of managing and leading?
Seth Diamond: They have, and I think there are some people that I know who will tell you that they have one particular boss or mentor that has taught them. I don’t really have somebody like that, but I’ve tried to take something from everybody that I’ve worked for and had a chance to get to know a little bit.
And, certainly, Mayor Bloomberg, with his focus, his use of measurement, his relentless drive to make sure that you’re serving people well and using measures to measure, to effectively measure that. And his willingness to stand-up to people and say that we’re going to pursue things, they may not be popular but they’re the right thing, the best thing for the City, and to stand behind the people who are working on these issues, that is something that I think is critically important and I try to incorporate in my day-to-day.
I’ve had the privilege of working for when I was at HRA, four different commissioners. And each one of them I think taught me a little bit. Robert Doar, who was the person I worked for most recently before I left, was a great communicator, someone who was also willing to take on the status quo and do what was right even if it might risk certain consequences in terms of press reaction and other kinds of reaction. Very strong and a good communicator, and a very decent person, and showed that I think you could be approachable, be warm and funny, but still be a very effective leader.
Others have showed me the more compassionate side that you need to incorporate in your leadership. And having the idea of never forgetting who we’re serving, that you’re on top of a big bureaucracy, that you may not have as much contact directly with the services and that the impact of the services, but you have to be conscious of that.
The knowledge that the problems are really harder the closer you get to them. So that you can make decisions, you think it looks easy in your office to make decisions, but if you’re the caseworker confronted by the person who is having these difficulties, they can be very difficult decisions that you’re asking those caseworkers to make, and you have to understand that and try and incorporate that in your thinking.
Michael Keegan: What about the City strategies to prevent homelessness? We will ask Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services, when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Michael Keegan: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I’m Michael Keegan, your Host, and our Guest today is Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.
You just mentioned who you’re serving, keeping that front and center, and I’d like to switch our focus to that, and there’s a typical perception about homelessness, that a homeless person is predominantly male, perhaps ill, mentally ill, and living in the street, living on the street. Perhaps you can shed some light and clarify some of the misperceptions, highlighting the population that represents the majority of the folks you serve?
Seth Diamond: Yes, the group that you mentioned, the people living on the street who, unfortunately, do have a high degree of mental illness, that is actually most New Yorkers’ interaction with homelessness. As I said before, we have a homelessness system that involves 250 shelters, I’m sorry, about 8,500 households, and about another 8,000 or 9,000 single individuals in the system.
Those people to most New Yorkers are not a fact of their day-to-day life. They live in shelters. The shelters provide quality services. In the communities in which they live, many people are unaware that there’s a shelter down the block or three doors over. And I think that’s, again, a tribute to the organizations that we run, that we work with, that we contract with and that run the shelters, that they’re assets to the community.
Most New Yorkers, though, are aware of homelessness because they pass somebody on the street or in the subways, and they see people. And, you’re right, the typical person there is someone who is mentally ill, unfortunately, often had great difficulty, been living on the streets, often very resistant to living somewhere else.
We’ve made a real investment through what we call outreach to try and help people on the street get off the street. We have people 24 hours a day, seven days a week that are out on the City streets, approaching people who are living there.
The people who are living on the City streets are not doing it because there’s not space for them. We would gladly accommodate every one of them or make sure we could. They’re living there because they’ve made a choice that they don’t want to. Often that choice is, unfortunately, because they are not thinking as clearly as we would like because there’s mental illness or substance abuse involved. Sometimes it’s based on a misperception or an old perception of the shelter systems being a dangerous place where they don’t want to go. And so they remain on the City streets.
Numerically in New York City most of the homeless are families, and there are about, as I said, about 8,500 families not on the City streets, most of the homeless in New York City are families. There are no families living on the City streets. But in the shelter system there are about 8,500 families, so about 17,000 children, would be about 25,000 people all together.
And they’re typically a mom and two kids who have come into the shelter system, sometimes for economic reasons, sometimes for domestic violence reasons, sometimes for substance abuse reasons. They’re not coming from living on the street, they’re coming from living with somebody else. And that somebody else, that relationship has run into some difficulty. Again, sometimes it’s a domestic violence situation and, unfortunately, they will not be able to go back to living with that person. Sometimes it may be a situation where with some counseling and some other kinds of support they could go back to living there.
The single shelter system, interestingly enough, is also thought to be, most people think that the people on the street are the people living in the City’s single shelter system, but in fact that’s not the case. The single adult shelter system, again, most of the people in that system come from living with somebody else. Almost 70% of the people there either come straight from their own apartment or an apartment that they were sharing with somebody else.
So the perception is a little bit different than the reality. And because most people do come from living with somebody else, we think that creates opportunities before people get settled in the shelter system to try and work with them to see if that might be an option instead of coming into shelter.
Michael Keegan: Well, you mentioned earlier that New York is considered a leader in this area in innovative, common sense approaches to handling this issue. I’d like to talk about a particular program, the Homebase Program. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? And what are the two principles that sort of frame the purpose of this Program?
Seth Diamond: Homebase is the umbrella that we use for our prevention strategies. I was talking a little earlier about how we try and prevent homelessness before it occurs. And we do that primarily through our Homebase Program.
Homebase is a network of organizations throughout the City. There are 13 offices that work in communities throughout the City, particularly ones where there are a number of people that are at risk of homelessness. And they try and intervene as early as possible to prevent homelessness.
Very often it’s very old-fashioned casework, working with families who have employment issues to try and get a better job, working with families that have financial budgeting issues to figure out how to make their money stretch a little bit further, working with families that are in dispute with a landlord about how to get an advocate for them to confront the landlord if the landlord is trying to do something that’s wrong.
So it’s really, number one, the most important principle is we have to work with the families early because if by the time they come to shelter they’ve often exhausted every alternative. They’ve been evicted from the apartment or the discord that drove them has so frayed the relationship that it’s not an alternative to go back, or their money has been totally exhausted so they have nothing left, at all.
But if we can get involved early, often we can deal with the situation. So we’ve tried to publicize Homebase more, make it more known in the community, so that when people run into difficulties their first option is not to run to shelter but to come in, so early intervention.
And then the second is flexibility. One of the great things about Homebase is they don’t have a set of rules and say this is it for you. They know, the organizations involved know that their caseworkers have to potentially do almost anything, from, as I say, employment work, financial planning, just counseling, getting involved and on the phone with mom to say to mom, don’t you want your daughter to come back, can we work out this issue about a curfew that caused her to leave the home? So it’s really trying to do what’s really targeted and then individualized for the person who is in front of you and being flexible so that you can do almost anything to help that family.
Michael Keegan: I’d like to keep on that Program. You mentioned earlier Mayor Bloomberg’s focus on performance and measurement, and we are in an era of fiscal austerity. So I’d like to talk a little bit about how you’re proving or evaluating the Homebase Program. Could you tell us a little bit more about your efforts in that area?
Seth Diamond: Yes, that’s a new area that has had some controversy about how do you actually measure it. And in the social services area, in general, not just in homeless services but in a range of social services, there’s always been a thought that doing prevention work is better because you can prevent people from having to fall into really hard times.
But the traditional argument against it has been that it will be more costly because there’ll only be, for example, in the shelter world 100 people that will come to shelter, but if you have to serve 1,000 people in a prevention way you’re spending money on 1,000 people when only 100 people will actually need the service. And so some would argue it’s too expensive, wait till they come to shelter and deal with the 100, don’t deal with the 1,000 who have a range of needs, some of which may come to shelter, some of which not.
We’ve tried to deal with that argument by hiring independent research firms and working with researchers at leading universities to really study the Homebase Program and to really look at that critical issue of but for Homebase, but for our prevention, would those families have come to shelter?
We started a study about a year-and-a-half ago that took two groups, a control group and a treatment group, 200 in each group. One group got Homebase services, prevention services, and one group got other services in the community but not Homebase. We’re following those families for two years, and we want to compare if the families that got the services come to shelter at a different rate than families that did not get the services.
We also have other researchers looking at different aspects of this issue, and if we can we target the services. How do you know, a family shows up and says they have rent difficulties – some of those families if you don’t do anything will come to shelter, some of those families if you don’t may have friends or neighbors or somebody they could stay with and so they wouldn’t come to shelter. How do you know the difference, though? How do you target your resources effectively to those who wouldn’t come to shelter, who would come to shelter if you weren’t there? And so we have researchers looking.
We’ve been very successful, I think, at both designing effective screening tools so that we know who are the most high risk candidates, not that people who are lower risk don’t get services, but they get services at a different level, but people who are at the highest risk for shelters you’re investing the most in.
So we have a very good screening tool that we have used after researchers looked at this issue, compared rates of people getting the services with those not getting the services, and we have this larger project that with the 200 families in each group that will be released soon that I think will firmly answer the question of whether the services are cost effective.
Michael Keegan: So I’d like for the audience to understand what happens when a family finds itself in need of short-term housing. Would you tell us more about the Path family intake centers? How have you sought to modernize the work that you’re doing in these centers? And what are some of the programs you provide, services you provide folks in this intake center?
Seth Diamond: Well, one of the major investments that Mayor Bloomberg has made in reforming the shelter system is making a better front door for families. When he came into office, all families went through an office in the Bronx called the Emergency Assistance Unit or the EAU. It was a horrible place. Families often stayed for days there. There were no sanitary conditions. There was no place for people to wash their hands before they were eating or for the doctors who were working there to have sterile facilities. And, again, the process was very long and laborious so that families would sleep either outside or in the office, with children, for days on end. And it was really horrible and an embarrassment for the City.
So one of the major investments that has come to fruition just last year was a new office that was the central intake, it’s a $70 million facility in the Bronx, called the Path Office. And it really is a beautiful facility physically and it’s green, it has lead certification. So it’s really I think a model in that way. But, more importantly than that, it’s a symbol of the investment, and that the City recognizes that families that have no alternative should be treated professionally and fairly and in a dignified manner.
We are able now to process families who come to that office in a number of hours. Nobody stays overnight at the facility anymore. When they come in they go through the interview process, which I’ll talk about in a minute, and then we move them right from there, we have buses that take them right from there to shelters throughout the City, depending on their assignment. So it really is a reformed physical structure but, more importantly, a reformed process that treats people, again, professionally and fairly and with dignity.
Our first priority with families that come in, as I’ve said, is to try and find alternatives for them. So we have staff that after a basic intake process meets with staff from one of our sister agencies, the Human Resources Administration, to do work that will be involved in seeing if there are alternatives, looking at where you lived before you came into shelter, seeing what resources might be available.
Is there a family or friend? Is that apartment that you just left because you thought you had no alternative potentially available, again? Would mom, who kicked you out last night, be open to some kind of mediation so that we could have you go back there? Would your brother, who says that he can’t afford to have you there anymore, if we could connect him with food stamps or public health insurance would the financial issues be less so that he could? They do that work every day with everyone. About 20% of the people that they see, they’re able to find alternatives for. So that is a very significant effort.
We also do a lot of casework at the beginning when people come in. Ask people why they’re there? As I said, unfortunately, a lot of people come for domestic violence reasons. We have a whole domestic violence screening process to assess the risk, to see what the situation is, and then if people really need specialized domestic violence services the City has a whole separate system of domestic violence shelters that people can go into that offer heightened security and services around domestic violence.
We do an extensive interview to try and understand the family’s background, the needs of the children right onsite at our offices at Path. We have staff from the Department of Education so that school issues can be addressed, we can check on attendance, we can try and confirm in placing somebody in shelter the needs of the children in terms of schooling. We also have staff onsite from the Child Welfare Office in New York City, the Administration for Children Services, or ACS, to look at any child welfare issues that might be of concern to us to make sure that we’re aware of those and addressing those.
So we have a number of City agencies onsite. And our goal in that initial interview is to get everything we need so that we can determine where the person is being, where they should be placed. Our goal for families with children is to try and place them near the school that their youngest child is in, to make sure we’re aware of any security issues so that if they have a domestic violence issue we don’t place them in a place where the batterer might be conscious of.
And, also, to gather the basic information, we’re always looking, even when people come in, how do we design a plan that can help them move out of shelter. So we get basic information about employment, training that they might have accessed, what resources might be available to help them.
Michael Keegan: New York has employed a lot of innovative strategies to reduce the number of folks who find themselves homeless and on the street. Safe Haven is a good example of that. Could you give us an overview of some of the other strategies you’ve used?
Seth Diamond: Yes, we are always trying, and one of the things that the Mayor says frequently and he certainly says to all the Commissioners is never stop trying, always look for that next initiative, even if the last one didn’t work out so well, you can never be afraid to keep trying.
So the City has always tried to look for different strategies. Some of them have worked out well and continue, some of them have not worked out so well, or some of them have run into funding issues.
So for people on the street that we’ve done a substantial change in the services in recent years there, we used to have a whole network of providers that would go out into the community and do outreach, but there was no real accountability. And what they were doing was trying to get people who are on the street into shelter, and the people didn’t want to go. And so it really wasn’t that effective.
And so in 2007 there was a total redesign of the street services. For contracting purposes we used boroughs and we assigned one contractor to each borough, and they were given performance targets and some performance payments based on their success in their particular borough. So you could have real accountability for the population based on who was responsible. You knew who was responsible for a particular area.
We also redesigned and developed a particular type of shelter for people on the street. Again, people on the street, as we were talking about before, often would not come to a shelter. They thought it was too big, they didn’t like the rules, they might have a perception of it being violent. So we designed Safe Haven, which is a particular shelter that’s smaller, it’s a little more intimate setting. Some of the rules are relaxed. And we have found that people on the street are willing to go to those. So it’s an example of always trying to look and really talking, also, to the people we’re serving and trying to understand their needs and make the programs more effective.
We’ve also done a lot of work on veterans, which is a big issue across the country, about how to serve veterans. New York City in 2006 convened a task force with the then Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Mayor Bloomberg that revamped the way we provide veteran services. New York has one of the best collaborations or probably the best with the Department of Veterans Affairs. We have a joint intake, so veterans who are homeless, who are coming to us, go to this office that has HRA services for social services and cash assistance, the VA is there, and the Department of Homeless Services are all there in one building, and we can really put a comprehensive plan in place. And we developed two dedicated shelters just for veterans, so that veterans can have targeted services.
There are a lot of resources available for veterans, both from a housing point of view and from a support point of view, and having people in these specialized facilities allows us to better target – also, veterans have particular needs, support needs, and things like that. So having them clustered in two facilities helps. So that’s another example of some of the specialized work we’ve done.
Michael Keegan: Well, I’d like to – because sometimes the fiscal issues can be – make you creative and innovative. And, particularly, the shared living program for family shelters, sort of realizing efficiencies by doing this. And it’s an innovative, common sense approach. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?
Seth Diamond: Yes, New York City has a local law that was passed in the ‘90s in reaction to the shelter system that existed, as it was constituted then. And we were in a very different place in terms of shelter then. Most of the shelters were congregate living for men, what probably most people think of when they think of a shelter was a drill floor with lots of cots on it, something like that. And a lot of the families were placed in hotels that were not appropriate, not safe, didn’t have good facilities, rundown places that were not well run.
And so there was a big movement in the ‘90s to really reform the system and to change the nature of shelter, to make it more professional, to make it more dignified to treat people fairly. One of the laws that was passed in that era was a requirement that families have to be in facilities that have their own bathroom and their own kitchen. And, again, that was a reaction to a time when many families were living in really horrible conditions, in old, rundown, what were called at the time welfare hotels that were unsanitary, unsecure, and just not good places for families and certainly not for children.
That requirement has been maintained, and so now all families that are in our system have their own bathroom and kitchen. But it is a very expensive requirement to have because you have to – each family has to have its own unit. And we have thought in an era, as you said, when budgets are being reduced and everyone is looking for efficiencies, and we don’t want to cut services, that one place we might be able to both save money and enhance the services is to look at could two families share a unit? So each family would still have their own bedroom, but they would share a kitchen and a bathroom. It’s not different than the living situation that many people have when they’re starting or that many low income New Yorkers have now.
So we thought that it would be a good way to structure in terms of cost because you would – it would be cheaper to run. We can invest some of the savings in additional services, and then some of it we could save. Particularly for young families we thought, families with young children, that might be an opportunity for real bonding between the parents. And most places in the country have this, even in New York the domestic violence system, which has separate rules, does have this element of shared living. So it’s not unusual nationally or even in New York City. And, again, it has the virtue of saving money and allow us to I think provide some more support for families.
Unfortunately, because people are worried, some people are worried that if they allow this it will be the road to pulling back many of the improvements that have been made in the system we haven’t been able to go forward. We are hopeful that we’ll be able to convince people that this is a better way and a better alternative than cutting services directly, but there is a lot of fear that it could be a slippery slope to other changes. New York City will not go back. I think the commitment to maintaining quality facilities for the people we serve is part of our fiber, and so I don’t think there is any risk that the City will slide back. But, unfortunately, people who are opposed and don’t have to deal with the reality of making the choices hold that out as a possibility, and I think that’s prevented us from moving forward on something that I think would be very helpful.
Michael Keegan: How is the City using common sense approaches to make a difference where it counts most? We will ask Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services, when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Michael Keegan: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I’m Michael Keegan, your Host, and our Guest today is Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.
So, Seth, for a number of years the City has administrated a rental subsidy program, Advantage New York, that’s sought to help clients transition from temporary emergency shelter to self-sufficiency. Would you tell us what’s going on now that the State has eliminated some funding for it?
Seth Diamond: Sure. Advantage is a rental subsidy program that pays a portion of the rent for people who are in the shelter system who leave shelter and maintain themselves in the community. And Advantage we thought was a very effective program because it linked employments with rental subsidy.
It said to people in the shelter system, if you go to work, if you take the chance of entering the work world, we will support you by giving you a rental subsidy and paying your rent for you to leave shelter, and we’ll pay it for two years to give you time to stabilize in the community and increase your income. After that, hopefully, you’ve raised it to a point where you can afford it on your own, but we’ll get you started and help you maintain yourself for awhile.
Unfortunately, even though it was very effective there were some people who thought that it wasn’t long enough or that there were other issues with it, and the State largely for budget reasons last year, about almost exactly a year ago, eliminated funding for the program. We think that that was the wrong decision, and we fought very hard during the budget process to maintain it. But it ended.
And, unfortunately, even though we thought it was a very good program, it was also a very expensive program. And so the City is not in a position that it could maintain the funding for the program on its own. Most of the funding for the program came from the State or from the Federal Government, and when the State ended its share of the funding, it also took the Federal funding with it. And so the City was left in the position of not being able to pay the full cost. It was not fair for City taxpayers to have to bear the full cost of the program.
There were at the end of the program about 15,000 households that were enrolled, but over the life of the program about 25,000 had moved through. And the overwhelming number of them had remained in the community and not returned to shelter, which is ultimately the test of the program. If a program is just cycling people through and they come back to shelter, obviously, it’s not effective. But this program, the overwhelming number had maintained themselves in the community and we thought it was very effective.
But we were in a position when the program ended that the City could not afford an alternative and there were no other options. Some people point to Federal assistance, a program called Section 8, which is similar in providing rental subsidy. In New York City there’s a waiting list, over 140,000 households for Section 8, so that wasn’t a viable option. Public housing, which some people point to as an option, there’s a seven-year waiting list in New York City for that. So there really wasn’t another option.
So we made the decision that we had to end the program. We told all the households that the rental assistance would end. There was a period after it ended when because of a lawsuit we had to continue the funding while the lawsuit was being decided. So the City actually, unfortunately, had to pay over $100 million of its own money after the program ended money that could have been used for other needs, to continue the program. But ultimately, we won the case, and just recently in February the decision was that we did not have to continue funding.
There are a little less than 8,000 households that are still in the program. We’re continuing to work with those to find alternatives. Most of those households, the overwhelming number, have been in the program for at least a year and have known that it’s going to be at some risk. So I think they’ve made other arrangements. Unfortunately, there may be a small number who will come back to shelter, and we will work aggressively with those to try and find alternatives. But, hopefully, most of them will be able to maintain themselves in some way in the community.
Michael Keegan: So, Seth, given your experience, how critical is employment assistance to stabilizing families who find themselves in this situation?
Seth Diamond: I think it’s really the most critical support, and it’s a range of social services. I think one of the things that there’s consensus around now that’s really developed in the last decade is how important working is to family stability. It used to be that work was thought as either not at all part of the mix or as an afterthought in a range of services, whether it’s child welfare or public assistance or homelessness.
And now I think if you talk to most leaders in the field they will tell you that having a family with a working adult, who provides a good example – it’s not even the income, although obviously the income is critical, but the example, the stability, the attachment to other working people into the community that it creates, really helps improve family life tremendously. It’s not, of course, the answer to everything and you continue to need other services for families who have other issues, but it is the most important part.
And homelessness, it’s particularly important because there is a direct connection between the income it provides and your ability to maintain housing. Many of the families that we face that come in and face difficulties started with some economic issue. There may be other issues involved, but an economic issue may have been at the heart that caused the tension that led to the domestic violence or caused the stress that caused the mom to have to tell her daughter that she can’t stay there anymore, or raised other issues. And so if you have economic stability many of the other issues are put in a better perspective.
Michael Keegan: So let’s switch gears a little bit. For over three decades the City transformed its shelter system for single adults into one that is recognized as the most comprehensive and sophisticated in the nation. First, what are two notable shifts you’ve observed in this population and, secondly, how does implementing a single eligibility process help you properly respond to these changes?
Seth Diamond: Well, I think the biggest change, which is related to the eligibility process, is the change in the people who are coming into the shelter system. There was for many years a thought and it was partly matched by the reality that people were coming directly from the street into the shelter system, and that an overwhelming number of people in the single adult system were people who had no employment prospects, significant mental illness or substance abuse issues, and were there because they had been living just on the streets and had no alternatives.
What we’ve seen, particularly in the last few years, the last five years, is a real shift in the people coming in. Many more people who are either working or have work histories. As I said earlier, the overwhelming number coming in who have been living with somebody else. Five years ago nearly a third of the people coming into the single adult system were coming from the street directly. Now that number is less than 15%. So fewer people coming directly from the street, and many more people coming from house situations.
And, again, that creates opportunities I think to get at the issue. There are still significant numbers of people who are coming who have mental illness and substance abuse, and those we have to deal with in a particular way. You can’t have only one policy, you have to recognize that you have different components of the population. But particularly for the ones who have employment prospects or with a connection to employment could have income and be able to afford an apartment, there we have a real opportunity to help them very quickly get back into the job market, find a place to live, and hopefully move out of the shelter system quickly.
Michael Keegan: So there’s some critics to this approach, and how do you respond to these critics?
Seth Diamond: Well, I think, again, some of it is a fear, a slippery slope, some of it I think is not fully understanding the nature of the population. I think a lot of people are very skeptical that people would come into the shelter system if they had another option.
And I understand that, and I think even some of the people who come into the shelter system don’t realize that there are other options. So they may have a fight with their brother or their brother may say you can’t stay here anymore. And they figure, well, there’s nothing else I can do, I’ve got to come to the shelter system.
But, in fact, if we can work with them we might be able to help the brother financially. We might be able to get the brother some kind of assistance so he could afford to have his brother back, living with him. There might be people who fight with their landlords, their landlord tells them they’re evicted illegally, and they think I have no alternative. They don’t know that we can help them with a lawyer who can fight that landlord and make sure they can stay in the apartment.
Some people think people would only come to shelter if they had no other options. In fact, people come to shelter with other options. Not everybody, maybe not even most people, but there are some people who do come in, and those are the people we can help.
There’s also a fear that we will make decisions that will cause people to go to live on the street if we deny people shelter. And I think, while I understand it is obviously a concern, I think we can address that. Number one, because nobody wants people sleeping on the City streets. We’ve done too much work over the past years to reduce the number of people on the streets, and nobody wants people to be back on the City streets, so we will do everything we can to prevent that.
Secondly, we’ve administered an eligibility system for families for 15 years, and that has gone remarkably well with little degree of controversy. And so we have a lot of lessons that we’ve learned from that we would apply. We’re not stepping into this cold. We have 15 years of history, of really informed development of procedures of how to do it, how to train staff, how to make sure we’re adequately protecting people, how to make sure we’re addressing issues, we’re identifying issues early. And I think that should give some people some confidence that we would administer it fairly.
Michael Keegan: And it’s critically important to understand the population you’re working for. Would you tell us more about the annual homeless outreach population estimate or Hope Survey? I understand New York was a trailblazer in this.
Seth Diamond: Yes, that’s one of the tools that we use to help evaluate how many people are sleeping on the City streets. And every year we do a count, it’s at the end of January, the beginning of February, in that time period. It’s actually required, the Federal Government requires cities, who access a certain type of funding, to do a count at least every two years.
New York City does it every year, and we do a very rigorous methodology. As you say, we’ve been a leader in the way we do it. It ends up being, really a community event in New York City. You don’t think of New York City as a city of 8.1 million people as having a community event, but it involves 3,000 New Yorkers in neighborhoods throughout the City. We take-over schools and other kinds of facilities in dozens of sites throughout New York, and it goes late at night, it doesn’t start till 10 or 11 o’clock, people fan-out for hours throughout the evening in groups. It involves people from every walk of life.
I did it this year with college students. I did it with some West Point cadets. You get a lot of City employees who are familiar and want to help, but really the most people who do it are people who are in New York and just want to try and find a way to help and this is an expression of that desire.
What we do is we go out around the City and to corners of the City. We cover everywhere we can the public spaces, and we count the number of people who were there, and then we use that tally to, again, assess how we’re doing, one of the tools to assess how we’re doing on serving those who are on the street.
Michael Keegan: So how do the findings or some of the tallies that you get actually inform service delivery?
Seth Diamond: Well, first, the basic number is very important because, again, it’s one measure, it’s not the only measure but it is one measure of our services and how we’re doing. There are also subcategories. Each borough has a number and the subways have a number, too. So we’re able to see trends within the overall number, are certain boroughs going up or certain neighborhoods going up, are the subways going up or down?
That can be very important in terms of where you deploy the resources. If you have a number that’s going up or down but it’s Citywide, but you don’t know where to plug-in the resources to address it, it can be more difficult to get to the problem. So it allows us to better target the resources and to get a better understanding about where we have problems.
Michael Keegan: Has any of the locality come to New York to understand how to do this?
Seth Diamond: We have a number of locations. Just this year Atlanta was in New York, they’re part of a grant from the Mayor’s office, some funding that they got, then they came to better understand. But a number of cities have come in, and the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has also come to ask about the methodology. So we are happy to share it. We think, again, we hold ourselves to a high standard, we think public employees should do that in every city, and so we’re happy to tell people how to do that.
Michael Keegan: So I’d like to focus on two populations that use New York City shelters. You touched on a little bit the veterans, but also what about the senior population? What are you doing, if I could combine these two questions, maybe you could highlight some of the efforts you’ve been pursuing with the VA to combat this veterans’ homelessness issue, and then also talk a little bit about what you’re doing for seniors?
Seth Diamond: Well, one of the challenges in a city as large as New York City, we have tremendous resources because of our size, but one of the difficulties that comes is how do you have a system that serves a large number of people, yet provides the services that are specialized to the target populations. Because one of the things you learn in the social services field, it’s true of course in any field but you learn in this area is that you’re not serving a homogeneous population. People come for different reasons, have different skills, different abilities, and if your services look all the same for the population you’re not doing an effective job.
And in welfare we learn that very early, where at one point there were large numbers of people on welfare who just needed help, a little bit of help getting a job, and they were able to get off very quickly, but then you found that there were lots of sep (ph) populations below, and they didn’t respond well to just having one program. You really had to develop targeted programs for their needs.
We’ve tried to do that in the shelter system, as well. It’s, right now, there’s about 8,800 single adults in our system, and they have a range of service needs. Some of them have mental health needs, some of them have substance abuse needs, some of them have physical disabilities, some of them just have employment needs. But then there are also some that from a service point of view we want to make sure we’re really focusing on their needs.
And veterans has been a particular focus. The Mayor has a real commitment to making sure that we serve our veterans well, that they’ve served the country, that we as a City should make sure we honor their service by providing good services in return. And we’ve been fortunate because nationally there’s interest, greater interest in serving veterans than probably any other single aspect of the homeless population, and so there’s been more funding available for veterans than there has been.
So we’ve tried to develop a specialized process for them, which involves separate shelters for veterans. When they come in they have a separate intake process that they go through that tries to identify their particular veteran background and what services they might be eligible for, works with the VA, the Veterans Administration, very closely to make sure that we have the whole history together. And then really tries to move them as quickly as possible through the system because the veterans, particularly, are available for specialized housing assistance and other kinds of support.
Seniors are another more recently emerging group. We have had a bit of a growth in the number of seniors, and we have a specialized shelter for seniors, also. Certainly, the broad message of working and employment is probably less applicable to seniors, although some seniors can go to work, a lot of them are beyond their working years.
And so we need to have a specialized approach, and the shelter system should be a little more welcoming, a little more supportive for seniors. They have more healthcare needs. Their social services needs might be different. Their community attachment, there might be more opportunities with children maybe than to reconnect, and so that might be an opportunity that you’d want to focus on. But there are other kinds of needs that might be better addressed, that might be particular to the senior population. And there’s also some senior specific housing that’s available, so there’s opportunities to move seniors from shelter into housing more directly.
Michael Keegan: I’d like to talk about how DHS gets the needs of services and products that it needs into the system. I mean you mentioned earlier that you’re reliant on a lot of nonprofits. I had the pleasure of interviewing Deputy Mayor Gibbs, and she talked a little bit about how the City is engaging nonprofits more innovatively to work with the City in a seamless manner. What are you folks doing in the area of agile acquisition? How are you making the acquisition, the procurement of services, working with the City more agile and more flexible for those who have an ability to help the City out?
Seth Diamond: Yes, that’s been a major priority of the Mayor and of Deputy Mayor Gibbs. New York City, people think of the social services that the City provides, social services, and of course, we do fund the services. But in most of the social services areas in New York, the actual services are provided by not-for-profit organizations. So whether it’s child welfare or employment or homeless services, New York City employees often do the eligibility and the intake and sort of set the rules, but the day-to-day services, the contact with people who need the services are really with not-for-profit organizations.
So we really rely and partner very closely with not-for-profit organizations. They have, unfortunately, the same way the City has faced financial difficulties, faced some of the same kind of difficulties, both because the funding that they have from a range of Government agencies has been reduced, their own funding has been, own fundraising has sometimes been at risk. And so they have in some senses suffered along with the rest of the City for reduced budgets, but the City has taken a number of steps to try and make it easier, both for them to access Government and cheaper for them to operate, so some of the initiatives focus on using the power of the not-for-profits, for example, for purchasing power.
The City is doing an initiative now with trying to do some of the purchasing, band together the not-for-profit agencies so that they could do purchasing as a unit, as an entity, as a big entity as opposed to individual ones.
Also, there’s tremendous paperwork in dealing with the Government. Anyone who has applied for any kind of Government benefit or files taxes or does anything knows that there’s lots of paperwork that comes with it. And that’s certainly true for the not-for-profit agencies, and particularly ones who have contracts with multiple agencies have to file the same paperwork over and over again.
And so one of the things the City is doing is developing a document vault, so that when you file paperwork with one agency it’s stored and available to a range of agencies, and it’ll cut-down on some of the timing, make it easier to apply, and hopefully make it more efficient and cost effective for not-for-profits.
Michael Keegan: Are you using in your Agency the power of analytics to make data driven decisions, do you think about resource allocations?
Seth Diamond: Sure. That’s one of the things that the Mayor probably, will be most well-known for when he leaves office, is the real cementing of the City’s connection to data to manage Government. And we have probably more indicators than any other city agency in terms of our performance and in looking at different aspects. And we are constantly using metrics to look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing and how effective the service is, and we look every day and certainly every week at a range of indicators and try and make adjustments.
One of the things that you learn is that, just like we try and prevent homelessness by intervening early, you can often prevent poor performance by intervening early. And so even a small trend of a couple weeks can be cause for concern, and you really want to get behind that.
The City is trying to move beyond just sort of using it within one agency, to looking at the broad framework of all the agencies, particularly in the social services area, that collect data, and how can we use that information better. So that maybe when we look at how to prevent homelessness, we only look at indicators affecting people who come into our system. Maybe if we looked at people who were released from jail, or people who access the child welfare system, or people who had food stamps, or families who are in the school system where the children were failing – maybe those would be good indicators of people who are going to access the homeless system. So that if you pooled all the data and you could look at patterns across a range of agencies, maybe you would see trends that you’d better be able to understand who is going to access services.
Maybe on the opposite end, when we send families back into the community, the ones who come back to shelter, maybe there are certain characteristics of how they behave in the community in terms of their connection with Governmental benefits or services that could give us information about who are really at risk of returning to shelter.
So it’s a big project that the City is just really in the infancy of, but it really has the potential to be very smart and to put us in a position to really use all this information that is just now at our fingertips, but is not sort of molded in a way to really effectively influence our services.
Michael Keegan: What does the future hold for the New York City Department of Homeless Services? We will as its Commissioner, Seth Diamond, when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Michael Keegan: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I’m Michael Keegan, your Host, and our Guest today is Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.
I’d like to switch our focus to the folks who work with you and work for you. In an era of fiscal austerity, where revenue is going down but the demand for critical services seems to be going up – how do you keep your staffs’ motivation alive and focused on delivering results?
Seth Diamond: Well, it can be very difficult, especially when the problems that we’re dealing with are enough to demoralize anybody. The human difficulties that the people we face, deal with every day, can be very difficult and emotional and hard to sort of deal with as you’re working through the issues and the challenges that you’re facing.
I think one of the keys on helping motivate people, the most important, as I said before, is communication and telling people that you understand what they’re doing, that you know it’s tremendously hard work, that you support them and congratulating them when they do a good job, and thanking them for doing their work. People want to feel appreciated. They deserve to feel appreciated. And I think oftentimes they are not or they’re not told enough.
And so particularly when raises aren’t coming frequently, and most people feel that they’re underpaid to begin with, that sense of appreciation that you understand that they have a very difficult job, that you’re right there with them and supporting them can be really very important.
Michael Keegan: Yes, how is DHS balancing and maintaining client services, but also being good fiscal stewards?
Seth Diamond: Well, we’re always looking for opportunities that make sense to reduce our budget and, again, we’re always trying to be conscious of the fiscal and the service impact. So one of the ways we do it, is to look for alternative ways to deliver the same services. An example we talked about before is shared living, where maybe having families live together in an apartment as opposed to in separate units would give us the opportunity to reduce budgets without reducing services.
There are certainly efficiencies that you have in combining different programs that might be in different parts of the Agency that could be more effectively managed together, as opposed to separately, so administrative efficiencies that come. You realize that, unfortunately, some services that were nice and that certainly helped but that are not critical, those kinds of services often have to be delivered.
Technology has certainly helped, and the fact that there’s so much more information available, and that work can be processed much more efficiently, that certainly helps with some of the efficiency, but that’s not a huge cost saver and often the technology just points out some of the service needs or the reasons why you have to do things differently. So, certainly, helping the technology is an important backbone of what we do, and it will ultimately help, I think, us deliver services more efficiently, but it’s certainly you need substantial investment, also.
Michael Keegan: I’d like to transition to the future. What are some of the major opportunities and possible challenges you think you’ll encounter in the future? And how will your Agency, how will you seek to make your Agency evolve to meet those opportunities?
Seth Diamond: Well, unfortunately, the era of reduced or diminished budgets is going to be with us for a while. Even as the economy improves and revenues continue to go up, I don’t think we’ll get to the point where we were seven or eight years ago, where the budgets were far higher and being sustained at a much higher level. So we have to accept the reality that even if the economy improves, we’re going to be in diminished resources for a while.
And, for us, that really is trying to look at how we can prevent people from coming into the homelessness system. The shelter is so expensive, $3,000 a month, that and families stay with us nine or 10 months, so any family that comes in its $30,000, not everyone, but on average of investment.
So how do we do more to have our services available in the community, and how are we making sure that we’re known in the community as a place where people can go, not for shelter, but for prevention. So that’s very important.
The other thing is to really use technology in the most effective way. We’ve just recently implemented a new computer system that really will be the backbone of everything we do and will give us unprecedented reach into the work that we’re doing, that our not-for-profit agencies are doing, and really allow us to evaluate much more effectively the work that we’re doing. We’ll be able to share information with not-for-profits in a way that we were not able to do, and also hold not-for-profits accountable for reaching results, and I think that puts us in a position to be a much more efficient Agency.
Michael Keegan: So I’d like to focus on some advice. What advice would you give someone who is a caring citizen of New York in terms of helping those who find themselves in a homeless situation? And, also, what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about a career in public service?
Seth Diamond: Well, on the first one, I know that the natural reaction for a lot of people who encounter homelessness is to give money to people who are on the street, and that can be a very personal issue. I think that in general that’s the wrong decision because it enables people to stay on the street, and I would prefer people not do that.
A better way to assist people who are homeless or having economic difficulties is to volunteer at one of the City’s many not-for-profit agencies. One of the great things about New York that helps make it so strong and such a wonderful place to live is the diversity of not-for-profit agencies throughout the City. And no matter what area you’re interested in, no matter what borough, or community you live in, there’s a not-for-profit in your neighborhood that’s providing services, and that would be the place to go if you really want to help.
In terms of public service, you know, I encourage people to go into public service, and I think particularly City Government, I think City Government, if you look at sort of the range of Government, the Federal Government, the State Government, and the City Government, I think City Government sometimes is seen as the lowest echelon and not as respected. The Federal Government gets a lot of the prestige and the power and the coverage, and is considered at some level to be at the top level.
But it’s really the City Government, where I have built my career, where I think the issues are the most challenging because you’re taking policies, often written at a national level and not targeted, and the intellectual challenges are more demanding, you have to take these policies and from an intellectual and management point of view figure out how to make them work for real people, and you’re much more connected with the results, both for good or for bad, than you are at any other level of Government.
So I really would like to see people who are interested and committed to public service to make a real commitment to come into Municipal Government or City Government, depending on where you live, because I think that there’s a particular need for talented people who are willing to take the challenge.
Michael Keegan: Well, Seth, I want to thank you for coming back to the show. It’s great to have you back but, more importantly, I’d like to thank you for your dedicated service to the folks of New York.
Seth Diamond: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Michael Keegan: This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.
Be sure to join us next week for another informative, insightful, and in-depth conversation on improving Government effectiveness.
For The Business of Government Hour I’m Michael Keegan, and thank you for joining us.
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