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Preserve, improve housing for vulnerable New Yorkers (Guest Opinion by Ben Lockwood) –

Preserve, improve housing for vulnerable New Yorkers (Guest Opinion by Ben Lockwood) –

Ben Lockwood is president and CEO of Housing Visions Unlimited. (Marie Morelli|
Benjamin Lockwood is president and CEO of Housing Visions Unlimited Inc., a Syracuse nonprofit that develops, constructs, and manages real estate projects that revitalize communities.
The stories of two formerly homeless local women are both heartbreaking and painfully familiar.
Briselida fled domestic violence, while Tammy struggled with substance abuse and a traumatic brain injury — all challenges that, statistically speaking, increase the likelihood of becoming unhoused. Thankfully, however, after years of fear and uncertainty, Briselida and Tammy were able to find stability and the chance to build new lives at Ethel T. Chamberlain Women’s Residence and Shelter, which provides a mix of permanent supportive housing units and temporary shelter beds.
The transition to supportive housing was not easy. Both women arrived lonely and scared. But the staff and services at Ethel T. Chamberlain, a joint effort between Housing Visions and the Salvation Army Syracuse Area Services — including case management, crisis counseling, mental health treatment and more — established a strong foundation from Day One and helped them move forward.
“I could breathe again,” Tammy said. Briselida echoed that sentiment, adding: “I started to feel the motivation to try something new.”
Briselida is now enrolled in the SUNY Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) Medical Billing & Coding program, while Tammy has achieved and maintained her sobriety and improved her memory.
These success stories wouldn’t be possible without the Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative (ESSHI), a program created in 2016 that provides both rental subsidies and supportive services for formerly unhoused New Yorkers. Supportive housing, which combines quality units with on-site services, has proven to be one of the most effective tools available to combat chronic homelessness.
Unfortunately, ESSHI is not universal. Thousands of units across the state are funded by the nearly four-decade-old New York State Supportive Housing Program (NYSSHP), which hasn’t seen a significant increase in state resources since its creation. NYSSHP pays just a quarter of what ESSHI pays for services and doesn’t cover any rental assistance.
As a result of the chronic underfunding of NYSSHP, 9,000 supportive housing units statewide are at risk of coming offline. In the face of an affordability crisis, rising homelessness, an influx of deadly synthetic opioids and an increase in mental health needs, New York cannot afford to lose a single unit.
There is an easy fix at hand: The governor and legislative leaders should include in this year’s state budget a five-year plan to convert the 9,000 NYSSHP units to ESSHI. The cost of this conversion — a modest $32 million in the first year — is a very small slice of the more than $220 billion New York spends annually. But the positive impact on the lives on vulnerable New Yorkers would be significant.
NYSSHP currently provides an annual rate of $2,736 per individual and $3,672 per family, while ESSHI offers up to $25,000 per unit annually for social services and rental assistance.
Programs funded solely through NYSSHP not only face limitations in the services they can provide but also in the salary level they can offer to employees, leading to high staff turnover and unfilled vacancies. Also, not having any rental assistance creates additional and unnecessary burdens for both providers and potential tenants.
Housing Visions, a mission-driven nonprofit develops, constructs, owns and operates affordable housing across Upstate New York. Its properties rely on both NYSSHP and ESSHI funding, providing first-hand experience of the discrepancies between the two programs.
Ethel T. Chamberlain House, which provides 15 emergency shelter beds in addition to the 16 units of permanent supportive housing, is proof that ESSHI works. It is a stepping-stone to self-sufficiency, funding not only critical services and adequate staff, but also move-in kits with essentials for formerly homeless residents who often have very little or even nothing when they arrive.
Briselida and Tammy have become integral members of the Ethel community. Briselida, who speaks fluent Spanish, often translates for other residents and those staying in the emergency shelter. Tammy is always one of the first to raise her hand to help and assists a fellow tenants who may beis elderly and or in need of help.
Every formerly homeless New Yorker deserves the opportunity to experience what Briselida and Tammy have at the Ethel. It’s up to the governor and state lawmakers to make that possible by saving the 9,000 at-risk NYSSHP units, converting them to ESSHI and ensuring some of our most vulnerable neighbors get the support and stability they need.
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