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Lessons Learned From Working on Homelessness in New York City

11 June 2019
Mirtha Santana, RiseBoro Community Partnership

Mirtha Santana
Vice President, Empowerment
RiseBoro Community Partnership


I recently attended a get-together at a neighbor’s home. Over dinner, one of the guests asked me what I do for a living. I hesitated, I always do. Do I tell him that I help poor people stay housed? Do I tell him that I prevent homelessness? Do I tell him that there 60,000 people in NYC shelters and many of them are children? All of these statements are true, but none of them tell the story of how poor New Yorkers struggle every day to pay their rent and stay in the communities they call home. Homelessness prevention in a city with such extreme income inequality on top of low apartment vacancy rates is hard to explain. I thought, how do I paint this picture?

Preventing homelessness in NYC is rarely a straight path. I often think of it as a series of squiggly lines. The goal is always to avoid entering a shelter, but the strengths and barriers of each client are unique. Some of our clients are working and others are jobless. Some are getting evicted in court, and others are couch surfing or “doubled up”. Some have strong ties to a specific community, while others are trying to establish them. I've always believed that it takes a very special person to sit in front of a terrified--often crying--client who is days or hours away from losing their home while confidently saying: “You are in the right place, we will help you”. This is the day-to-day reality of the talented Housing Navigators at RiseBoro’s four Homebase sites. We see families who have been locked out of their homes and when they arrive at Homebase, and after years of doing this work, I feel safe in saying that they are always in the right place.

Homebase is the cornerstone of homelessness prevention work in New York City and a program -- I’m not sure if you could tell -- that I love. The program started as an experiment about 15 years ago with 5 community-based offices throughout the city and today it is the most successful homeless prevention model in the country.

As I mentioned above, the goal is simple: keep New Yorkers in their homes and their community to avoid shelter. So how do we do it? Why did Homebase become such a successful program? Here’s why:

  1. Our assessment tool is not based on the case manager’s feelings towards the case, but on reliable data. We use a researched-based risk assessment questionnaire to determine the level of service and need of each client.
  2. We have physical offices in each of the neighborhoods we serve.
  3. Our assessment not only determines program eligibility, but also aims to understand the specific needs and challenges of each household.
  4. We recruit, train and retain talented and culturally/linguistically humble staff that believe in the mission of Homebase and care about the issue at-hand.
  5. We provide in-house supportive services which include legal representation, financial coaching, job readiness and adult education.
  6. Our use of financial assistance allows for creativity. The same funding used to pay for rental arrears can also buy a crib or pay a phone bill or buy job interview clothing.
  7. Finally, we are open to change - we are not afraid to fail - and we assess and innovate the program continuously.

Going back to my neighbor’s dinner party, I started to explain what it is that I do. As soon as I mentioned homelessness, he snidely said: “can’t you just give them Section 8?” I wish it were that simple. Preventing families from becoming homeless is hard, complex work. But at the end of the day, it is all worth it. Children who grow up in the shelter system suffer emotionally, academically and physically. Homelessness is a generational, cyclical problem that speaks to many larger, economic issues. It makes financial sense to prevent, but most importantly, it is our moral and social duty to raise a generation of children who do not have to experience what it’s like to be homeless.

Mirtha is the Vice President of RiseBoro Community Partnership's Empowerment Division. To learn more about the work RiseBoro does, click here. Mirtha recently spoke at the Partnership for Strong Communities' May 2019 IForum event on racial equity and family homelessness. Click here to read a recap of the May IForum.