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Testimony of Urban Resource Institute before the New York City Council General Welfare Committee at the Preliminary Budget Hearing

March 11, 2024

Good day. My name is Lauren Schuster. I am the Vice President of Government Affairs at Urban Resource Institute (URI). Thank you, Speaker Adams, Chair Ayala, Chair Brannan and Members of the Committee for the opportunity provide testimony today.

Urban Resource Institute is the largest provider of domestic violence shelter services in the country and is also a leading provider of transitional housing to families experiencing homelessness. URI is committed to ending cycles of violence and homelessness by providing trauma-informed and client-centered support to the families in our care. In addition to transitional housing, URI helps families achieve economic wellness, we work with youth and in communities to interrupt cycles of violence and we are committed to engaging people who have caused harm in the solutions to end violence.

On any given night, URI provides shelter to 3,900 people in the safety of one of our temporary homes. Each year, we provide services to approximately 40,000 people who have experienced homelessness or violence.

The rates of homicide and felony assaults related to domestic violence have increased. Between 2021 and 2022, domestic violence homicides increased by 29% citywide. The increases were even more pronounced on a borough level, with a 225% increase in Brooklyn and a 57% increase in the Bronx.

Homelessness is also on the rise; there were 86,184 people in the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter system as of March 8, 2024. Domestic violence is a leading driver of family homelessness: 41% of the families in the DHS family shelter system have experienced domestic violence.

These increases have placed a significant strain on providers like URI, which partner with the city to provide vital services to marginalized individuals and families. And they demand a significant mobilization of resources to stabilize the system, ensure providers like URI have adequate resources to provide temporary housing and supportive services to those who need it and to finance trauma-informed, community-based violence and homelessness prevention programming.

Though URI was relieved that the April 2024 5% Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) was cancelled, like our partners, we are still reeling from the 2.5% PEG that was implemented via the 2024 November Plan. That 2.5% reduction was disguised as an efficiency measure and passed down to providers. At URI, the PEG resulted in the permanent loss of 20 vacant full-time staff positions at our homeless families’ sites.

The vacancies at our sites – and others within the system – existed not because those positions were superfluous or because our sites are overstaffed. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The vacancies reflect the fact that the work is physically and emotionally taxing. The challenges of the work combined with low, city-subsidized wages make it difficult to attract and maintain staff. As a result of understaffing, existing staff are overworked. This leads to burn out and staff departures, which leads to additional vacancies and places stress on the remaining staff. The 2.5% PEG did not create efficiency, it institutionalized a vicious cycle of staff turnover at shelter sites that threatens our ability to deliver the level of services and care that we pride ourselves in providing and on which our clients have come to depend.

URI’s direct services staff is composed of mostly women of color, many of whom have experienced poverty and violence in their own lives. URI prioritizes paying our staff a living wage and we have implemented measures to ensure our staff are paid a living wage.

The city should be our partner in this endeavor, but instead, the human services workforce is among the lowest paid. In the FY23 and FY24 budgets, city-contracted human services workers received a small “workforce enhancement” (WEI) instead of a true cost of living adjustment (COLA) that reflected inflation.

While their unionized counterparts entered into new contracts with the city that included salary increases, workers in the nonprofit sector doing the same exact work received only this small WEI, and as a result, many rely on public assistance and work two and three jobs just to make ends meet.

The New York City Council was a vital partner in our efforts to secure a COLA for the human services workforce in FY24. We call upon the Council once again to stand with us in support of a 5% COLA in FY25 along with a commitment to finance a 3% COLA in FY26 and FY27, bringing the total investment to 16% over three years. This COLA is necessary to ensure that our workers are paid a living wage that reflects the value of their services to our clients and the city and to ensure that providers have the resources necessary to serve the growing number of individuals and families who need our care.

In addition to supporting the nonprofit human services workforce, the FY25 New York City budget must ensure that our contracts are paid on time and that our partner agencies, New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), DHS and the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV) are adequately funded.

URI and its partners are contracted to provide vital services on behalf of the city, yet we are not being paid on time. In some cases, it has taken up to a year for URI to be reimbursed for services it has provided. And at any given time, we are owed hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars from the city for these services. Payment delays significantly impact our ability to finance other services for individuals and families that help them stabilize and access safe, long-term housing. And like many other providers, we must take out lines of credit, which causes significant financial strain.

At the same time, previous PEGS to HRA and DHS along with required headcount reductions have caused delays in the processing of public assistance benefits and voucher applications, which means that people go hungry and wait longer to get out of the shelter system and into permanent housing.

We are pleased to learn that HRA has hired approximately 700 new staff members to address the backlog of public assistance applications and that it has been exempted from restrictions on hiring with respect to staff who process SNAP and Cash Assistance. Despite this, URI staff have seen clients who are otherwise qualified be denied public assistance benefits. URI is worried that the zeal to clear the backlog may have led to the quick and improper denial of qualified applicants.

It appears that our concern may be supported by the data: though the number of HRA fair hearing requests decreased, only 15.2% of HRA fair hearing decisions were upheld, meaning that an alarming 85% were reversed, suggesting that many initial public assistance eligibility determinations were erroneous.

In light of the increase in domestic violence homicides and incidents, URI is encouraged by the Women’s Forward NYC Initiative, which among other things commits to reduce felony domestic violence assaults by 20% and homicides involving women victims by 30% and to increase families with children exiting shelter into permanent housing by 25%.

To achieve these goals, the $43 million in existing and already allocated funding referenced in Women’s Forward NYC must be supplemented by an infusion of new funding in FY25 for programming to support survivors and prevent violence. At the same time, the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV) must be adequately staffed and resourced to partner with the providers and impacted communities to drive down violence and enhance safety.

Children who are exposed to violence at a young age are more likely to experience violence in adulthood, as a victim or perpetrator. Investing in youth violence prevention and healthy relationship education, particularly in high-risk communities, has the potential to help interrupt the cycles that fuel domestic violence.

At the same time, we must also invest in programs that provide people who have caused harm with the support necessary to navigate life and interpersonal relationships without violence. Many people who have caused harm have experienced violence themselves. Without excusing violent behavior, it is vital that we understand the impact that violence has had and provide tools to stop the violence, while requiring accountability and providing access to wrap around supports, such as housing, employment and health services, to name a few.

And we must build out a more robust network of services that empower survivors and help them to achieve safety and healing. Expanding funding for and access to programs that provide survivors and their families with direct cash assistance, financial advocacy, economic empowerment and workforce development services will make it easier for survivors to seek safety and rebuild their lives.

Economic abuse is lethal. Nearly all survivors of economic abuse report that they have experienced some level of economic abuse. And the majority cite it as among the top reasons that they stay in or return to an abusive situation. Providing survivors with access to no-string or low-barrier cash assistance could save their lives.

Local Law 112 of 2022 created the Housing Stability Support Program to provide low-barrier grants to survivors of gender-based violence to cover a wide range of expenses, such as moving costs, furniture, transportation, and childcare, to name a few. For many survivors, these funds could mean the difference between staying in an abusive situation or being able to leave and start a new life in safety.

The FY24 budget included $1.2 million to fund the program. This is simply not enough. In 2020, ENDGBV conducted a microgrants pilot, which was administered by Sanctuary for Families, through which it distributed over $1.3 million in microgrants to more than 1,600 survivors.

The pilot provided an average grant of $1,243.37 to 377 survivors who qualified. With $6 million in funding allocated to the program, the city could provide 2,550 survivors (approximately 20% of the total number of individuals served at ENDGBV’s Family Justice Centers annually) with $2,000 grants, along with a 15% set aside to cover administrative costs.

The increase in domestic violence homicides and felony assaults necessitates that total funding for the Domestic Violence and Empowerment Initiative (DoVE) be increased. URI uses DoVE to provide the survivors and families in our care with access counseling, legal assistance, and job training. The stipends we provide to survivors who secure paid internships via our Economic Empowerment Program are 100% DoVE funded, and we also use DoVE funding to finance violence prevention education. Council districts with the highest levels of domestic violence must be allocated additional funding without reducing the overall pot of funding available council-wide.

Domestic violence isn’t just a personal problem that happens behind closed doors. It affects entire communities in varied and complex ways, and the costs of inaction to stem the increases are far greater than the investments outlined in our testimony designed to prevent and address it. Investing in solutions to prevent homelessness and poverty will save money and lives in the long term.

To do this, URI requests the FY25 New York City budget:

  1. Approves a COLA for the nonprofit human services workforce; 5% in FY25 and 3% in FY26 and FY27;
  2. Ensures the timely payment of nonprofit contracts within 90 days or less;
  3. Allocates $6 million to fund ENDGBV’s microgrants programs for survivors of violence;
  4. Increases overall DoVE funding so Council Districts with the highest domestic violence rates have adequate resources without reducing the overall pot of available funding;
  5. Provides increased funding to and staff for DHS, HRA and ENDGBV so they can accelerate program administration, thereby reducing costs, and partner more effectively with providers; and
  6. Invests new funding in community- and school-based youth violence prevention and healthy relationship education, trauma-informed accountability programming for people who have caused harm and economic empowerment services to support families and survivors of domestic violence.

URI looks forward to our continued and growing partnership with the New York City Council as we work together to end the cycles that fuel violence and homelessness and ensure that our communities are healthy, safe and thriving.

Thank you.