A History of Supportive Housing and the Network
The Pioneers: 1980-1987
By the early 1980s, New York City’s homelessness crisis had become impossible to ignore. Tales of suffering began to unfold in the city’s daily newspapers. Panhandlers became a prominent sight on city streets. Park benches became makeshift beds for thousands of New Yorkers. The problem was obvious; the solution remained elusive.
The city government had set up thousands of cots in armories as a stop-gap measure, but still the number of homeless people grew. A handful of individuals and organizations began working on a more permanent fix. They realized that, despite their tarred reputation, run-down SRO (single room occupancy) hotels were a valuable perch for many of the city’s poor and disabled individuals.
So they offered services to help tenants remain in the SROs. They began to piece private and public funds together, to renovate the buildings before they were lost to gentrification. In short, they developed a whole new social service model, one that used community-organizing principles to offer people flexible, person-centered support where they needed it most -- in their homes.
Prescient city, state and federal government leaders soon recognized the model’s value. Public agencies established funding streams for nonprofit organizations to develop new housing and services for tenants with disabilities.
Programs like the SRO Support Services Subsidy, the SRO Loan Program, the Homeless Housing Assistance Program, community mental health funding and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act were all created in the late 1980s to provide much-needed resources to both renovate apartments and operate programs in what was now being called “supportive housing.”
The Network’s Early Years: 1988-92
As the funding fell into place, more organizations got in on the action. These pioneering nonprofits were faced with an array of questions: How do you cobble together financing, how do you engage with tenants, how do you manage the buildings?
Finally, in 1988, Stephan Russo from Goddard-Riverside Community Center and Gerri Matusewich of Westside Federation for Senior Housing (WSFSH) invited a group of like-minded providers to discuss issues relevant to all of them.
“We were very new at this,” Russo explains. “We were green. These were the incipient SROs and it was hard learning how to house people who had been homeless.”
The group began meeting regularly to tackle a range of challenges. They called themselves the SRO Providers Group. The original members included Goddard-Riverside, Broadway Housing Community, Brooklyn Catholic Charities, Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), St. Francis Friends of the Poor, Housing and Services, Inc., Community Access, CUCS, Educational Alliance, Encore 49, Project Jericho, Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, St. Francis, VOA, Met Council on Jewish Poverty, Project FIND, West End Intergenerational Residence, West Side Cluster (now Urban Pathways) and the WSFSH.
“We would talk policy,” Russo says. “We would also talk about practical issues like house rules or how you deal with visitors. The sharing of information of how you run these buildings with a fairly needy population was very, very valuable.”
These meetings became a favorite place to vent the frustrations and concerns that arose from working in a field with no set guidelines.
The providers soon discovered the tangible value of their coalition. In 1990, the New York City Human Resources Administration directed supportive housing providers to reserve almost all of their units for referrals from city shelters. The providers felt a deep responsibility to help these neighborhood individuals, in addition to the vulnerable clients already referred from hospitals, drop-in centers and other sources.
The SRO Providers Group called its first meeting with NYC officials and achieved a compromise, still known as the “60/40” referral policy: 60% of supportive housing tenants would come from shelters while 40% would come from the community.
It was a major victory for the fledgling organization, one that united providers and built bridges with city agencies.
The SRO Providers Group’s advocacy turned next to the State, to preserve threatened service funding provided by the SRO Support Subsidy Program. This time, the providers stood side by side with government officials to get this essential funding restored.
Beyond Grassroots: 1992-1999
By 1992, the first New York/New York Agreement to House Homeless Mentally-Ill Individuals was less than two years old, but membership in the SRO Providers Group had already grown to almost 40 organizations. Together, these nonprofits operated about 4,000 units of housing. The Group had become the one-stop information source for new developers and providers. Meetings had evolved from casual exchanges to organized policy discussions and presentations, with guests brought in to address the group on specialized topics.
The organization’s volunteer-run status, however, continued to stunt its growth. So Group members drafted a plan to acquire funding and hire staff. Through a series of grants, the organization secured a first-year budget of $50,000.
In January 1993, the providers hired Maureen Friar, who had recently relocated from California, to work two days a week. Housing and Services, Inc. provided office space and Goddard-Riverside handled the organization’s bookkeeping. The Group incorporated as a 501(c)3, established a steering committee and began charging dues: $100 per organization. With a corporate seal and freshly printed letterhead, the SRO Providers Group was official.
Friar was charged with developing a clearinghouse library, gathering information to formulate policy positions, attending public hearings and providing organizational support. From the beginning, she was struck by the spirit of the member organization.
“One of the central aspects of SHNNY was generosity, to share the knowledge and the lessons learned,” she remembers. “Because there was always a central mission that it was about the tenants.”
Friar’s industriousness paid off. By 1996, she had raised enough money to begin working full-time. The following year, the group went statewide. As a first order of business, it changed its name to the Supportive Housing Network of New York.
From there, the Network earned a number of advocacy victories, big and small. It secured funding for housing-based AIDS services and campaigned to redirect Section 8 vouchers and McKinney-Vento funds to supportive housing. It protected and helped expand essential capital financing streams. The Network joined with the New York City Department of Homeless Services, Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), Coalition for the Homeless and other allies to advocate for a second NY/NY Agreement, signed in 1997.
That same year, the Network held its first supportive housing conference at the CUNY center in midtown Manhattan. The conference soon became an annual event. In 1998, a grant from the New York City AIDS Fund allowed the Network to hire Jennifer Flynn and establish the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), which became its own entity two years later. And in 1999, the Network published its first comprehensive guide to develop and operate supportive housing: Recommended Standards in Supportive Housing. The how-to manual was a clear sign that the Network — and the entire supportive housing community — had come of age.
An Industry Beacon: 2000-2005
At the start of the new century, the Network began to have a national impact. Staff and members regularly advocated for supportive housing in Washington, testified before Congress and served on the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ Advisory Committee. Both the National Alliance and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development honored the Network with awards.
In 2001, during the midst of campaign season, the Network shared an outline to eliminate homelessness with each New York City mayoral candidate. After the election of Michael R. Bloomberg in 2002, the Network asked Ted Houghton to work with providers, government administrators and other stakeholders to expand this outline into The Blueprint to End Homelessness in New York City, a book-length proposal to harness the cost-savings of moving chronically homeless individuals out of shelters and into supportive housing.
The Network’s Blueprint proposed many of the same strategies included in the administration’s plan released five days later: expand access to permanent, affordable housing and invest in community-based services and prevention. Within two years, Mayor Bloomberg had acted on the most important components of these proposals. His administration made historic commitments to develop thousands of units of affordable and supportive housing — the largest development programs of their kind in the nation.
Also in 2002, the Network worked to address the homelessness of families with disabilities. It collaborated with Cummings, the FAR fund, shelter providers and New York State government on the Task Force on Families and Housing and Services. This report made the case for a funding stream to pay for housing-based services to formerly homeless families, which led to the establishment of the Supportive Housing for Families and Young Adults (SHFYA) program at the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
By this time, the Network had 150 members operating 18,000 units of supportive housing. Approximately one-third of these units were now in upstate New York. The Network opened an Albany office that year, which allowed Upstate Coordinator CeCe Tkaczyk to offer better representation of upstate members and track emerging issues in the capital.
By 2004, Friar had spent more than a decade growing the Network. She spent the next two years laying the groundwork for the organization’s future. The Network expanded and strengthened the Albany office, improved its research capacity and, for the first time, established a Board of Directors to provide the stability and leadership the agency needed to remain effective over the long-term. When the city and state governments announced in November 2005 a third New York/New York Agreement to create 9,000 new units of supportive housing over the next ten years, it offered Friar a gratifying conclusion to her years of advocacy with the Network.
The Mission Hasn’t Changed – 2006 to the Present
In June 2006, Ted Houghton took over as Executive Director of the Network. Since his takeover, the Network has increased its staff, relocated to a new office in Midtown Manhattan and won substantial new commitments to build and expand supportive housing across the state.
One clear measure of the Network’s strength is the annual supportive housing conference, the largest event in the country dedicated to supportive housing. The Annual New York State Supportive Housing Conference has drawn more than 1,000 participants each year since 2006.
Supportive housing was born, came of age and continues to evolve in New York. The Network’s growth has mirrored the industry’s every step of the way. Now over 20 years old, the Network remains the largest, most effective member organization of its kind. The Network now has over 200 nonprofit members operating more than 45,000 units of supportive housing, as well as over 100 affiliate and corporate partners.
Twenty years ago, supportive housing was an experiment run by a handful of nonprofit organizations. Today, it enjoys widespread bipartisan support and is recognized as the best, most cost-effective solution to chronic homelessness. The model has been refined and expanded to serve many new populations in myriad new ways, with the majority of new innovations coming from Network members. It has become a sophisticated industry with a renowned model of public/private, for-profit/nonprofit integration and partnership.
Despite the enormous changes, the Network -- and the industry -- have remained true to the vision of the pioneers.
“Housing with services is a simple matter of justice,” says Bill Traylor, Chairman of the Network’s Board of Directors. “The paramount consideration is to provide the least restrictive environment for those with special needs. My hope for the industry is that it never loses its roots, the sense of where it came from: Individuals of passion who cared very deeply about those who most people didn’t seem to care about.