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NYS Comptroller


Homeless Shelters and Homelessness in New York State
An Overview, Exclusive of New York City

Issued: June 23, 2016
Link to full audit report 2016-D-3

New York State continues to experience record numbers of homeless people. Generally, the focus of media coverage and policy discussions on New York City and other large metropolitan areas as they contain the largest populations of homeless. This report focuses on conditions found in homeless shelters outside of New York City, and also presents demographic data “snapshots” for ten regions that represent the next largest populations of homeless people.

Overview of Homelessness in New York State
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress:

  • Between 2007 and 2015, although homelessness nationwide decreased by 11 percent (or 82,550), it increased in 18 states, including New York. In fact, New York had the largest increase of any state, rising 41 percent (or 25,649) – from 62,601 to 88,250.
  • Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped by 7,660 – again the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period. This single-year increase accounted for nearly 33 percent of New York State’s total homeless population growth in the eight-year period since 2007. Of the State’s 7,660 new homeless, 7,513 (98 percent) were living in New York City, accounting for an 11 percent rise in New York City’s total homeless population.
  • In 2015, New York City ranked first among major cities in the number of homeless people, with a count of 75,323.

Even though the majority of New York State’s homeless are concentrated in New York City, our visits to almost 400 locations outside the City confirm that communities in virtually every corner of the State are having to deal with the problem of homelessness on a daily basis.

The impact of homelessness on children is particularly devastating. Research has shown that, among young children, the stress of homelessness can lead to changes in brain architecture, which can interfere with learning, emotional self-regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships. A 2014 report from the National Center on Family Homelessness ranked New York State 38th (with 1st being the best) in overall performance across four domains: extent of child homelessness, child well-being, risk for child homelessness, and State policy and planning efforts.

Federal Oversight
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was signed into law in July 1987 in response to demands to address the increase in homelessness as a national problem. The McKinney-Vento Act funds numerous programs providing a range of services to homeless people, including the Continuum of Care (CoC) programs: the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, the Single Room Occupancy Program, and the Emergency Shelter Grant Program. Further, Title VII of the Act, Education of Homeless Children and Youths, seeks to ensure immediate enrollment and education stability for homeless children and youth by providing federal funding for school district programs that serve homeless students.

State Responsibility
The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) administers New York State’s homeless housing and services programs. OTDA seeks to meet critical transitional housing needs of the State’s homeless population – composed of families, couples, and single adults – while working to guide them to self-sufficiency through assessment services, permanent housing preparation, information and referral services, and health, child care, and social rehabilitation services.

OTDA certifies and directly oversees larger-scale shelter facilities and is responsible for inspecting them and ensuring they meet certain standards, as established in the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations. OTDA has delegated authority for oversight of smaller, uncertified shelters to county Departments of Social Services (Local Districts), but remains responsible for monitoring Local Districts’ oversight and inspection of uncertified shelters and for ensuring they meet minimum standards established by State and local laws and codes. Additionally, there are numerous other types of shelters operating in the State exclusive of the certified/uncertified shelters, such as emergency, temporary, and warming shelters; domestic violence shelters; runaway and youth shelters; certain forms of sex offender housing; and shelters operated by voluntary entities that receive no government funding.

Shelter Safety and Health Risks
In 2016, the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) released an audit of OTDA’s Oversight of Homeless Shelters (Report 2015-S-23), undertaken to determine whether OTDA adequately oversees homeless shelters to ensure they are operating in compliance with applicable laws, rules, and regulations. The audit found that OTDA does not sufficiently monitor State-certified shelters, nor Local Districts’ oversight of uncertified shelters, to ensure that inspection violations are addressed properly and timely and that shelters are operating in compliance with applicable State and local requirements. In addition, during site visits to a total of 39 facilities located throughout the State, auditors observed a range of substandard living conditions, the most egregious of which pose obvious and dangerous risks to shelter residents’ health and safety, including fire and safety violations, rodent and vermin infestations, and mold conditions. In response to a draft report of the OSC audit and heightened media attention on the issue, Governor Cuomo, in his 2016 State of the State message, announced a new Homeless Housing Initiative that would give the State new oversight of the homeless shelter system.

During February and March 2016, OSC auditors launched a large-scale assessment of the State’s homeless shelter system, encompassing 200 emergency shelters and 187 hotel and motels located across 48 different counties (exclusive of New York City and the City of Buffalo). Auditors’ observations confirmed the findings from the prior audit. While many facilities were able to provide “adequate” living conditions (i.e., basic level of habitability), risks to health, personal safety, and fire safety were pervasive. Despite our communities’ best efforts, there continue to be pockets of deficient – and sometimes squalid – properties that pose persistent dangers to the health and safety of this already vulnerable population. Further, the shelters we visited often indicated that they face an uphill battle in terms of facility maintenance and upkeep – in some cases because of funding, but in others simply by virtue of the transient and temporary nature of the population they serve. As a result, any condition can be volatile at best: conditions that are deemed to be “acceptable” one day can easily escalate to “unacceptable” the next.

Shelters operated by voluntary agencies (and not publicly funded) receive even less oversight than the hotels and motels. OTDA and the Local Districts do not annually inspect these shelters, nor do they include them in their shelter database.

The overarching risk areas outlined above require expedited actions to ensure that homeless shelters are operating in compliance with State and local regulations. Such steps could include:

  • Comprehensive inventory of shelter facilities and operations;
  • Improved oversight of hotels/motels and unfunded voluntary operated facilities; and
  • Sharing of Local Districts and shelters’ best practices and innovations.

OSC will continue to conduct audits related to homeless housing conditions and homelessness and to monitor the State’s oversight of homeless housing inspections. OSC will also continue to collaborate with County Comptrollers and Local Districts to pursue these areas and identify other significant issues related to the housing of homeless people.

Homeless Data for Ten Continuums of Care
In addition to the data collected by OSC auditors on the condition of shelters located throughout the State exclusive of New York City, this report contains homeless data compiled from various national and local sources for ten CoC regions (comprising 20 counties) that represent the largest populations of homeless individuals outside of the New York City metropolitan area.

By incorporating data from multiple sources, this report provides not only an assessment of the conditions of shelters in a particular county or region of the State serving the homeless population, but also descriptive information on local populations that are at risk of becoming homeless. At-risk populations include persons in poverty, unemployed persons, low-income rental households with severe housing cost burdens, and people in low-income households living doubled up. For this reason, we have included income and poverty demographics, data collected by school districts, as well as selected housing characteristics.

State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: John Buyce
Phone: (518) 474-3271; Email:
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236

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