Steven Banks, who struggled to curb homelessness, resigns

Steven Banks, the city’s social services commissioner, who joined the government after a long career suing the city on behalf of the homeless, but who had an mixed record of reducing homelessness, has resigned.

Mr. Banks said that at the end of the year, when Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office, he will leave to oversee the public interest practice at Paul, Weiss, one of the city’s largest and most prestigious companies. .

“I’ve missed the practice of law,” Mr Banks, 64, said in a text message, “so that’s what I do when the administration ends.”

Mr. Banks was appointed in 2014 as head of the city’s Human Resources Administration, which oversees public assistance, and soon expanded his portfolio to include the 60,000 homeless people in the city’s main reception system, a number that has been around for years. strongly increases.

He tried to rectify the failures he saw when he was out of government, despite lacking some of the tools – such as state funding and control over housing development – ​​to do so.

He had some successes. The number of families in shelters has fallen by 35 percent since its peak in 2017, thanks to a number of city policies Mr Banks has put in place, including a housing benefit voucher program, creating new housing for homeless families, giving priority to homeless people. families in public housing and the guarantee of legal representation for low-income tenants in the housing court. A pandemic-era eviction shutdown scheduled to end in January has also kept thousands of families out of shelters.

However, the number of single people in the system has continued to rise, and although it has fallen to about 17,000 in recent months, it is still up about 30 percent, according to Mr Banks.

Mr. Banks is one of the few De Blasio government officials who had expressed an interest in retaining the city’s incoming mayor, Eric Adams. In a July interview during the campaign, Mr Adams praised “the amazing things Banks has done” and added that he brought “new ideas with him”.

Three decades before Mr. Banks went to work for the city, he was a ruthless and effective thorn in the side as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. He brought the suit that made New York the first major city to accommodate all families, costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars but keeping people off the streets.

Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society and a former colleague of Mr. Banks there, said Mr. Banks as a commissioner had “achieved amazing things, including reducing evictions in New York City by an unprecedented and miraculous amount.” But he said that because housing and homelessness policies at City Hall have been shut down, Mr. Banks “never got the housing resources he needed.”

In recent months, as the city’s crackdown on people living on the streets in response to complaints from the neighborhood, the Homeless Care Unit came under fire from lawyers. Mr de Blasio said last month that he viewed homelessness as the main problem that he wished his government had made more progress on.

Mr. Banks joined Legal Aid after graduating from law school in 1981. One of the first cases he worked on, filed on behalf of a woman and her three children fleeing domestic violence, established the legal right to shelter for families. He was constantly in court against the city and even got city officials who resisted court orders to be forced to spend the night in the dreaded emergency admissions office of the shelter system.

Once he was in government, Mr. Banks’s job to reverse the rise in homelessness that continued under four different mayors nearly doubled under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and continued to rise in the early days of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure. He found himself championing some of the practices he used to fight and crippled by some of the obligations he had helped impose on the city, as well as the chronic shortage of affordable housing.

“We’ve been tackling many long-standing issues at once, which leaves us open to criticism if everything isn’t resolved in one go,” he said in a 2016 interview.

The city’s practice of housing people in cheap hotels, an expensive and sometimes dangerous workaround against which, for example, Mr. Banks had fought, continues to this day.

Mr Banks is the architect of the effort launched by the de Blasio administration in 2017 to build 90 new homeless shelters aimed at moving the city thousands of people from hotels and so-called cluster homes to more stable shelters and eventually permanent housing. Many of the shelters the city has opened up have been fought over by the residents in the neighborhoods where they were located.

The shelters are owned and run by several contractors, and it was difficult to find conscientious operators. Recent months have seen a drumroll of accusations and charges against shelter managers who stuffed their pockets while providing shoddy services, but the city is so desperate for operators that they typically let them go ahead with “corrective action plans.”

The coronavirus pandemic has presented a new set of challenges for the Homeless Services agency. To stop the spread of Covid-19 in the city’s barracks, in the early days of the lockdown, the city relocated thousands of people to rooms in private hotels, including in high-visibility Manhattan neighborhoods where hotel patrons clashed with neighbors. Some hotel residents were accused of various assaults and other attacks.

In the summer, as the virus subsided, the city moved hotel guests back to the shelters, but the moves were chaotic and disorganized, with judges citing the city for not taking into account people’s health problems.

At the same time, the city drastically carried out the so-called street clearings of encampments, carried out by crews including police, sanitary and homeless people. Critics said the sweeps simply moved people from place to place without remedying the underlying housing shortage.

Shams DaBaron, a formerly homeless activist, said that while Mr. Banks had “inherited a system that was fraught with problems,” he oversaw policies that abandoned homeless New Yorkers, including “reliance on developing and building more shelters as opposed to working on ways to prevent and end homelessness.”

Mr. Banks’ new employer, Paul Weiss, is involved in high-profile public interest lawsuits across the country, including voting rights, immigrant rights and abortion rights.

It remains to be seen whether he will go back to sue the city. New York’s conflict of interest law prohibits former officials from working on matters in which they have been personally or substantially involved as city employees, but many former officials have found ways to circumvent the ban.

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