The Business of Government Hour


About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Robert Hess interview

Friday, July 3rd, 2009 - 20:00
"Our mission is to support individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness in our city, and to help them move from the experience of homelessness back into the community with whatever supports they may need to support them in the community."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 07/04/2009
Intro text: 
Missions and Programs; Leadership; Technology; Innovation; Organizational Transformation; Market-Based Government; Strategic Thinking; Customer Focus/Case Management ...

Missions and Programs; Leadership; Technology; Innovation; Organizational Transformation; Market-Based Government; Strategic Thinking; Customer Focus/Case Management

Magazine profile: 
Complete transcript: 

Originally Broadcast December 1st, 2007

New York , New York

Welcome to The Business of Government Hour, a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The Business of Government Hour is produced by The IBM Center for The Business of Government, which was created in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about The Center by visiting us on the web at

And now, The Business of Government Hour.

Mr. Morales: Good morning. I'm Albert Morales, your host, and managing partner of The IBM Center for The Business of Government. As we continue our effort to engage government executives who are changing the way government does business, we are here on location this morning in New York City.

All across America, small towns and large cities are facing the social realities of homelessness, and the steady increase in demand for homeless services. While providing shelter and services to those in need is critical, the national conversation is shifting from managing to ending homelessness, especially chronic homelessness. New York City has embraced such a goal, and has begun to reshape and expand its services to prevent homelessness in a more comprehensive and coordinated way than ever before. From a system that did little more than provide cots and meals to single adults and families, it is now recognized nationally and internationally for providing quality shelter and related services in humane settings, with a client-centered philosophy.

With us this morning to discuss his agency's efforts in this area is our special guest, Robert Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

Good morning, Rob.

Mr. Hess: Good morning.

Mr. Morales: Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Shelley Mills-Brinkley, partner in IBM's public sector social services practice.

Good morning, Shelley.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: Good morning.

Mr. Morales: Rob, let's start off by learning a bit more about your department. Perhaps you could give us an overview of the mission and history of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

Mr. Hess: Sure. The Department of Homeless Services in New York was created in the early '90s. Before that, we were part of the Human Resources Administration in the city. And the mission is to support individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness in our city, and to help them move from the experience of homelessness back into the community with whatever supports they may need to support them in the community.

Mr. Morales: Rob, can you give us a sense of the scale of this operation? How is the New York City Department of Homeless Services organized? What's the size of its budget, and how many full-time employees do you have?

Mr. Hess: Sure. The Department of Homeless Services has a budget of just under $1 billion a year. We have over 2,300 employees within the Department, and we contract out for services that include about another 20,000 employees that we pay for through contracts across the city in order to support people experiencing homelessness.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: With that big operation, can you give us an idea of your role as commissioner? And what are your official responsibilities?

Mr. Hess: We are very, very focused in the Bloomberg administration on the mayor's vision. And with respect to homelessness and the reduction thereof, it's the vision of the mayor that we reduce the number of people sleeping on our streets, and we reduce the number of people living in our shelters by two-thirds or more before midnight on December 31, 2009, so we're very clear in our mission and our vision. And everything we do in the Department is geared toward not managing homelessness, but ending it, and so we're very focused on those objectives.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: So with such a big vision and mission, what are the top three challenges that you see in your position in getting those goals met?

Mr. Hess: I think the biggest challenge is to figure out the strategies that we need to actually get to the kinds of reductions we're talking about. So with respect to people living on our streets that are experiencing chronic homelessness, we've had to develop a whole new set of strategies on the street, to include much better access to housing directly from the streets, and the supportive services that supports people in that housing. With respect to the shelters, we've had to develop a whole new set of rental subsidy programs to help people move quickly out of the shelter system and back into the community with the support that they need. And so the strategies are a little bit different based upon the population, or where people are starting from, but the biggest challenges are really understanding what it will take to help create the reductions in homelessness that we're trying to achieve.

Mr. Morales: Rob, I understand that you've come to New York City via Baltimore in sort of your most recent role. Could you describe your career path for our listeners? How did you even get started in this field?

Mr. Hess: Sure. I spent five years in the Army, and then after that went to work for the Disabled American Veterans in Baltimore; ran one of the largest thrift stores in Baltimore in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Baltimore and did that for 16 years, and really had a thorough understanding and primer, if you will, on poverty and people who live in poverty, and how they're just so resourceful in so many ways, and we really were one of the largest employers of low-income people in Baltimore City, and we were very, very successful. And so went from that to looking at the issue of homeless veterans in Baltimore. And then created a program in Baltimore called the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training that actually became I think the national model for how you could support veterans that were on the streets. And, you know, isn't that tragic that so many of our veterans serve our country and protect us and then end up on our streets? We really have to do better as a nation with respect to that. So we had some success with that.

And then I didn't like what I saw with respect to public policy in this country of managing homelessness, and so ran an organization in Maryland called Action for the Homeless, ultimately led an organization called the Center for Poverty Solutions in Maryland, and then moved to Philadelphia when Mayor John Street asked me to join his administration. And we had a lot of success there in reducing the number of people in the streets over a five-year period of time, at which point Mayor Bloomberg asked me to join his administration here in New York, and I've just been honored to do that.

Mr. Morales: Rob, tell me, how have these previous experiences prepared you for your current role here in New York City, and how did they shape your management approach and your leadership style?

Mr. Hess: Well, I think the number one thing it taught me is you really -- in order to understand a problem, in order to understand what's really going on with somebody living on the streets or living in a shelter, you can do all your research, you can look at all the data, but at the end of the day, you really got to sit down and talk to people that are experiencing that situation and better understand what their wants and needs and desires are, and then shape programs to support them and where they want to go, and there's just a lot of examples of that. So that I think has influenced my management style, my leadership style, my thought process in creating programs and policy.

Beyond that, I think in any organization, no matter how small or large, there are some things that are very clear. You know, the idea of empowering the experts, the professionals, within any organization, to be able to move toward a common vision and help them succeed by giving them a lot of support, a lot of communication, a lot of access. And the freedom to take risks is very, very important. Now, we try to take calculated, well-measured risks, but we're very clear that many, many people worked very hard over a long period of time to end homelessness and they haven't been able to do it. We've got to be able to think very differently, very creatively, take some risks, figure out what's working and keep doing what's working, figure out what's not and stop what's not working.

That stopping what's not working is not always easy, especially when you talk about people that have organizations, very good organizations, that may have contracts to do things that aren't working as well. Very often, we're hesitant to say we ought to stop funding that. Well, here in New York and in Philadelphia, we did that, and focused on strategies that worked, and it made a big difference over time.

And so I think it's a combination of all those things. I think at the end of the day, probably the biggest thing is support our staff, be very clear on our vision, our objectives, our timelines, and do everything we can to communicate that over and over and over again, and stay focused on where we're going.

Mr. Morales: You know, many times in government it's easy to take a safe position, but it sounds like you're really driving towards a culture of innovation and of risk-taking.

Mr. Hess: Absolutely right. The thing that comes with that, of course, is change. And any time you're driving change, you can't do that without creating a certain amount of stress or tension, and so you have to be willing to accept that. And then you have to kind of manage the change and the stress that it's creating in a way that it's productive stress and doesn't become counterproductive. And so that's a little bit of the management balancing act that we try to obtain as we move toward our vision.

Mr. Morales: Great.

What about Mayor Bloomberg's plan to end chronic homelessness in New York City?

We will ask Robert Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Robert Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Shelley Mills-Brinkley.

Rob, a typical perception about homelessness is that a homeless person is predominantly male, perhaps mentally ill, and living on the street. Perhaps you could shed some light and clarify some of these misperceptions by telling us what population represents the majority that your agency serves. Who's most at risk, and what events precipitate or cause individuals or families to become homeless?

Mr. Hess: There's no question that the largest majority of people experiencing homelessness we see are women and children, families with children. The second fastest-growing group are adult families, or what we call "couples." Actually, the smallest group, and the group that we're having the most success in eliminating homelessness, is single adults that you described.

Since we announced -- the mayor announced the five-year plan, we've seen a 19 percent decrease in single adults. And we're actually at the lowest level with single adults in our system that we've been since 2002, and we're continuing to go down. And so we feel very, very good about that. We've seen a 15 percent decrease in the number of individuals, primarily single males, living on our streets. But at the same time, we've seen a little bit of growth in families with children and adult couples, and so they are by far the fastest-growing and the majority of people that we see.

Mr. Morales: That's interesting. It must take much different strategies to address those three groups that you described.

Mr. Hess: It really does. And the other thing that you see is more and more young moms with a couple of children entering the shelter system. Part of that you can attribute to a tougher rental market, and part of that you can attribute to the really low-wage jobs that are available at an entry level. But the gap between what people need to earn in order to pay the rent has really gotten very, very large.

Mr. Morales: Could you give us a brief overview of Mayor Bloomberg's five-year plan to end chronic homelessness? Specifically, give us some background on its development, and a high-level outline of the nine-point action plan that seeks to reshape the city's approach to assisting homeless and those at risk.

Mr. Hess: Yeah, the mayor and Commissioner Linda Gibbs, who's now deputy mayor, really spent a lot of time engaging leaders across New York in order to bring them together on a very high level and think through the kinds of strategies we need to move from managing homelessness to ending it, and set some very aggressive targets. And in fact, the group came back and developed a plan that would get the 2/3 reductions, both the number of people in the streets and in our shelter system, within 10 years. And the mayor reviewed that plan and said the plan is great, it's exactly what we should be doing, but I don't have 10 years. We have term limits here in New York. I've got five years left.

So in the space of just a few very quick minutes, the plan went from a 10-year plan to a 5-year plan because the mayor said we need to make ourselves accountable for this and not leave this important work to any future administrations. And so all the points that were raised kind of accelerated in importance, and the timelines accelerated very quickly.

And so what we have learned with the support of all those high-level folks is that this plan needs to be dynamic. The strategies are changing by the month. I don't think that there's many of the initial strategies that we have not replaced with new-and-improved versions of those strategies or just very new and creative ideas that weren't even thought of by the initial group.

Let me give you an example. I was surprised to learn very early on in my tenure here that we had 800 individuals in the shelter system that had been in the shelter system in New York City for between 8 and 20 years. Can you imagine living in a shelter system in any city in this country for the better part of a generation? And yet many people were. And so once we recognized that, we then went to work in an aggressive way -- a 100-day initiative to place all of those individuals into permanent or permanent-supportive housing. And we did it. We then found that we had 46 families that had been in our shelter system for more than five years. In that same 100 days, we moved those 46 families into permanent housing.

And so we made a lot of progress, but that particular strategy could not have been foreseen by those developing the plan. It was only digging deep and drilling deep into the data to understand who was in our system that allowed us to identify those populations, develop strategies very quickly, enact those strategies, and then get that job done. The beauty of this kind of technique, however, is that we then learned a lot of things that we can apply to other families that are in our system.

Mr. Morales: That's just fantastic, and you've alluded to some of the great successes that your agency has had. So what are some of the big-ticket items that still remain to be done to meet the 2009 goal?

Mr. Hess: Well, I think most of them are in place. We recently created four new housing subsidies. We don't have a one-size-fits-all population, and so we've got four new strategies. We call them the "Advantage New York" suite of housing subsidies. We'll spend $129 million this year on those housing subsidies alone. But they will allow people to move out of shelters more quickly, move back into the community, get the support that they need to become self-sufficient or move towards self-sufficiency, and we think that's very important.

We have added a lot of money to community-based prevention sites. And so we'll soon be spending about $20 million a year to develop these community-based sites. And we'll be attaching Section 8 subsidies and other subsidies to those sites, that we'll be spending well in excess of another $100 million a year on community-based prevention. And so those are some of the kinds of big-ticket items that we've put into place to help move us toward our objective.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: Can you tell us a little bit more about your new homeless outreach strategy? How does it represent a redesign of the street outreach services? And I understand that you've implemented a new point -- a single point of contact, if you will, in all five boroughs.

Mr. Hess: Yes. I mean, this is very exciting. I mean, one of the first things I did upon arriving in New York some year and a half ago was to spend a night a week for the first couple of months on the streets across the five boroughs of the city with various outreach teams, see what's going on, talk to people living on our streets, watch our outreach teams in action. And what I concluded is that we had a lot of well-meaning outreach teams doing the best they could with limited resources, without any ability to collect or share data in a meaningful way, without access to the kind of housing resources that they needed to help people move off the streets. And so it was clear to me that we weren't going to get from where we were to our target of reducing the people in the streets by two-thirds or more using the strategies that were in place. And I'll spend a minute just telling you what we did about that, because I think it's instructive of how we do business.

So I couldn't even figure out, because these contracts were across various city departments, how many outreach teams we had. So I decided to hold a meeting one morning and invite every outreach team to the meeting. The only ticket to admittance to the meeting was you were a line outreach worker, you worked on the streets. No supervisors, no managers, no executive directors. And I just went to see who was going to show up. It turns out 160 outreach workers showed up.

And so I said to them, look, our vision's very straightforward. There's 4,200 people living on the streets today. Before midnight on December 31, 2009, we need to get down below 1,429 people living on the streets. Tell me how to do it. Tell me what works, what doesn't work. What would you need to accomplish that lofty objective?

And we spent the next couple of hours listening to outreach workers tell us what worked, what didn't work, and what they would need; captured it all on flipcharts; sent all the outreach teams to lunch; reorganized all of those charts in priority order. And then when they came back from lunch, we did what everybody's had done to them: We gave them each three or four sticky-colored circles and said go vote for the things you think we should -- or the highest priority. They did that.

And then in the afternoon, we invited the outreach workers back in with all their bosses: the supervisors, the directors, the executive directors. And I said to the group this is what I heard this morning. In order to get from 4,200 to 1,400, we'll never get there doing what we're doing for these reasons that we heard, and so here's what we're going to do. I'm going to terminate all your contracts and we're going to put out a new concept paper and then a new RFP and have organizations apply. And we're going to have one single point of accountability in each borough with a plan. It can be a multidisciplinary plan. You can have as many subcontractors as you want. But we're going to fund a plan that will get us to the target by the specified time in each borough in this city.

And as you can imagine, there was a little bit of grumbling to start with. And once we got beyond that, a remarkable thing happened. Providers started talking together and working together to develop these plans to respond to the RFP, and many of these providers had not worked together before. And what came out of it was an amazing competition. And it took the better part of a year, but currently today in place in this city on the streets are very innovative, very cooperative, resource-rich efforts with absolute plans, with absolute targets in every borough, one single point of accountability. And so now we're organized in a way to get the job done.

While we went through that process, though, we couldn't lose any time, and so we did two additional things. The first thing we did is we began work on a handheld wireless device that every outreach worker can now have that collects and shares data in real time, so that nobody had to worry about when the last time somebody was contacted or tried to ask questions, you know, of somebody on the street for the thirtieth time. Can do it once, get that data in, and share it.

The other thing we did during that year was we looked around the city and we said we've got encampments in this city that are just a disgrace. We went around and took pictures of all 72 encampments. We found 72 across the 5 boroughs, went to the mayor and said, Mayor, this is the city today. And he said that's not good. What are we going to do about these encampments?

We said, well, we want to get all city departments working together that are necessary, and outreach teams, and go out and end the need for anybody to sleep in these unhealthy encampments. The mayor said do it; gave us a year to do it. We did it in six months. So there's no encampments left in the city of New York at the moment. Every now and then, one will spring up and we'll go address it very quickly. But we used that learning in how to kind of end these horrible encampments and house people in those encampments as lessons learned that now inform the new strategies that are occurring on our streets. And so that whole process really informs how we are creating the strategies to move toward our target.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: And of course, preventive care is part of the whole strategy as well, because you have to prevent the whole incident of homelessness from continuing. The old adage, "An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure." What are you doing in the prevention area, if you will?

Mr. Hess: You know, that's just really very exciting. What we did in prevention is we looked across the city and we said we've got six community districts where a very high percentage of people in our shelter system come from. And so we put what we call "home-based" or "community-based" prevention centers in each of those six community districts, and that was about two years ago. And we gave those providers wide range in how they would use the money we gave them to prevent people from having to enter the shelter system and help people stay in their home stably. And here's what happened: in those six community districts, the percentage of people entering the shelter system went down, while at the same time, the community districts that did not have prevention services available to them, sadly, went up.

And so what did we learn from that? We ought to have prevention all over the city. And so now, as we speak, we're ready to award contracts all across the city of New York to put home-based, community-based prevention in all of those locations across the city, so we can support anybody that needs it, and try to bring down the number of people entering a shelter from across the city. Much better outcome to intervene on the front end and help people stay in their housing.

Now, the other thing we decided to do with our prevention sites is attach our Section 8 priority certificates, our federal housing subsidies, to those sites. So historically, people, sadly, have entered the shelter system, in some cases, in New York City in order to try to get a housing subsidy, because they need it. We don't want them to have to go through that. So we've attached about 3,000 Section 8 certificates for access only by our home-based providers. And so I think that's making a big difference as well.

Mr. Morales: That's fantastic, Rob, and I love the enthusiasm here. Now, you mentioned earlier a little bit about Advantage New York. So what are the benefits of this program, and how does it differ from the city's previously rental subsidy program called "Housing Stability Plus?"

Mr. Hess: Well, I don't talk about Housing Stability Plus anymore. But if I did, I would tell you that that was a program that was well-intentioned, served our needs for a period of time, but had some unintended consequences associated with it. So if I was to talk about it, which of course I don't anymore, I would probably tell you that you had to be on public assistance in order to receive the rental subsidy. And so if you were out and in an apartment and you had any disruption to your public assistance, the rent didn't get paid that month. And that, of course, made landlords crabby when they don't get paid. And so that was one disincentive.

A second disincentive was, in order to stay on public assistance, you couldn't earn over $8.50 an hour. Well, that's a problem. We need people out working and earning, and we don't want to disrupt their rent because they're earning too much. And so there were some things in there that just didn't work as well as we'd like, and so we moved from that to our suite of Advantage New York housing subsidies, which we think are much stronger.

Now, the first premise we used -- and people told me this as I visited shelters all over the city and said what's working with HSP and what do you need that you're not getting and what would be the perfect housing subsidy and all the rest, what people told me overwhelmingly was they wanted to work. People want to work. They want to be able to pay their own bills. But they need jobs that pay enough for them to be able to pay their own bills, or they need a combination of being at work and a little bit of a housing subsidy to get that done.

And so the first Advantage New York program we created is called "Work Advantage." And here's how it works: you're in the shelter system for 90 days, you're working for 30 days, at least 30 days, at at least 20 hours a week at a minimum wage or higher job. Once you've accomplished just those basic criteria, we give you a letter that says you're eligible for Work Advantage. At that point, that family goes out and finds an apartment, tells us where that apartment is. We go out and inspect that apartment to Section 8 standards, the HUD standards, because we want to be sure people are moving into a quality apartment.

Once that happens, the family moves out into the apartment. We're going to pay the rent for at least a year and maybe two, but we're going to ask that family to do three things. Keep working, try to expand their hours and expand their earnings the best they can.

Second, open a checking account. We're paying the rent, so we want them to put some money in a checking account and write a check to the landlord every month for $50. Not much, but the experts tell us we're much better off if that family gets in the habit of making a rent payment every month. So even though it's 50 bucks, it's important to get into that habit.

The third thing we ask them to do is open a savings account. And into that savings account, again, because we're paying the rent, we ask folks to put the value of between 10 and 20 percent of that rent into a savings account every month. So if the rent's $1,000, put between $100 and $200 a month into a savings account. Why? Because there's going to be rainy day, and when that rainy day happens, we don't want people to have to run back to the shelter system. We want people to be able to weather that storm and stay in stable housing. And so those three things are very important.

Now, if toward the end of the year that family says to us thank you very much, this was great, we're fine on our own from here on, we don't leave it at that. We do two more things, and this has never been done in this country before, I don't believe.

The first thing we do is say to that family, okay, you paid $50 a month to the landlord. That's $600. We're going to write you a check for $600 so you can add to your savings account. We're going to reimburse you that money you paid your landlord.

The second thing, if you put $200 a month into your savings account, 20 percent of the value of your rent, and you've got $2,400 in savings, we're going to write you a check and match that. So at the end of that year, when you're ready to make it on your own, you're going to have you could have as much as $5,000 in the bank. We think that's very exciting. We think that will help many families. It gives them the hand-up that they need and supports the work that they've put into that first year, even at low-pay wage paying jobs in order to be moved towards self-sufficiency in a real way. Real hope.

Now, not every family's going to make it over a year. And so for families that are playing by the rules but still can't make ends meet, maybe there's been some fits and starts in the job market, maybe hours go up and down, who knows? We'll extend them for a second year, same deal. So at the end of two years, they could have up to $10,000 in the bank. And we think most families will be fine after that.

But there'll still be a small segment of families that'll need some additional help. And for them, we tie them into what? Home-based, community-based prevention sites to work with them, to move them to another program if, despite their best efforts and ours, they couldn't get to self-sufficiency after two years. We think this is very exciting. We don't want to see those families come back to the shelter system, because that's not a highest and best outcome for anybody. That's Work Advantage.

And you say, okay, so that's good, but what if you can't work? If you can't work, we have what we call "Fixed Income Advantage." If you're on SSI, SSDI, fixed income, can't work, never be able to pay the rent in New York City on that little bit of income, we're going to give you a letter and move you out. You go find an apartment; we're going to inspect it. You move out, we'll pay your rent for up to a year. But the day you move out of shelter, we give you a home-based after-care worker to work with you to get a Section 8 certificate with our priority, the top priority. The idea being you move out immediately, don't have to stay in shelter, we get a Section 8 for you. We flip the funding in place over the course of the year, even language in the lease so it can flip from our funding, local funding through Advantage, to Section 8 funding, so the family doesn't have to move. And they ultimately end up with a long-term subsidy because they need that. That's Fixed Income Advantage.

Two more. This is very exciting. One is Children's Advantage. We take the list of our families and give all that information to the child welfare system. In some families, the child welfare system comes back and says to us you know what? You know, some of these have got kids in foster care, there's other issues going on here. This family really doesn't need to be focused on work just yet. We need to focus on giving them the support they need to bring their family back together. So for that family, we give them a Children's Advantage letter. They move out, like Fixed Advantage; find an apartment; we inspect it; they move out. Child welfare system works with them to reunite their family, and we get them a Section 8 in place because they're going to need some long-term support.

Fourth group, Short-Term Advantage. Now, this is interesting and it's very sad in many ways. We have a significant number of families in our shelter system that have -- their income level's fine, but they ran into a little bit of a pothole in the road, maybe got evicted, have short-term problems, but they're still working, they still have good income. To those families we say go out and find an apartment. An apartment can be in New York City or it can be outside of New York City, but find an apartment with a rent level that you can afford to pay given your income, and bring us back a copy of the lease. And there, we recognize they need a little bit of a hand-up to make it. And so when they bring us back a copy of that lease, we'll pay the landlord the first four months' rent, we'll pay the security deposit, we'll pay the broker's fees, and we'll give that family a furniture allowance.

Now, we've moved over 300 families out of the shelter system in New York City using Short-Term Advantage when we started the pilot last summer, and not one of those families has returned to the shelter system. Not one. It's very exciting.

And, you know, you talk about the numbers and you say that's great, but when it's Mrs. Jones, who was living in a shelter system with two kids and now has her own keys and is out there doing so well in the community because of this, and was working all along, she just ran into a little pothole, we gave her a little bit of a hand-up. And she's just so appreciative, and that family is so much better off, it really makes a big difference.

Mr. Morales: That's fantastic. I mean clearly, this is a model of teaching and providing people the tools to help themselves, and you've tailored this to the individual needs as opposed to a cookie-cutter approach to your programs. That's fantastic.

What about delivering homeless and social services in the wake of a natural or manmade disaster?

We will ask Rob Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Robert Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Shelley Mills-Brinkley.

Rob, New York City has become synonymous with emergency response and the lessons learned from the 9/11 disaster. Could you elaborate on your efforts to plan and prepare for future emergency situations? Specifically, how is New York City preparing to deliver homeless and social services in the event of a natural or a manmade disaster? And what are some of the key lessons learned from previous experiences that are being brought to bear in your planning?

Mr. Hess: You know, that's really a loaded question in so many ways. I think in the post-Katrina era -- especially in the post-9/11 era, but more so the post-Katrina era, local jurisdictions have realized that we may not always be able to rely for initial response as quickly as we might like from, say, the federal government. And I don't mean that as a criticism of any federal agency.

Having said that, the mayor here, Mayor Bloomberg, has tasked us to be able to provide initial support to New Yorkers in the event of any natural or other disaster that might occur. And so our department has worked very closely with the Office of Emergency Management and other city departments, especially social service departments, to craft a plan whereby we could house in the worst-case emergency -- which frankly, I hope we never have to unveil -- but we could house up to 600,000 New Yorkers after an event. And we would do that by opening up to 65 evacuation centers, up to 511 shelters, and providing meals and support safely to over 600,000 New Yorkers. And I think if we did that, our shelter system would be the sixteenth or seventeenth largest city in America. And so again, we certainly hope that we never have to do that, but we are training city employees to be able to meet that mission should it ever become necessary.

And so what does that mean? That means we have to train about 70,000 New York employees. We would need 17,000 employees on every shift, and we would have 12-hour shifts for as long as an event were to last. We've had to begin stockpiling supplies, work very closely with the Department of Education to figure out what schools we could use, and with the police for security and all the rest. And so it is a huge, huge planning and logistical undertaking that the mayor has tasked us to do. And again, working with OEM and other city agencies, we're well on the way to getting there. We've trained thousands of city staff just in the last three or four months. And so we view it as a coastal storm planned response, but it could be rolled out for any emergency.

One of the interesting things that I learned in this process is that New York City is one of the three most likely targets to a major Category 3 or 4 storm. Who knew? I certainly didn't. After I guess Florida and New Orleans, New York City is the most likely place that such a storm could hit. And so we're preparing for that, but we also understand that we have responsibility in any other event, and so we're training now all the time. In fact, we'll be sending a contingent from DHS along with other New York City contingents to California to work on the sheltering system there around the -- on the wildfire that occurred there. And so we will continue to look for other training opportunities around the country, and benefit from that knowledge as well to inform how we will meet the mayor's goal of being able to house New Yorkers here in the event of a catastrophe.

Mr. Morales: Let's hope that we never need to activate that plan.

An independent research organization called Public Agenda recently released a report entitled, "Compassion, Concern, and Conflicted Feelings: New Yorkers on Homelessness and Housing." First, what are some of the key findings in this report? And second, to what extent does this independent research firm confirm that you're on the right track or need to go in a different direction?

Mr. Hess: Well, this is a very interesting report. I mean, largely what they found was that New Yorkers are with us. New Yorkers support the resources, the work that we're doing to help end homelessness. They think ending homelessness is the right approach. And they also think that people that are experiencing homelessness have to take some personal responsibility as well. And so if we create guidelines for coming in to apply for shelter and other things, the public supports that. But at the end of the day, the public, based upon this report sort of confirms, they're willing to put extra resources, extra time, extra energy into their neighbors that are less fortunate and provide great services that end homelessness, but there also has to be a balance, and the balance is on the side of some personal responsibility being accepted by those that are receiving those benefits.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: Speaking about compassion and concern, I'd like to turn our attention here for a minute to the veterans, and I know you spoke earlier about what you did previously in working with the veterans population in Maryland. According to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, NCHV, veterans returning from active duty often face an array of problems during the transition from military to civilian life, which places them at risk for homelessness. Would you elaborate on the programs you have in place here in the city to address the homeless veterans?

Mr. Hess: Look, I am just so proud of our mayor and then-VA Sec. Nicholson, who came together last December and said we're going to end the need for any veteran in New York City to need to sleep on our streets or to enter our shelter system. The mayor asked me to co-chair a task force on this issue with Jim Farsetta, who is our VA regional director. And I have to say that Jim and his staff are just great partners; worked together with us very closely. We'll before long begin rolling out the strategies that we believe before the end of this mayor's administration will eliminate the need for any veteran to sleep on our streets, or any veteran to sleep in our shelter system. We can do better than that and we should. We owe it to those veterans. And I know the Veterans Administration is committed to that. I know the mayor is committed to that. And so this administration will work with the VA to get that done, and we're just very proud of those efforts.

What a tragedy that any veteran who serves this nation would now walk our streets. We just have to do better than that. We will in this city.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: Thank you. When you're talking about any of these populations, a lot of times they need multiple types of services in order to end their homeless situation. Would you elaborate on your working relationship with other city social services agencies, such as the city's Human Resource Administration and Department of Social Services? You talked earlier about working with Child Welfare. That would be under the Administration of Children's Services. Can you talk about the collaboration and coordination of services?

Mr. Hess: Yeah, let me do that in kind of two ways. First, let me take you back to the encampment discussion we had earlier. What I didn't spend much time on was talking about I talked about the six months it took us to eliminate the encampments. What I didn't talk about is the three months prior to that, it took us to get 12 city and state departments working together to figure out how we were going to go deal with these encampments in a humane, social service-oriented way. But we did that: brought city and state departments as diverse as the Department of Transportation, Department of Sanitation, police, fire, parks, and others together in a coordinated way, and that effort continues to this day. And so we can be very proud of that in this city, and it's an example of how these really are intergovernmental efforts.

With respect to social services, we're very fortunate in this city to have a deputy mayor for social services, Linda Gibbs, who, under her leadership, all the social service commissioners report to. And we work very closely with each other as a result. And so there's really no issue that can't be talked about or dealt with or strategies created across departments.

For example, when we created our new Advantage subsidy programs, not only do our clients benefit from that, but the Human Resources Administration clients that are in domestic violence facilities can benefit from that. There are some families that are identified by ACS that benefit from that. And so we try to do things collaboratively across agencies in a way that you don't always see. And I really would say that the mayor creating a deputy mayor position for that purpose has really made a big difference in the city.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: Wonderful. So talk to me a little bit about the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Is that a tool that you use as well in ending homelessness?

Mr. Hess: It's a very important tool. Now, as you know, that's one of the primary funding sources for homelessness services across this nation, and so we use it well. I mean here, we use it to renew programs that are working in our community, but we also use any additional dollars we're able to scrape together out of that competition to fund supportive services for all of our supportive housing programs.

You know, the mayor here committed to adding 12,000 units of supportive housing across the city over a 10-year period. Well, the bricks and mortar is one piece to that, but then you need the service side. You need to be able to provide the service dollars to support all the families and individuals that'll be in that supportive housing. And we use the Shelter Plus Care portions of the McKinney funding in order to do that. And so it's a very important funding source for us.

Mr. Morales: Now, Rob, you're obviously engaged in solving a very complex and multidimensional issue, and you spoke earlier about coordinating multiple city agencies and organizations, but perhaps you could elaborate on the kinds of public-private partnerships that you engage to improve outcomes. And in what areas would you like to perhaps either enhance or expand these types of public-private collaborations?

Mr. Hess: That's such a broad question. There are so many areas we could take that down, but let me to say to begin with that much of what we do, we do through contracts with nonprofit providers. And in New York City, we have some of the best nonprofit providers in the country, I think. That makes our job much easier, when you can reach out and contract with a provider you know is going to get the job done.

Those providers also have boards of directors that have high-level leaders from across our city, and so they're being informed through their membership on boards of directors of nonprofits. And that education is very important to us, because then as we reach out to the business community and others, they have a much keener understanding of what we're trying to accomplish and how they might be able to help us in a variety of ways. And so I think that's very important.

You know, in this city, the mayor has created a Commission on Poverty to be able to reduce the level of poverty across the city, and do some very creative things with respect to cash incentives. And so the foundation and the private sector has stepped up in a very big way to support this particular initiative of the mayor so that we can try some new and innovative things that have worked in Mexico and other places in order to reduce the poverty rate in our city. And so all of that helps us. And so there's just so many of these relationships.

I mean, government, the best of governments, can't do very much by itself. We really need the public support. We really need the nonprofit community working closely with us in support of our goals. We really need the business community, the foundation community, the academic community, all working toward common visions when you have visions that are as bold and aggressive as we have in this city.

Mr. Morales: That's fantastic.

What does the future hold for the New York City Department of Homeless Services?

We will ask Robert Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Rob Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Shelley Mills-Brinkley.

Rob, maintaining a highly skilled results-oriented workforce has got to be key to the success of any organization, especially yours. Can you give us an overview of your agency's human capital strategy? What are some of the steps being taken to attract and maintain a high-quality technical and professional workforce?

Mr. Hess: Well, we do a number of things. First, we are so fortunate to be in New York City, that when we have senior-level positions, we typically attract applications from around the country, and in some cases, around the world. And so the level of talent we're able to attract is just remarkable. And part of that is I think we're probably the largest department of our kind, certainly in our country and perhaps in the world, and so that helps us.

But we do do some other things as well. I mean, we have a summer intern program where we'll have we'll invite around 50 or 60 grad students and undergrad students from around the country to join us for the summer. And so we look for obviously the best and the brightest. I think this past summer, we had folks from 15 or 20 different states that came in and spent the summer with us in everything from my office through our law department, through policy and planning, to the operational divisions. And so we really have just a remarkable group of young people that are extraordinarily talented with us every summer. And not surprisingly, some of those folks actually come back as our staff. We recruit folks out of that pool on occasion.

We also have a variety of other programs that come to us from a variety of ways. So we'll have interns throughout the regular school year as well. And so we really have been able to attract a very high level of talent.

Mr. Morales: That's fantastic. It must be a wonderful experience for those students that come over for three months of their break.

Mr. Hess: You know, not just for them. It's a wonderful experience for us to have fresh eyes come in and kind of look at things and question what we're doing, and we give them every opportunity to do that. The only rule at DHS is don't come in there to punch a timecard and do your eight hours. We want your mind. You know, if you're not contributing by providing some intellectual capital, you're in the wrong place.

Mr. Morales: That's great.

I'd like to sort of transition now and look towards the future. What are some of the major opportunities and challenges that your organization will encounter in the future? And how do you envision your agency will evolve over, say, the next three to five years?

Mr. Hess: Well, I think the challenges are not unique to New York City. I think the challenges are the kind of challenges that we need to grapple with as a nation. You know, there is a growing divide between kind of the haves and the have-nots, and I think we just need to be honest about that. I think we have seen a shrinking pool of affordable housing across this country, and I think we need to be honest about that. I think we've seen a much greater gap between entry-level wages and housing costs in almost every city, if not every city, in this country, and we need to be honest about that. And I would hope that we will begin to see some real discussion on the federal level, a real national dialogue on some of these issues that will help us figure this out, because we can.

I mean, if we look back just over the last 40 years, we've seen things like the G.I. Bill. Well, when I left the Army, I didn't have much money, right, didn't get a high-paying job, did not have a college education. But because of my military service and the G.I. Bill, I could go to school at night while I worked during the day and get my degree. When I got married, I think using the VA benefits through the G.I. Bill, I actually put $500 down to buy our first house. Those opportunities aren't there in quite the same way they were for me a few years ago, and so I think we need to think about that as a country.

Things like the CETA program and other kinds of big-work programs that allowed employers to take a chance and bring employees in to see how good they could be just aren't as readily available. And so I think there's things that we could do with respect to federal and national policy that would make it much less likely that people would experience homelessness, and I think we ought to have that dialogue. And I'm not sure that we had enough of that dialogue over the last 10 or 15 or 20 years.

Ms. Mills-Brinkley: So earlier, you were talking about giving staff handheld devices to use in the field in order to bridge the conversation gap that may have happened if you don't have those. To what extent has technology advances enabled your agency to be more effective and efficient in meeting your noble goal? And what technology do you see as the most promising going forward?

Mr. Hess: Well, you mentioned the handheld, so let me stick with that for a minute, because this is very exciting. You know, it's an absolute tragedy to me when someone living on the streets dies in view, in public view, because of very cold weather, for example. I've always felt that we could do better than that, and we have to do better than that as a city. And so the handheld devices, in addition to doing the great data collection that we talked about, also now take advantage of GPS. So if you're an outreach worker and you see me sleeping on the streets and it's very cold weather and you check me to make sure I'm okay, I'm not a threat to myself in terms of the weather and what could happen to me, you automatically are pinpointing my location and date and time stamping your contact with me. And that then, by technology, can be transmitted to a command dispatch map and date and time stamped.

And so maybe it's green right after you contact me. Maybe our medical professional will say given the weather outside, we'd have to check on me again within two hours to make sure I'm still okay. Right? Maybe in an hour and a half that green dot turns yellow and a dispatcher knows he needs to get somebody back to me. And maybe if it's two hours, it turns red, and we know we got to get somebody back there quickly to make sure that I'm okay.

So my point is that utilizing the technology that we're developing, we will save lives on the streets of this city during bad weather conditions, and other times as well.

Mr. Morales: That's very exciting.

So given all the efforts that are underway, I have to ask, what can ordinary citizens of New York do to help contribute to your efforts within the agency? And perhaps you could tell us just very simply, what are three ways in which the average citizen could help overcome this issue of homelessness?

Mr. Hess: Well, I think there's a couple things that folks can do. I mean, first and foremost, if you see somebody on the street that looks like they need help and you're in New York City, dial 311. You know, take the time to let us know and we will dispatch an outreach team or other appropriate professionals and make sure that individual is okay and give him -- offer him support, offer him the ability to move indoors. That's number one.

I think number two, acknowledge people experiencing homelessness as human beings. Too often, you sit and watch and people just walk by and never even make eye contact with somebody that may be living on the streets, so make eye contact. If you're in the habit of saying good morning or good evening to folks, do that. That's a big step.

If you want to help with the issue generally, you can visit a shelter nearby, take a tour. If you feel comfortable, talk to people. Figure out what your own comfort level is and then push that a little bit. Maybe you go in once a week and sit down and read a book to a child that's experiencing homelessness living in a shelter. But somehow get engaged and better understand the issue and figure out what you can do and what you want to do to help become part of the solution. And if people would do that, I think it would make a huge, huge difference.

Mr. Morales: That's great advice.

Now, Rob, your career in public service has been marked by passion, which is clearly coming through in this interview, and your dedication to a very, very critical national issue. What advice would you give perhaps a person who was thinking about a career in public service, and in particular, someone who may be interested in ending chronic homelessness and working with those who are most at risk?

Mr. Hess: I guess the advice I would give is, first of all, find a career path that you can be passionate about. If you're not passionate about it and it's just a job to collect a paycheck, it seems to me that would be a terrible way to spend a career, so find something you can be passionate about. And then try to leave your preconceived notions to the side and learn as much as you can. And you're always better off listening than talking. If you can start there, even things that you hear that you may absolutely disagree with at first blush, give them a chance. Let it sink in and try to understand why that individual is saying whatever they're saying to you. Why are they saying that? Why do they believe that? What's going on with them that makes that real to them? And if you can do that, you can really then understand issues in a very different way, and figure out how to move towards solutions over time to complicated problems.

Mr. Morales: That certainly goes back to the story you told us when you allowed the 160 outreach workers to sit and just talk to you as opposed to having all their supervisors there and getting a different perspective.

Mr. Hess: Look, they're the experts. We just want to take the best experts we can get, bring them together, figure out the right strategies, and then we want to support them in those strategies.

Mr. Morales: That's great.

Robert, that's obviously great advice. Unfortunately, we have reached the end of our time. I want to thank you for fitting us into your busy schedule, but more importantly, Shelley and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to the great city of New York in helping to alleviate the plight of homelessness.

Mr. Hess: Thank you so much. And I just want to assure your listening public that we're going to do everything we can in the city of New York, under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to move towards eliminating the need for people to sleep on our streets and our shelters. And we're going to drive toward that two-thirds reduction that we talked about, and we're going to work every day and every hour between now and midnight on December 31, 2009 to get this job done. We owe it to the citizens of New York, we owe it to those experiencing homelessness, and we're not going to waste a minute along the way.

Mr. Morales: Fantastic.

This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Robert Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

My co-host has been Shelley Mills-Brinkley, partner in IBM's public sector social services practice.

As you enjoy the rest of your day, please take time to remember the men and women of our armed and civil services abroad who can't hear this morning's show on how we're improving their government, but who deserve our unconditional respect and support.

For The Business of Government Hour, I'm Albert Morales. Thank you for listening.

Voice-Over: This has been The Business of Government Hour.

Be sure to join us every Saturday at 9:00 a.m., and visit us on the web at There, you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's conversation.

Until next week, it's

Robert Hess interview
"Our mission is to support individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness in our city, and to help them move from the experience of homelessness back into the community with whatever supports they may need to support them in the community."

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