May 8, 2020 By Michael Dorgan
Queens Council Members Robert Holden and Eric Ulrich have called on the mayor to fire Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks for failing to properly manage the city’s homeless crisis.
The lawmakers, along with fellow city council member Joe Borelli, wrote to Mayor Bill de Blasio Monday demanding Banks be removed from his position citing the spike in the city’s homeless population. They said that the COVID-19 pandemic had exposed the agency’s failings.
“While there is plenty of evidence of Commissioner Banks’ missteps during his tenure, the most damning fact is that the NYC homeless population has continued to rise to all-time highs since you appointed him,” they wrote.
They said that Banks had little to show for his six years in charge of the department and must be replaced.
The agency’s focus has not been on preventing homelessness and creating more affordable housing – but building “dozens of massive warehouse-like shelters,” they said.
This has perpetuated the problem because many homeless people view them as unsafe – especially during the pandemic – and do not want to stay in them, the lawmakers said.
The shelters, they argue, are not equipped to facilitate proper social distancing and as a result, many homeless people have opted to stay in subway stations and trains.
The council members said that the recent overnight closures of the system for cleaning has revealed the soaring number of homeless people using the subway as shelter.
At the same time, the influx of homeless people on the subway has put the safety of riders at risk of catching the coronavirus, they said.
“The street homeless are now cramming into subway cars at unprecedented levels due to MTA service cuts, leaving transit workers and commuters fearful for their own health,” the letter said.
Experts argue that the homeless are more prone to contracting and spreading the virus due to their inability to practice good hygiene.
The lawmakers also accused the agency’s homeless outreach teams of not forcing the homeless to leave the subways or streets even when they present a danger to themselves or others.
“Years of mismanagement, incompetence and excuses have led us to this present situation where a complete lack of transparency from the DHS is fueling public outcry and an absence of safety for everyone involved,” they said.
They said a major shift in policy and leadership is necessary if the city is going to properly address the homeless crisis.
“Moving forward, DHS will significantly need to alter its approach to housing the homeless after the pandemic is over, and we suggest replacing Steven Banks with someone who actually has the vision to tackle the root causes of homelessness.”