Mental Health Housing Workforce Left
Short in State Budget
By Jim Mutton, LMSW
Director of NYC Operations
Concern for Independent Living, Inc.
Thousands of non-profit employees working in mental health supportive housing programs across the state were left shorthanded again in the 2019-20 State budget this April, despite a year-long advocacy effort with the Bring It Home Campaign (www.bringithomenys.org), a coalition of over 1,000 mental health housing organizations, faith leaders and individuals. A 2.9% Human Service COLA for state funded community programs was deferred for a tenth year and $13 million in hard fought additional funding from the Assembly and Senate to enhance supported housing and SRO programs was removed in final budget negotiations, leaving only a $10 million increase to these programs to help address a cumulative funding shortfall of $162 million. While the $10 million is appreciated, it is not sufficient to solve the crisis that exists in the mental health housing system. The Times Union also reported that millions in funding for agriculture, healthcare, veterans and youth employment programs included in previous state budgets was reduced, shifted to other priorities or eliminated in the first budget since Democrats took over the state Senate.
As the Director of NYC Operations at a 45-year old non-profit which operates numerous mental health supportive housing programs in Brooklyn, the Bronx and on Long Island, I found myself reflecting on how such a momentous effort could go belly up yet again after months of campaigning, hundreds of legislative visits and six weeks of continuous protests in Albany. How could our state government have failed us again, when a mental health supportive housing stock of over 40,000 units now stood with a crumbling infrastructure 40-70% behind the cost of inflation? How could our agency continue to attract a skilled and competent workforce, when direct care positions now paralleled in salary with entry level jobs in the fast food industry or private car for-hire ride sharing services. How could I turn to our dedicated workforce who work 2-3 jobs to stay afloat and battle cycles of burnout and vicarious trauma week in and week out and convince them to stick with this career and not jump ship to hospital and union jobs? To put it in perspective, the $10 million increase in the state supported housing and SRO budget would translate to about $500 per bed and do little but add a few dollars to the biweekly pay checks of case managers and supervisors.
Despite the budget crisis, the housing pipeline hasn’t slowed down. Quite the reverse. The need has never been greater for supportive housing in our city and state and government funders have released a record number of RFP’s. In the past five years, our agency has almost doubled its housing stock to help thousands of individuals and families find a pathway out of poverty, illness and hardship to successful community reintegration and recovery. We were part of the effort to end chronic homelessness for veterans recovering from mental health and substance use challenges on Long Island and now intend to do the same in NYC.
New capital and operating funding opportunities are needed to address record levels of homelessness and growing institutionalization of mentally ill individuals. In addition, more sensible funding rates to build attractive housing and hopefully reengage and re-energize a new workforce. However, unless these rates are adjusted for the entire mental health housing workforce, it will not be enough to resolve the longstanding erosion that has taken place over the last 30 years. To quote the Bring It Home Campaign website, “Integration works so much better than institutionalization, we know that. We also know that institutionalization is very expensive...” It’s time to recognize that community reinvestment also means workforce preservation and investment.