New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday that Gilbert Taylor, the commissioner of the city Department of Homeless Services, is stepping down, marking a major shake-up in the city’s human services leadership and inspiring mixed reactions from the nonprofit human services sector.
Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy group, praised Taylor’s leadership, arguing that the city’s current challenges stem from inherited policies.
“Gilbert Taylor began the important work of transitioning DHS away from the failed Bloomberg-era policies, focusing instead on moving homeless New Yorkers into permanent housing,” Brosnahan said.
Effective Jan. 1, Taylor will be reassigned to “an advisory role” within City Hall as the city undertakes its first reorganization of homeless services in over two decades. After the reorganization, Taylor has announced his intention to “pursue new professional opportunities.”
The upcoming review and reorganization of relevant city agencies will be led by Steven Banks, commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, and First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, according to a statement from City Hall. During this review, Banks will oversee both DHS and HRA, the statement said.
The reorganization comes as the de Blasio administration continues to face tough questions about its handling of homelessness in the city. The city’s homeless shelter population has spiked during his tenure, peaking at over 59,000 individuals, and his administration is also anticipating a rise in the number of “street homeless” – individuals sleeping in public spaces – according to projections included in the annual Mayor’s Management Report.
“Tackling homelessness is an urgent priority – and that’s why we have invested additional resources and launched innovative new initiatives to place homeless individuals and families into permanent housing, and to prevent homelessness in the first place,” de Blasio said in the statement.
De Blasio credited Taylor with major improvements to the city’s homeless services, citing the over 22,000 people who have moved out of shelters and into permanent housing under his tenure.
“There is no question that our current homeless problem would be far more pronounced without these reforms, and Gilbert has been essential to their implementation,” de Blasio said.
But even as the mayor cited his administration’s current efforts to combat homelessness, some advocates for the human services sector expressed concern about the dwindling number of leaders at City Hall specifically dedicated to the sector.
“We’re worried about the lack of city leadership,” one advocate said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The human services sector is now down a commissioner and a deputy mayor,” the advocate continued, referring to the departure of Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli earlier this year, who oversaw Taylor’s efforts at DHS.
Others in the nonprofit sector expressed gratitude that the administration reached out directly to front-lines providers about the momentous recalibration in leadership.
“On this day of very serious transition, they made the effort to reach out to my members, who really are the stakeholders,” said Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United. “That marks a big change from past administrations, that our members are really included in the conversation. That says a lot right there, and I think that sets a great tone.”
Parque also hoped that the transition might usher in a different communications strategy on homelessness from City Hall.
“I’m looking forward to the city leadership sharing with not just our clients but the general public, that there are many opportunities available and that shelter is not the only solution to homelessness,” Parque said. “I think that piece has been lost, and has been overshadowed by some of the press, which really hasn’t reflected the best of New York.”
Many advocates welcomed Banks’ leadership in the reorganization, citing his accomplishments at HRA — including new rental assistance programs and exit pathways for shelter residents — as steps in the right direction.
"Commissioner Banks has brought important changes to HRA and we look forward to working with him on this review,” said Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council, an organization that advocates on behalf of the human services sector. "For HSC and our members, the most pressing issue is that client needs are addressed, and we greatly appreciate that the mayor is restructuring to ensure the best services in communities.”
The Human Services Council also expressed optimism that City Hall’s review of homeless services – including its procurement policies – could improve the nonprofit sector’s ability to provide services.
"It is great news that Commissioner Banks and First Deputy Mayor Shorris are examining how contracting with nonprofits is performed in the agencies,” said Michelle Jackson, associate director and general counsel of the Human Services Council.
"This is a real opportunity to bring together multiple city agencies and current contractors to examine the pain points in the contracting process – like registration and payment delays – and to discuss new approaches and collaborate on programs that will really move the needle on homelessness,” Jackson added.