Banks: Review of city homeless services will include efforts to improve contracting processes

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One day after being tasked to lead the city Department of Homeless Services, Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks suggested he will use a forthcoming operational review and reorganization of the two agencies to make it easier for nonprofits to do business with the city. 

“As part of our review and a part of looking at things, I want to obviously draw upon the best of what’s being done by not-for-profit organizations in the field, and make sure that they’re able to do their job and that we’re giving them all of the tools that they need,” Banks told reporters Wednesday afternoon at City Hall.  

Over the past several months, DHS has faced pointed criticism – including from city Comptroller Scott Stringer – for falling behind on processing contracts with shelter providers. Banks singled out city agencies’ contract procurement processes, which can often be fraught with delays in funding and program implementation, as an area for review. He cited HRA’s recent takeover of DHS contracting as an example of an initial step taken to expedite paperwork.  

“What we found is that HRA is a bigger agency and has a well-established contracting process, and ultimately it was more efficient for the city to bring to bear the resources of a larger functioning system on not-for-profit contracting,” Banks said. “Whether it should remain that way or not is certainly something that we have to look at.” 

Banks also said that the city must focus on simplifying the contracting process for nonprofits that deal with multiple city agencies. The current system, Banks noted, makes it “difficult to administer programs when you’ve got multiple contracts with multiple agencies that may be asking you to do the same thing in different ways.”

Many contracting issues, he added, are the result of systemic problems that must be addressed as a part of the internal review.

“Over the years, a number of different processes have built up in terms of procurement that are difficult to navigate if you’re a not-for-profit and can be cumbersome to apply if you’re an agency,” Banks said. “Part of what we’re going to be looking at are the ways in which we can streamline the contracting process for not-for-profits so that they can provide the kinds of front-line services we want in a timely way without the kinds of problems that have developed in the past.” 

Banks’ review and potential reorganization of the two agencies commences as Gilbert Taylor, the outgoing commissioner of DHS, transitions to an undefined post within the administration before leaving the administration. When pressed, Banks would not provide specifics on Taylor’s interim role, declining to say whether or not the outgoing commissioner would even have a desk at City Hall. He also would not specify a timeline for when the position of deputy mayor for health and human services, abruptly vacated by Lilliam Barrios-Paoli in late August, would be filled. 

Banks said he will stay on as HRA commissioner while taking over leadership of DHS. 

In response to questions about the high-profile departures, Banks said that the most pressing issues facing the city’s response to homelessness are operational and can be addressed with current leadership. He also pushed back against criticism of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s management style, saying that the most meaningful changes at HRA – including a ten-fold increase in the budget for eviction-prevention legal services – have resulted from direct mayoral involvement.

“[The program expansion] came out of directly working with the mayor and the mayor wanting to focus on what can be done to prevent people from losing their homes,” Banks said. “And that came about because of that hands-on management, which I greatly appreciated.”   

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