An interstate battle over a New York City homeless program that has relocated more than 2,000 families to New Jersey intensified Monday with word that a second Garden State city was seeking to challenge the program in court.
Mayor Chris Bollwage of Elizabeth said a city lawyer was in federal court Monday looking to join in the lawsuit filed a week ago by Newark seeking an injunction against New York’s Special One-Time Assistance program, or SOTA, which pays participating landlords a year’s rent upfront for accepting families that had been living in city shelters.
“Homelessness and people who are in shelters, as we all know, is a national problem,” Bollwage said. “And if you want to work to solve it in your regional area, then you need to have a conversation. What New York City is doing is transferring the problem from New York City to over 60 cities in New Jersey.”
Since 2017, under SOTA, New York’s Department of Homeless Services has relocated 2,226 families to New Jersey — half of them to Newark. Elizabeth has 35 families that have been relocated under the program, data from the New York Department of Homeless Services shows.
Bollwage said New York officials had placed families in Elizabeth without reaching out to their counterparts in his city.
“And when you do that with no conversation or dialogue it causes great difficulty,” he said. “Because after all, when the year’s rent is up, and my conversation with the people in New York, they wash their hands of this problem, and those people are left to fend for themselves. And whether it has to do with the educational needs, the social service needs, or financial literacy, that doesn’t exist for these people and New York just gets rid of the problem.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio defends the program, saying it only relocates homeless people who have jobs or some other source of income, like a government check.
He accused Newark of “demonizing the poor” in remarks he made on WNYC radio last week.
“We’re talking about people who have struggled and we’re trying to get them not to end up in shelter long time but have some place that’s an actual home,” he said. “About a third of the time that is a place in New York City. But we all know what’s happening in the housing market in New York City. We simply can’t find enough apartments and it’s wrong to keep people in shelter if there is an appropriate apartment.”
Also Monday, two Republican lawmakers from New Jersey wrote to Gov. Phil Murphy, asking the first-term Democrat to have the state take over the litigation. In their letter, state Sens. Steve Oroho and Robert Singer said that, with the overwhelming majority of the relocated families now living in urban areas that rely heavily on municipal and education aid from Trenton, the program “impacts every New Jersey taxpayer.”
“It’s disgraceful that Mayor de Blasio’s solution to helping the most challenged New Yorkers is to ship them off and make them someone else’s problem,” they wrote.
In a similar vein, the Union County Board of Freeholders passed a resolution calling on New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to take up the legal battle over the New York program.
Over the weekend, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka released a statement alleging that New York officials had withheld information from his administration about the people who had been relocated to his city.
“We have about 2,000 homeless people in our city. New York has sent us an additional 1,172 families with no safety net beyond their one-year rental assistance,” Baraka said. “This is about the dignity of the homeless. We want to make sure they are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords. We want to make sure we can provide them the necessary social and educational services. But we can’t do that if New York does not share information about who and where they are.”
New York City data shows that, under SOTA, families have found housing across the nation, although most have moved within the New York metropolitan area. The number of families relocated to New Jersey — mostly in East Orange, Irvington, Jersey City and Paterson, beyond Newark — exceed the number who have been housed within the five boroughs and the rest of New York state.
In its lawsuit, Newark alleges that some families were being coerced into accepting the housing offered under the program, being told that if they didn’t accept a particular placement, they could miss out altogether.