Statement by Safety Net Project on HRA Reform Bills

 

Please attribute all quotes to Kiana Davis, Policy Analyst, Safety Net Project

The anticipated passage of the eleven City Council bills related to reforms of the City’s predominant Social Services Agency (the Human Resources Administration, or HRA) this week marks an important step in the right direction for the treatment of low-income and poor New Yorkers seeking basic government benefits. 

While these reforms are necessary, we believe that what they have achieved — transparency by a government agency in its treatment of poor people, basic access to social workers at welfare centers, space for children, and better complaint processes — are ultimately the baseline for what we would expect of New York City’s social service agency in the administration of aid programs. We commend the City Council on creating and passing legislation that aims to reform how clients are treated at HRA offices and holds HRA accountable. And yet, we remember that these reforms are far from exhaustive and this legislation is a first step in the right direction. 

This package of bills was introduced in light of the horrific assault of Jazmine Headley at an HRA Job Center in December 2018 which was caught on video and subsequently went viral. Ms. Headley, a young black woman, was attacked and jailed, and had her son ripped from her arms by HRA’s “Peace Officers” and NYPD officers — solely for sitting on the floor next to her 1-year-old’s stroller when no chairs remained available. 

The context necessitating this package of bills is well-known to poor New Yorkers, and has been for decades: humiliation, shame, and mistreatment at centers, as well as termination of benefits due to unnecessary bureaucratic barriers. Our office has documented these abuses extensively, publishing two reports in the past five years (Culture of Deterrence in 2014 and The Bureaucracy of Benefits in 2019) that detail the obstacles and mistreatment that New Yorkers continue to face at HRA offices, despite improvements under this administration. 

It is also critically important to remember that the painful experiences had by so many seeking help from HRA do not happen in a vacuum. Such abuses are the result of a longstanding precedent of governmental efforts to restrict access to public benefits by those portrayed as undeserving. Violent behavior by policing agents in welfare centers is connected to the larger problem of police violence against poor people, particularly people of color. Black and Latinx women predominantly bear the brunt of the institutional disregard and abuse that occurs in New York City’s HRA offices.

Some of the bills passed by City Council today require critical reporting of data that HRA previously failed to publicly disclose, including reasons for case closures and terminations, the numbers of and reasons for arrests, removals, uses of force, and summonses given in HRA centers, and complaints filed by constituents. This data will highlight many of the barriers faced by benefit applicants and recipients trying to obtain or retain their benefits, as well as the treatment of constituents in HRA offices. 

We are also glad to see the passing of bills requiring systemic reforms and restructuring within HRA Centers. These include a pilot program and subsequent rollout of social work staff at many Job Centers, the implementation of a phone system that will allow applicants and recipients to reschedule mandatory appointments, the requirement for all centers with appropriate space to allot child-friendly and child-specific areas, and the development and implementation of a training for HRA staff focused on de-escalation and trauma-informed service provision. We are hopeful these bills will create meaningful change in the operation of HRA centers and the accountability of the City’s largest social service agency. 

We regret that after negotiations with HRA, the Council was not able to include a requirement for licensed social workers, nor social workers in SNAP-only offices, nor social workers in non-application centers like the Veteran’s Service Center and the Residential Treatment Service Center. Furthermore, HRA was not open to allowing an external institution to audit the HRA centers, which had been proposed in an earlier version of one of the bills.

We also know that at the same time HRA will be implementing the reforms and data-reporting required by these bills, they may also be contemplating or in the process of closing centers and cutting service hours. In the last year alone, HRA has closed three SNAP centers across the city and cut evening and/or weekend hours at eight additional centers, citing misleading statistics about the use of their online portal as the basis for removing the services.

We extend our appreciation to the General Welfare Committee and the Progressive Caucus for holding the hearing on the Client Experience at HRA Centers earlier this year, to all the Councilmembers who put forth or co-sponsored these bills, and to City Council for passing them into legislation.