Robert Hess seems to have always been helping people, whether it’s managing special needs housing in Philadelphia, running a thrift store for Disabled American Veterans in Baltimore—his hometown—or his most recent gig, New York City’s commissioner of homeless services. The Long Island City resident recently stepped down from that role to assume the newly created position of vice president of replication for the Doe Fund, a non-profit that serves homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals. There he’ll work to expand across the country the “Ready, Willing & Able” program, which helps clients get back on their feet through employment and other support services.
Hess sat down on a rainy Monday to talk about his goals at the Doe Fund, the city’s approach to homelessness and the departure of senior staffers in the Bloomberg administration.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about tackling homelessness in New York City?
A: The biggest misconception in New York City, or anywhere in this country, is [ignoring] that homelessness starts with economics. People that lack economic resources end up becoming homeless. About 10 percent of the American population, I think, are substance abusers. They live in their own homes, they have insurance, they go dry out, they do whatever they do—but they’re able to maintain a life because they have economic resources. People that lack economic resources, insurance and then become economically poor become homeless.
Q: You’re going to be rolling out the Doe Fund in cities across the country. Tell me what your big goals are.
A: What we want to do is figure out what cities make the most sense to expand into, develop sort of a time schedule to do that and put the funding together and then go make it happen, in a systematic, structured, appropriate way. And then measure our results along the way.
Q: Homelessness was one of the tougher problems that Mayor Bloomberg struggled with. Looking back, do you feel like there were things that should have been done differently? For example, with the drop-in centers, the city was no longer letting folks stay overnight there. Do you think maybe that option should have been kept on the table, given the dire economic circumstances?
A: No, absolutely not. I mean, where’s the dignity in people having to spend the night in a chair? We can do better than that, we’ve done better than that. The city opened over 500 safe haven beds, another 500 or so stabilization beds, we increased faith-based community beds. What we did is have people move out of chairs and into beds and get the support and get a good night’s sleep, and I think that was the right thing to do.
You can always do better, and we ought to look back for lessons learned. But nobody could foresee the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. In our city, which is a city with a right to shelter, the number one job of the Department of Homeless Services is to ensure that everyone is housed that needs to be housed every night. And we did that. No prior administration can say that. And so, do we wish that the economic times had been different, do we think the mayor’s aspirational goals of reducing homelessness is a right one? Absolutely. And I believe it will happen, and I think you’ll see that downturn pretty significantly before Michael Bloomberg leaves office. But the goal and the role and the responsibility changed dramatically when the economy went south. We had to focus on expansion, being able to add beds. We had 58 percent more applicants for shelter in the family system in the economic downturn than before—think about that—in the largest homeless system in the world, and we still housed everyone every night. It’s remarkable. And that’s a story that never got told. So do I wish that we had figured out a better way to tell that story? I do. And maybe that’s the lesson.
Q: Do you have any advice for your successor?
A: I don’t have any great advice. Seth [Diamond] is a smart guy, been around a long time, he’ll do a great job. I would tell you he’s got an incredibly capable staff and I’m sure he’ll listen to them. So I think the future’s bright at DHS and the legacy of the mayor on this issue, I think, will be very positive.
Q: Much has been made of the departure of senior staffers of the Bloomberg administration, including yourself, with the implication being that maybe people don’t think the third term is going to pan out as well as the mayor hopes, and they are looking for opportunities elsewhere. What is your response to that?
A: I think quite the contrary. One of the things when you come into government is you want to leave your department better than you found it, and you want to know when to arrive and you want to know when to depart. I think the mayor deserves a lot of credit for being supportive of senior staff members leaving and bringing on new folks. To me, the biggest honor I’ve ever had in my life is to be able to be the commissioner of homeless services for more than four years. I actually think I served longer than any prior commissioner. But having served longer any prior commissioner, there is a point in time when it’s in your own best interest and the city’s best interest for somebody else to come in, and I think this was the time.
Q: The folks the Doe Fund deals with tend to be homeless former inmates, often with substance abuse problems. And you guys do pretty well with that group. Are there lessons the city or other jurisdictions could learn from the Doe Fund?
A: Oh I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think the lesson of the Doe Fund that I’ve seen first in Philadelphia and now in New York, and I hope we’ll see across this country, is that you can take folks with pretty significant, tough histories and help them by providing a hand up and the kinds of support these folks need, and help them become effective tax-paying citizens very quickly and move back into their own homes in the community, without being on public support.
Q: Specifically in New York City, are there things that the Doe Fund does that the city doesn’t do, or that the city could do better?
A: I think the Doe Fund in part is supported by the city, I don’t know that you can separate the two. Do we need more Doe Fund-like programs in the city? I’d say any city in this country could benefit from that. But I think the Doe Fund, we appreciate the support that [we] receive from the city and the state. And so it’s all a collaborative effort.
Q: Do you ever give to panhandlers on the street?
A: Very, very rarely, almost never. Because I think it’s kind of an enabling activity. Every now and then, I have a personal need to do something and I’ll do it. I think it’s a very personal issue. I think generally people are better off not giving, not enabling. But you gotta go where your heart is.
Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.