Federal prosecutors filed charges against the recently terminated CEO of one of New York’s largest homeless shelter networks. They allege he pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from contractors hired by the nonprofit organization he led for two decades.
These charges were in addition to the sexual abuse and financial impropriety charges that resulted in his firing last month. Victor Rivera, according to the prosecutors, had enriched himself for years.
In the heart of the nation’s financial services capital, in the heart of its homelessness capital, in the heart of someone who professedly cares about the homeless, how do such egregious crimes happen even once, let alone over 10 years without notice?
Welcome to the world of homelessness, where accountability no longer exists and is now considered a barrier to helping the homeless. A lack of accountability in a system often has a snowball effect, spilling over into other parts. In this case, it certainly has.
It starts at the top with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the largest funder of homelessness in the nation and, thus, the nation’s driver of policy. In 2008, HUD rolled out Housing First, designed to address a very narrow segment of the homeless population — the severely and chronically homeless, mostly those living on the streets. From 2011 to 2013, HUD expanded it to apply to all segments of the homeless population, without any reasonable evidence it would work for everyone. HUD literally promised to solve homelessness in a decade; some officials asserted some populations would take as little as five years.
Instead, newly released, pre-COVID-19 data provided by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness substantiates a more than 16% increase in nationwide homelessness — including a 22% increase in unsheltered homelessness, the population for whom Housing First was developed. This occurred under a 200% increase in homelessness spending, a booming economy, and, of course, with HUD’s promise of ending homelessness in 10 years.
Despite its failure, Housing First continues to reign at HUD and in the 230-plus local jurisdictions that chose to follow HUD’s lead. California adopted Housing First in 2016 and has since experienced a staggering 37% increase in homelessness. In Austin, homelessness has increased 17% since 2016, with a 93% increase in the unsheltered population.
Nevertheless, these policies — and the vast majority of their advocates — remain in place. None of the elected officials who adopted this policy are suffering, but the homeless are.
At the provider level, accountability is also nonexistent. According to the New York Times, which broke the story on Rivera’s appalling behavior, he used his nonprofit organization as a means to build his personal empire. He gave jobs to family members, awarded contracts to close associates, drove a Mercedes-Benz leased by his organization, and bought a home with a heated pool north of New York City and another house in the Poconos — all of this on top of the many sexual abuse allegations he faces.
A system in which no one notices such activity over a decade is unquestionably lacking accountability. As the New York Times noted, “This case shows the extent to which shelter providers can avoid meaningful repercussions for even serious malfeasance.”
At the individual level, the lack of accountability is even more glaring. Under Housing First, the homeless receive housing for life as “the solution” to the complex challenges they are facing. More than 75% suffer from substance abuse disorder, mental illness, or physical disabilities, often in addition to criminal histories, domestic violence, and lack of education or work experience.
However, sobriety, mental health treatment, and job training services are expressly prohibited as a required condition of receiving the “subsidized-for-life” housing provided. The result of this materialistic focus on four walls and a roof is that the homeless are straightjacketed into dependency, and taxpayers are straightjacketed into providing subsidized-for-life housing for hundreds of thousands of people who could work and provide for themselves with the proper tools and supportive services.
An additional and often unrecognized tragedy has unfolded under Housing First: The nonprofit groups that actually employ any sort of accountability measures with the homeless they serve are ineligible for government funding.
People and systems will flourish only where accountability exists. Until we demand that accountability be instilled at every level of our homelessness system, the homeless, and the systems we have in place to help them, will continue to struggle.