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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Steven Banks, the Commissioner Who Aimed to Curb Homelessness, to Resign

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Steven Banks, the city’s social services commissioner, who joined city government in 2014 with high expectations after a long career suing the city on behalf of homeless people but who has had problems significantly curbing homelessness, is resigning to do public interest work at a white-shoe law firm.

Mr. Banks said he will leave at the end of the year, when Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office, to oversee the pro bono practice at Paul Weiss, one of the city’s biggest and most prestigious firms.

“I have missed the practice of law,” Mr. Banks, 64, said in a text message, “so that is what I’m doing when the administration ends.”

Mr. Banks was brought on to head the city’s Human Resources Administration, which oversees public assistance, in 2014. When he additionally took over the city’s homeless services operation in late 2015, homelessness had been increasing sharply for years and nearly 60,000 people were in the city’s main shelter system.

Since then, the number of families in shelters has fallen by 35 percent since its peak in 2017, partly because of a guarantee of legal representation for low-income tenants in housing court that Mr. Banks pushed the city to create, and partly because of a pandemic-era state halt on evictions that is scheduled to expire in January. The number of single adults in the system, though, is up about 30 percent since late 2015.

For three decades before he went to work for the city, Mr. Banks was a relentless and an effective thorn in the city’s side, primarily as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. He brought the suit that made New York the first big city to guarantee shelter to all families, which cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars but kept people off the street.

Josh Goldfein, a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Society and a former colleague of Mr. Banks’s there, said that with the city, Mr. Banks had “accomplished tremendous things, including reducing the rate of eviction in New York City by an unprecedented and miraculous amount.” But he said that because housing and homelessness policy were siloed in City Hall, Mr. Banks had “never got the housing resources he needed to accomplish a real reduction in homelessness in New York City.”

In recent months, as the city has taken a more punitive approach to people living on the street in response to neighborhood complaints, the homeless services department has come under fire from advocates for its role. Mr. de Blasio said last month that he counted homelessness as the chief issue that he wished his administration had made more progress on.

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