New York

Her Job Is Housing the Homeless. Will It Cost Christine Quinn Her Dream?

Christine C. Quinn was impatient. The leader of New York City’s largest provider of shelter for homeless families with children, she peered over her fuchsia reading glasses at her team, assembled in a conference room, and rattled off a list of instructions.

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It was a few weeks after she had helped persuade the City Council to pass some of the most consequential legislation on the worst homelessness crisis in New York City’s history, and a few days before Mayor Eric Adams would veto those bills.

Ms. Quinn, the former City Council speaker, directed one of her staff members to offer to brief a deputy mayor on the legislation. She named a handful of journalists who might write more about the bills, a move that she knew would frustrate City Hall’s press office.

She rolled her eyes at the mention of one advocacy group she considered especially ponderous, joking it would take months to release new data. And she snapped her fingers at no one in particular as she asked whether a meeting scheduled for the next day could be moved up to that afternoon, or even sooner.

“I miss being able to pick up the phone and say, ‘Do this, do it now, get it done,’” she said later.

It only takes a few minutes in Ms. Quinn’s presence to understand that she is itching to return to the action and authority of elected office.

Once the city’s second-most powerful politician, Ms. Quinn is now a high-profile advocate on one of the most divisive issues in New York City — one that could threaten her chances with voters in the future.

As protests against waves of migrants coming into the city grow louder and larger, and New York’s Democrats cannot seem to settle on a path forward, the city’s shelter population has exploded to over 100,000 people — all while affordable housing lags pitifully behind demand.

Ms. Quinn has jumped into the fray.

Over the past few months, she helped set the stage for the most contentious fight yet between the Council and Mr. Adams, after leading an effort to secure enough votes for the Council to override the mayor’s opposition to the bills.

The package of bills that she helped create is part of a push to help free up space in shelters for asylum seekers. The bills will reduce the time homeless people need to wait to look for permanent housing after they enter a shelter, make more homeless people eligible for vouchers that help them pay rent for permanent housing and provide vouchers for those at risk of being evicted.

Ms. Quinn, 57, has spent the last eight years using her knowledge of local politics to build an advocacy arm for Win, the shelter provider, and the organization has since become a frequent thorn in the mayor’s side — even as it receives most of its annual funding through contracts with the city.

She may no longer run the Council, but she has become a kind of elder stateswoman on homelessness and housing for an especially green group of legislators.

For a while after she lost the Democratic primary for mayor in 2013, it was weird to come back to City Hall, Ms. Quinn said. But these days, she embraces the Council’s security guard and janitor on her way into the building.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

Though Ms. Quinn is firmly back in the mix of New York politics, there is only so much an advocate can do from the outside. The kind of power she really wants is still to be found elsewhere.

Ms. Quinn was once considered the person most likely to become the city’s first female and first openly gay mayor. That expectation evaporated in 2013 amid a disastrous Democratic primary in which she went from front-runner to also-ran. For years afterward, she operated largely behind the scenes.

Now, she is not coy about still wanting to be mayor one day.

That aspiration has created a conundrum for Ms. Quinn: The better she is at expanding Win’s influence, the more she risks alienating the New Yorkers who increasingly view the influx of migrants as a strain on the city and say officials have done enough for them.

“Quinn is trying to have a really hard conversation with New Yorkers,” said Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University. “She’s chosen an issue that is of great import but doesn’t really do her any favors” if she wants to run for any elected office in New York.

Even as she says she has no plans to run in a primary against Mr. Adams, she has emerged as a prominent foil, challenging his warnings that the migrant crisis will “destroy” New York and protesting his push to weaken the city’s right-to-shelter law and his declaration that migrant families might be moved into mass shelters.

She likes to tell a story about mothers at a Win shelter pooling their extra clothes to donate to migrants as proof that vulnerable families will not be pitted against each other.

But the city’s twin homelessness and migrant crises defy such neat packaging.

As she looks ahead, Ms. Quinn says she knows full well that these issues are stubborn, at the very least. Making a real dent in homelessness — to say nothing of the migrant crisis — would take a decade or more, Ms. Quinn says, a challenge no mayor can credibly promise to solve in two terms.

She knows that voters are not always forgiving of her perceived stumbles. And she is not surprised that some regard her as a politician playing at advocacy before she runs again.

For now, Ms. Quinn insists she is unconcerned.

“When are you really going to use your capital, when are you really going to do something? In the next job?” she said. “You know, I thought I was going to get the next job. I didn’t.”

Crossroads of power

Win, the nation’s largest provider of shelter for homeless families with children, operated shelters but did not have an advocacy arm when Ms. Quinn became its chief executive in 2015. She quickly set about changing that.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

The George Washington statue in the white marble lobby of City Hall stands at a crossroads of power.

To the right are the Council’s offices, where Ms. Quinn long made her mark on the city.

To the left is the mayor’s office, where she assumed she was heading as 2013 drew closer.

That race was supposed to be Ms. Quinn’s coronation, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was leaving an open seat for a Democrat to seize. By then, Ms. Quinn had earned a reputation as a pragmatic speaker who vastly expanded the Council’s influence, passing legislation in part by her sheer force of will, including the occasional burst of straight-up yelling.

In the primary’s final stretch, her opponents cast her as the second coming of Mr. Bloomberg, a moderate at a moment that demanded something more radical. In what ended up being a fatal blow to her chances, Ms. Quinn had paved the way for Mr. Bloomberg to run a third time by helping overturn the city’s term limits law, a move that voters had soured on.

To some, Ms. Quinn seemed to be saying she should be mayor simply because she really, really wanted to be.

She finished third, losing to Bill de Blasio.

Ms. Quinn spent the first few months of 2014 willing herself to leave her Chelsea apartment.

After finishing a distant third in the primary, Ms. Quinn endorsed Bill de Blasio, the winner. She said she spent the next few months struggling to get out of bed.Credit…Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Eventually, after a stint working as a special adviser for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and a fellowship at Harvard, Ms. Quinn got a call from a headhunter about Win. Part of it felt like a homecoming. She had spent the early part of her career as a tenant organizer, and, as speaker, she successfully sued Mr. Bloomberg’s administration over its push to limit eligibility for shelter spots and made it easier for tenants to sue their landlords.

When she took over in 2015, she quickly began trying to shift the public’s perception of homelessness. New Yorkers knew they were seeing mentally ill people on the streets, but they often did not realize that the majority of the city’s homeless population is made up of families with children, many of whom have 9-to-5 jobs.

But there was no way to get people to listen without changing something about Win, which ran shelters but did not advocate on behalf of homeless families.

Ms. Quinn began training her staff to become political activists. They have distributed iPads and other devices to 1,600 homeless students learning remotely and created a legal clinic to help migrants apply for asylum.

Under her direction, Win — which employs 1,000 people with an annual budget of about $150 million — added seven new shelters and now operates 14. They serve about 7,000 people nightly, and, recently, over 270 families seeking asylum, including about 700 children. Ms. Quinn makes $424,000 a year, roughly triple what she made as speaker.

While she has found her way back to a version of a life she never wanted to leave, some of her former peers or rivals have struggled to do the same. Several — Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Bloomberg, and her two successors as speaker — have run for other offices they did not win. Some of her male peers fell in sexual misconduct scandals, including Anthony Weiner, who helped topple Ms. Quinn in 2013.

Ms. Quinn may be the only one of the bunch who still has a job that requires telling people things they do not want to hear, over and over.

She is used to that.

Nice until it wasn’t

Ms. Quinn visited children living at the Shirley Chisholm Family Residence, a new Win shelter in Park Slope that drew some opposition from local residents.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

Some years ago, Ms. Quinn and an aide walked to the back of a restaurant and found James Gandolfini, the star of “The Sopranos,” waiting for them. He was unhappy. Ms. Quinn had been pushing to open a sanitation department garage in his TriBeCa neighborhood.

Mr. Gandolfini, who died in 2013, told her if she did not reconsider, he was prepared to blanket TriBeCa with fliers criticizing her. She told him to do what he needed to do.

“It was a nice conversation until it wasn’t,” Ms. Quinn recalled. “You can’t have a city that calls itself fair and equitable if only some parts of the city are doing their part.”

That is particularly true when you are building homeless shelters in neighborhoods where many residents do not want them.

Consider Win’s newest shelter, set to serve about 200 families on Staten Island.

At a 2019 town hall, Ms. Quinn sought to explain that Staten Island needed a shelter in part so that the borough’s many homeless families could remain close to their children’s public schools. Residents appeared unmoved, and Ms. Quinn was greeted by “an aggressively pissed off” group, she recalled.

Afterward, The Staten Island Advance published an opinion piece dismissing her chances amid rumors of another run: “Christine Quinn for mayor? Not after homeless shelter debacle.”

It is a change for Ms. Quinn, who spent years fending off criticism from progressives who found her too cozy with Mr. Bloomberg and his conservative allies. Now, she is going up against a highly passionate force that is skeptical of new shelters. While the migrant crisis has prompted a reshaping of that movement to include more Democrats, it has been led by Republican politicians and advocates.

Protesters rallied against a facility housing migrants on Staten Island in August. Demonstrations against migrant shelters have become larger in recent months.Credit…Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican, said Staten Islanders she represents are fed up with Democrats like Ms. Quinn “building shelter after shelter in communities that don’t want them” — particularly for migrants.

But even some who might have been sympathetic to Ms. Quinn say they were turned off by the debate over the Win shelter, set to open later this year in an area that tends to vote Democratic.

“You don’t poke a stick in the eye of a potentially favorable community,” said Michael Harwood, a member of the St. George Civic Association.

Mr. Harwood said Win did not communicate effectively with residents about the impact of the shelter and noted that Ms. Quinn had opposed a new shelter in her own Manhattan district when she was speaker.

Ms. Quinn says she has a new calculus for decision making.

She acknowledges that some of her choices as speaker were made more because of future ambitions rather than the right policy, and she regrets it.

So even as she weighs whether and how to return to elected office, she says she is focused on immediate goals: moving more families into permanent housing faster, raising more private money, making Win into a top developer of affordable housing with services for formerly homeless families — and continuing to shape city policy.

But it does not always feel like enough.

She recently remembered something that Judith S. Kaye, the late chief judge of New York State, once told her: She would have paid a million dollars to keep her job for just five more minutes.

It was a joke, sort of. But it is how Ms. Quinn feels about being speaker, and the reason she is given to daydreaming about how much more she could accomplish on homelessness, the migrant crisis and housing if she ran the city one day.

The idea of actually getting elected on the agenda of addressing those crises might seem like a bit of a fantasy.

But Ms. Quinn believes, still, that there is a first time for everything in New York City politics.

“In a way, it would be the greatest issue for a mayor to take on,” she said. “If you solve the unsolvable, you get credit.”

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

The only thing worse than never getting to be mayor, Ms. Quinn said, would be to not actually be effective in the job she has now.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

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