Twenty20 license.

The three phases of homelessness policy in New York City

In his new book, “Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio,” Thomas Main tells the story of how homelessness policy evolved in New York City over the past several decades. From his detailed historical narrative, Main draws a number of powerful insights that are highly relevant to today’s debate. For those with a deep interest in New York homelessness policy, I highly recommend the book.

One of the most interesting features of the book is Main’s categorization of three different phases of homelessness policy in the city — stretching from Mayor Koch in the early 1980s up through the present day administration of Mayor de Blasio. These phases are based on distinct philosophies that have deep implications for the lives of some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

I’ve summarized each phase below. While Main is careful to explain that these phases overlap and cannot be cleanly attached to specific start and end dates, I have included rough time periods and the relevant mayoral administrations when each phase was most emphasized.

The Entitlement Phase (1978–1993; Mayors Koch and Dinkins)

In response to growing numbers of adults sleeping on New York City streets in the 1970s, and spurred by legal action from advocacy groups, Mayor Koch began building up the city’s homeless shelter system. The courts demanded baseline quality standards that drove shelter populations up substantially, and eventually, standards were set for homeless families as well. In order to deal with the swelling shelter population, Mayor Koch and especially Mayor Dinkins provided public housing en masse to sheltered families. However, entries to the system soon escalated, leading many to believe that the promise of free housing lured families into the shelter system. All the while, little was asked of shelter residents in return for receipt of assistance.

The Paternalism Phase (1994–2001; Mayor Giuliani)

Due to perceived failings of the entitlement phase, newly elected Mayor Giuliani had a mandate to move away from a system based purely on entitlement to one based on reciprocity. Through the expanded use of nonprofit providers of shelter, the city could insist that shelter users comply with requirements like work or sobriety in return for higher quality accommodations. Those who refused would be offered placement in lower quality, city-run shelters with fewer rules.

It was clear that many of the most vulnerable adults were choosing to remain on the streets rather than accept any form of shelter.

It is not clear how effective these nonprofit organizations were in promoting better outcomes for people. But it was clear that many of the most vulnerable adults were choosing to remain on the streets rather than accept any form of shelter. And at the same time, rolls in family shelters began creeping up toward the end of Mayor Giuliani’s term, providing another opening for something new.

The Post-Paternalism Phase (2002 — present; Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio)

Mayor Bloomberg came into office with a fresh vision for tackling homelessness — instead of managing the problem, his administration would seek to end it. Within five years, he pledged a two-thirds reduction in the shelter rolls and the “extinction” of chronic homelessness (single adults who live for extended periods of time on the streets and face severe mental illness and/or chronic substance abuse problems).

Rather than requiring compliance with rules in return for higher quality accommodations, Bloomberg embraced the latest national trend — Housing First. The idea behind Housing First was to provide housing to the most vulnerable individuals sleeping on the street with no requirements for sobriety or complying with mental health treatment.

De Blasio quieted the bold rhetoric of ending homelessness, but he doubled down on the strategies put into place by Mayor Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, homeless families would receive short-term rental assistance that would quickly resolve their homelessness, keeping them out of the expensive shelter system. However, Mayor Bloomberg was unable to scale Housing First for the chronically homeless as much as he may have wanted, and while his short-term subsidies for families appeared to succeed at first, the program was ended after the state withdrew funding.

When Mayor de Blasio entered office in 2014, he quieted the bold rhetoric of ending homelessness, but he doubled down on the strategies put into place by Mayor Bloomberg — a commitment to Housing First principles for the chronically homeless, lengthier rental assistance for families exiting shelter, and continued emphasis on preventing homelessness in the first place.

In spite of these efforts, shelter rolls are still near record highs and there is widespread concern about increased unsheltered homelessness as well.

What’s Next?

Of course, the story does not end here. In a follow-up post, I’ll describe what I hope will become the next phase of homelessness policy in New York City and throughout the country.

First published at on August 4, 2016.

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