New York City is experiencing its highest levels of homelessness since the aftermath of the Great Depression in the 1930s, according to The Coalition for the Homeless, the nation’s oldest non-profit homelessness advocacy organization.
As recently as October, CFH found that approximately 63,000 people sleep in city shelters each night. To give that figure some context, 31,387 stayed in shelters each night at the end of 2005. The figure does not include the 3,892 people who are homeless and unsheltered throughout the five boroughs, a 39% increase from 2016.
“Economic conditions that have given way to rising rents and stagnating incomes, combined with insufficient policy response to meet housing demands for the lowest-income households together are the main causes of modern mass homelessness in NYC,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.
According to an August report by The Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, the number of families entering homeless shelters across the five boroughs rose nearly 23 percent from 2012 to 2016. The report found the increase to be “partly attributable to many neighborhoods experiencing declining family incomes…and rising rents.”
During the mayor’s first term, he responded to the destructive policies implemented by then-Mayor Bloomberg by reestablishing priority access to federal resources for homeless families and reuniting the link between shelters and permanent housing provided by the NYC Housing Authority and voucher programs like Section 8.
Under Bloomberg’s two temporary rental subsidy programs that disincentivized shelters, the Housing Stability Plus and Advantage, families were forced back into shelters once the program’s benefits expired, and “as a result, from 2006 to 2014, the number of homeless families placed into permanent housing using Federal resources dropped to only a few hundred per year — a reduction of more than 3,500 families per year on average,” reads the most recent CFH report.
De Blasio introduced Turning the Tide on Homelessness this past February, the city’s administrative plan to open 90 new shelters across the five boroughs and eliminate the use of 360 cluster sites in private apartments and hotels. The plan promises to reduce the number of people in shelters by 2,500 over the next five years. However, his administration is reluctant to acquire more NYCHA units for the homeless, a proven solution according to CFH, who proposes that the city double the number of homeless families placed in NYCHA units from 1,500 per year to at least 3,000.
Homeless advocates, educators and local organizers urge that more action needs to be taken by the state and city to effectively provide stable housing for low-income and poor communities.
“The city has to either raise people’s incomes, through transfer payments or increasing the minimum wage, or directly intervene in housing markets by engaging in rent subsidies or in the direct construction of very low-cost housing,” says Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College Professor of Sociology who teaches courses on urban politics and economics.
Vitale says the city’s limited financial support from the state and federal governments allow only for immediate issues to be addressed, like expanding shelters and providing rent subsidizes, two short-term approaches to a crisis that requires long-term, provenly-effective solutions.
CFH argues that the long-term solution to homelessness is to build publicly-funded permanent housing with the necessary social services like counseling, case management and mental and physical health treatment to ensure that individuals and families coming from shelters and the streets do not return to homelessness like they did under Bloomberg’s watch.
A 2015 report from the Corporation for Supportive Housing determined that New York State needs to build 31,745 units, 24,155 for New York City alone, to adequately meet the needs of the homeless. Since then, de Blasio proposed a city plan in 2015 to build 15,000 units over 15 years and Governor Andrew Cuomo followed suit proposing an additional 20,000 statewide units over the same period of time. But the construction for these units can take upwards to two years to build, and while the real-time immediate and critical demands for the homeless rise, the situation becomes more urgent with every passing day.
“Homelessness has to be understood as a mismatch between people’s incomes and the private housing market,” says Vitale. He argues that one of the underlying roadblocks to creating truly affordable housing is the city’s empowerment of the private housing market and its developers through zoning deals and tax breaks.
One recent example is City Council’s deal to develop the Crown Heights’ Bedford-Union Armory into what the city considers “affordable housing” but what the local community sees as private market developers “turning a public resource over for private profit.” It is reported that the deal was a “key priority” for the deBlasio administration.
Community activists urged to “Kill The Deal” that was passed at the end of last month and pushed for all housing on the public land to be affordable, arguing that the provided units would still be too expensive for Crown Heights residents whose median income hovers around $40,000.
The widespread criticism of such land property deals for affordable housing continue to put the spotlight on de Blasio, especially after winning reelection in November.
Although Mayor de Blasio changed course and reinstated priority access to Federal resources for homeless families, there currently remains a deficit of 1,400 placements per year, compared with the pre-2005 levels.
“We must remember that homeless individuals and families are no different than any of our other neighbors,” says Routhier. “We need to push for solutions that will actually reduce homelessness — permanent affordable housing. Contact your elected officials, volunteer, or mobilize your community in support of affordable housing.”
Let’s see if the mayor can push the envelope on what’s surely becoming his greatest political challenge.