Mayor Bloomberg and City officials make the absurd claim that the so-called "generosity" of the flawed Advantage program was attracting families to municipal shelters -- and unbelievably, they are using this long-discredited myth to justify eliminating ALL housing assistance for NYC homeless families.
As today's New York Times noted in a front-page article, Mayor Bloomberg recently reiterated the false claim made repeatedly by Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond, and officials from previous administrations - the notion that most homeless families seek shelter solely in order to obtain housing subsidies:
"You never know what motivates people," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said during a recent radio show. "One theory is that some people have been coming into the homeless system, the shelter system, in order to qualify for a program that helps you move out of the homeless system."
That supposition has angered advocates for the homeless, who say that it is merely an attempt to justify budget cuts, and that the statistical argument is based on short-term fluctuations. They also note that just two months ago, when the city was lobbying for the state aid, it warned that ending Advantage would cause the homeless population to spin out of control and require the opening of at least 70 new shelters.
Fortunately New York City Councilmember Annabel Palma introduces some reality into the Times article:
"To say that it was Advantage that was drawing folks into the homeless system was just unfounded and untrue," said City Councilwoman Annabel Palma, chairwoman of the general welfare committee, which oversees the Department of Homeless Services. "They have never been able to give us concrete numbers."
Unfortunately, the Times article neglects to mention the overwhelming evidence, both historical and statistical, disproving the absurd notion that housing subsidies are somehow the "cause" of homelessness. So, in the interests of filling the gaps in the article, we'll summarize the evidence here:
1. The Bloomberg administration's current policy echoes "Alternative Pathways," a flawed policy implemented by the Dinkins administration in the early 1990s that re-directed Section 8 vouchers away from homeless families in shelter and that ultimately triggered a rise in the family shelter population. The Dinkins administration ultimately abandoned the flawed "Alternative Pathways" policy after family homelessness soared in the early 1990s.
2. The Dinkins policy was based, like the Bloomberg policy, on unsubstantiated claims that the availability of Section 8 vouchers was attracting families to the homeless shelter system and driving up the shelter census. However, City officials then and now have never presented empirical evidence for these claims.
3. A 1997 research study -- "Does Subsidized Housing Increase Homelessness?: Testing the Dinkins Deluge Hypothesis," co-authored by two economists, Brendan O'Flaherty of Columbia University and Michael Cragg of the Milken Institute -- analyzed the "Alternative Pathways" program and the claims of City officials that the availability of Federal housing vouchers for families in shelter had increased the family shelter population. Their analysis found that, while the availability of housing subsidies does have some minor impact on attracting families to the shelter system, this effect is far outweighed by the large and positive impact of moving families from shelters to permanent housing. They summarize their findings in this way:
"We test the conventional wisdom and reject it. Better prospects of subsidized housing increase flows into the shelter system, but this incentive effect is not nearly large enough to offset the first order accounting effect - taking families out of the shelters reduces the number of families in them."
4. In 2003 and 2004, after a spike in family homelessness, the Bloomberg administration actually increased the allocation of Federal housing assistance to homeless families -- and the number of homeless families in NYC shelters decreased dramatically.
5. In a 2006 research study, two Columbia University economists, Brendan O'Flaherty and Ting Wu, analyzed whether the availability of Federal housing assistance contributes to a rise in family homelessness - and concluded that it does not:
"Placements into subsidized housing do not seem to lure large numbers of families into the shelter system.... The city now devotes enormous resources to determining eligibility. We believe that the city has been successful; fewer families appear to be drawn by the prospect of obtaining permanent subsidized housing."
6. In October 2004, despite the successful reduction in family homelessness the previous year resulting from the use of Federal housing assistance, then-DHS Commissioner Linda Gibbs announced that the City was cutting off homeless families from priority access to Federal housing programs like public housing and Section 8 rental vouchers. Gibbs repeatedly claimed that the availability of Federal housing assistance was drawing families into shelter:
"'We believe that in New York City there are many families who see that the only way to get rental assistance is to go through the shelter system,' said [then-Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Linda] Gibbs...." (Newsday, October 20, 2004).
"At the same time, [Linda] Gibbs said, families are deliberately going into the shelter system as a way to get to the front of the line on rental assistance." (New York Daily News, October 20, 2004).
"[Linda Gibbs] said, the program was making poor families believe that the fastest road to getting their own apartment was to become homeless. ‘We don't want people to think that the best way to get housing is to bundle their children up and take them to the E.A.U.,' she said referring to the Emergency Assistance Unit, the Bronx office that is the entry point for the city's shelter system." (New York Times, October 20, 2004).
7. Gibbs claimed that the 2004-2005 cut-off policy would lead to fewer families seeking shelter -- but, after a short-term decline in family shelter applications, exactly the opposite happened. Indeed, the number of families entering the NYC shelter system hit record levels in 2008, BEFORE the economic crisis, and then grew to even higher levels.
All in all, the latest claims by the Mayor and City officials, as well as Mayor Bloomberg's tragic decision not to provide ANY housing aid to homeless families, fly in the face of everything we've learned about how to reduce family homelessness. Indeed, as Jill Khadduri, researcher at Abt Associates and a former senior Federal housing official, wrote in a 2008 research review:
"An extensive body of careful research has demonstrated that housing vouchers are critically important both for preventing families with children from becoming homeless and for helping those who do enter the shelter system to leave it for permanent housing and not become homeless again....For families who do become homeless, housing vouchers are an extensively tested and demonstrably effective tool for moving to permanent housing and remaining stably housed."
Sadly, homeless children and families will pay the price for Mayor Bloomberg's failure to acknowledge this reality.
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