NY Observer: Bloomberg and the Return of Hooverville

Today’s New York Observer has one of the best long-form news reports in recent memory about soaring NYC family homelessness. The article, “The Return of Hooverville: The Deepening Crisis of Family Homelessness,” links the everyday struggles of one homeless family to the epic policy failures of Mayor Bloomberg and his administration.

In unusually vivid detail, reporter Kim Velsey narrates the day-to-day hardships of Anne Pierre and her two sons, a homeless family repeatedly shuttled from one grim shelter placement to another by City bureaucrats:

By the time Anne Pierre and her sons arrived at 199 Amboy Street, it was after midnight. The heat of the unusually warm April day had all but drained away, but there was a mellowness to the air, a contrast to the sharp, cold spring nights that had come before. From the outside, the red-brick building looked clean and well-maintained, though the darkness made it difficult to tell for sure. In Ms. Pierre’s experience, the exteriors of homeless shelters were poor predictors of conditions inside.

Late though it was, the family’s arrival at the Brownsville shelter marked the somewhat triumphant culmination of a bureaucratic odyssey that had started two days earlier, when Ms. Pierre had reapplied for shelter at the family intake center in the Bronx. It was only somewhat triumphant in that 199 Amboy was just a 10-day placement, the latest in a string of temporary housing assignments that had become the norm since the family lost its eligibility for shelter in February….

Like many other families who have recently swelled the ranks of the city’s homeless population, routine has taken on an almost talismanic significance for Ms. Pierre and her boys. They live an approximation of a life that involved, until recently, an apartment of their own—a two-bedroom on Legion Street rented for four years with the help of a Section 8 voucher. Ms. Pierre paid $350 of the $1,100 rent until a recurrent mold problem disqualified the apartment.

Routine means showers in the morning and at night (depending on the hot water situation). It means home-style Haitian cooking for dinner, even if that involves dining out—an expensive proposition, but difficult to avoid when you don’t live in any one place long enough to lay in a supply of groceries or retrieve your pots and pans from storage. It means buying cleaning supplies and paper plates and a tablecloth for every new housing placement, no matter how temporary.

Velsey’s article also highlights the enormous policy failures of Mayor Bloomberg and his administration — which we analyzed in our recent State of the Homeless 2013 report — most of all the Mayor’s decision to cut off permanent housing assistance to homeless kids and families and his reliance on a failed “low-wage-work-first” approach to homelessness:

In January of this year, the city’s homeless population exceeded 50,000—the highest number since the Great Depression. But while previous homeless crises were largely defined by individuals who fell out of the social fabric long before they went homeless—unemployed, unemployable, or with serious health or substance abuse problems—the current crisis is defined by families, who make up some three-quarters of the city’s shelter population.

The number of families in shelters has nearly doubled in the last decade—as of this month, the shelter population included more than 10,000 families and nearly 21,000 children, according to city data. Homeless families have been the fastest-growing segment of the shelter population during Mayor Bloomberg’s reign, soaring from 6,921 when he took office in January 2002 to 11,984 in January 2013, according to data provided by Coalition for the Homeless.

The current reality stands in sharp contrast to the ambitious plan Mayor Bloomberg presented in 2004 to reduce the shelter population by two-thirds and end chronic homelessness within five years by addressing “homelessness at its core, rather than at the margins.” It partly focused on preventative measures like eviction protection, which were widely lauded, but more controversially, it wiped out the paths to permanent housing, replacing them with temporary housing, on the assumption that families just needed a little help getting back on their feet.

“They thought that having paths to permanent housing was drawing people into the shelter system, so their approach to ending homelessness was to eliminate the path to permanent housing,” said Councilman Brad Lander, who has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Bloomberg’s policies.

Asked how families could leave the shelters without housing subsidies, Mr. Diamond said that “work works—the revolution across the board has been work.” He then went on to describe “enhanced training on the importance of work,” job-training programs and subsidies of the paychecks of homeless workers to encourage employers to take them on—none of which are new programs.

But a number of advocates claim that the Advantage program wasn’t working in the first place, primarily because the subsidy only lasted for two years; families who couldn’t make it on their own after that time just got channeled back into the shelter system….

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, questioned the DHS assumptions that training people to become fast-food workers and home health aides, jobs that pay $8 or $9 an hour, would solve the problem. “How do you square the circle?” he asked. “These families are too poor to afford rent. Even in East New York or the South Bronx, rent is at least $1,000 a month.

“The mayor and his administration are people who craft their policies based on data, but in the area of homelessness, all their policies seem to be based on ideology,” he added.

Given that the city is mandated to provide shelter as the result of a 1980s court decision, and that Mr. Bloomberg appears to have no plan to transition residents out of shelters besides training for low-wage employment, it’s hard to imagine that anything will change.

Velsey’s full article can be read here, and is well worth reading to understand the legacy of record family homelessness that Mayor Bloomberg leaves behind.