Mayor, Can You Spare a Little Real Change?

"Mayor, can you spare a little real change?" Homelessness is rising - so change the city's policy

BY Mary Brosnahan

October 19, 2009 -- Op-ed originally published in the New York Daily News

Late in last week's mayoral debate, the question was put to Mayor Bloomberg: You committed to dramatically reducing homelessness; now it's on the rise. Why?

Bloomberg shifted blame - noting that the federal government had cut back on Section 8 housing vouchers - and touting a city program that he claims has moved homeless families into permanent housing.

The problem is, he isn't telling the whole truth. Not by a long shot.

In June 2004, Bloomberg pledged to reduce homelessness in New York City by two-thirds within five years. Today, his administration is presiding over a milestone of a different sort: For the first time since the city began keeping records 25 years ago, more than 39,000 homeless New Yorkers are sleeping in our municipal shelter system each night. That number includes 10,000 homeless families with 16,500 children. Compared to 2002, 45% more New Yorkers are sleeping in municipal homeless shelters each year.

Simply put, New York City is in the midst of a homelessness emergency and it's only getting worse.

Last fiscal year, more than 120,000 different New Yorkers slept at some point in municipal homeless shelters, including an all-time record 43,826 different homeless children. This year, the number of homeless adults and children in shelters each night has increased by another 12%.

Just as the cold weather hits, New York City is on track to literally run out of shelter beds for homeless adults. As of Sept. 30, there were only two empty beds left in the entire New York City shelter system for homeless men and only eight empty beds for homeless women - 10 available beds in a system of more than 7,000 for homeless single adults.

With the economy still reeling - and city unemployment now topping 10% - this crisis will continue to get worse unless the Bloomberg administration changes direction and does so quickly.

For starters, New York City urgently needs more beds. But it's not just a matter of continuing to grow the costly shelter system. Bloomberg must speed up the city's plans to develop new permanent supportive housing, particularly for homeless individuals with mental illness and other special needs. While the city's current 10-year plan to construct 6,250 new units is laudable, more than half of those units aren't scheduled to come online until at least 2011.

Even then, meeting the acute needs of homeless adults won't do anything to move 10,000 homeless families out of shelters. That will require Bloomberg to reverse his 2005 decision to cut off homeless New Yorkers from federal housing assistance such as Section 8 vouchers and vacant public housing apartments.

The administration - particularly Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs - argued in 2005 that denying homeless New Yorkers access to Section 8 vouchers and public housing would act as a disincentive to people who might have another housing option with a friend or relative from entering shelter.

It hasn't worked out that way. Long before the recession began, the decision to bar homeless New Yorkers from federal housing assistance has led to more families, not fewer, entering and staying in New York City's shelter system. Now that President Obama and Congress are strengthening the federal voucher program, we should use it to help the neediest New Yorkers.

The mayor doesn't talk much about his pledge to end homelessness anymore. He should - admitting his failures and changing direction before it's too late.

Mary Brosnahan is executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.