FAQs & Myths

Myth: Homelessness is a permanent problem. We will never solve it.

Fact: There are in fact many effective solutions to the problem of homelessness — and many of them were pioneered in New York City.

Permanent supportive housing — a model of housing developed in New York City that combines affordable housing with support services for individuals and families living with mental illness or other disabilities — has been proven to reduce homelessness AND save taxpayer dollars otherwise spent on costly shelters and hospitalizations. Targeted affordable housing assistance for homeless families, like federal housing vouchers, is proven to reduce family homelessness and help keep formerly homeless families stably housed. And living-wage jobs and other support services, like childcare and access to health care, help low-income families and individuals maintain their housing and avoid homelessness.

Myth: Homelessness is not a housing problem, it’s only a jobs problem – and homeless people simply don’t want to work.

Fact: The major cause of homelessness is worsening housing affordability, both in New York City and across the United States. By every measure, the housing affordability gap — that is, the gap between incomes and housing costs — has grown dramatically wider over the past three decades.

From 2002 to 2011, according to Census Bureau data, New York City lost 39 percent of units — 385,300 apartments — that were affordable to households earning less than twice the poverty line ($39,580 for a family of three). You would need to work 136 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent in NYC. People simply do not make enough to afford an apartment in NYC with out some form of long-term assistance.

That is one reason why more and more homeless people are working. In 2013, around 30 percent of homeless families in New York City were employed, and the number of working homeless shelter residents rose by 57 percent between 2010 and 2013. In addition, a significant portion of homeless single adults suffer from disabilities and other barriers to employment. Unfortunately, the value of disability benefits (currently around $750/month in NYC) is not enough to afford rental housing.

Myth: It is their fault they are homeless.

Fact: Three decades of research and experience show that people become homeless for a myriad of reasons: loss of a job or lowered wages, health care crisis, increased rent, a family emergency or even landlord bullying. Surveys at the central intake center for homeless families in New York City show that more than a quarter of families seek shelter directly after an eviction, roughly one-fifth seek shelter fleeing domestic violence, and many others seek shelter after residing in doubled-up, overcrowded or substandard housing. Many families seeking shelter recently suffered job losses or a loss of public benefits.

Myth: All homeless people are mentally ill or addicts.

Fact: The majority of homeless New Yorkers are in families and are homeless primarily because they cannot afford housing.

In New York City, around 80 percent of all homeless shelter residents are in families and around 40 percent are children. Research and experience show that only a small percentage of adults in homeless families suffer from serious mental illness and/or addiction disorders.

For homeless single adults, the rates of mental illness and addiction disorders are higher: around one-third among homeless single adults in shelters, and around two-thirds among homeless adults sleeping on the streets or in other public spaces.

Myth: Housing assistance causes more families to enter homeless shelters.

Fact: Long-term permanent housing assistance leads to significant reductions in family homelessness. A wide range of academic experts have found, in numerous research studies, that permanent housing assistance like public housing or Section 8 vouchers helps homeless families escape homelessness AND remain stably housed. In addition, the myth that providing housing assistance to homeless families causes a surge in families seeking shelter has been disproven by academic research studies and years of experience. Indeed, after the Bloomberg administration eliminated federal housing assistance for homeless families in 2005, the number of families seeking shelter actually increased.

Myth: Out-of-towners abusing NYC’s right to shelter are the cause of record homelessness in NYC.

Fact: In recent years, shelter applicants who previously resided outside of NYC have remained a very small portion of the total number of families applying for shelter, making up roughly 8 to 9 percent of all applicants. And many of these families are in fact NYC families who lost their housing in neighboring communities, like New Jersey or Long Island, and are merely seeking shelter in their hometown. The real increase in homelessness comes from the lack of real affordable housing and few resources for people to move out of shelter and into permanent housing.

Myth: The people who live in rent-regulated housing don’t need it and are making market-rate rents increase.

Fact: The basic facts are that the majority of rent-regulated tenants have low and moderate incomes; one out of four rent-regulated tenants is living in poverty; the large majority of rent-regulated apartments are located outside of Manhattan; and rent-regulated apartments remain much more affordable than non-regulated housing.

  • One out of four rent-stabilized tenants has an income below the federal poverty line. In fact, more poor New Yorkers live in rent-stabilized apartments than in public housing.
  • More than 70 percent of all rent-stabilized apartments are located outside of Manhattan.
  • In 2008, the median rent for a rent-stabilized apartment was $925/month, while the median rent for a non-regulated apartment was $1,200/month, 30 percent more.

Rent regulation remains one of the strongest tools for keeping rental housing in New York City affordable for poor, working-class and middle-class New Yorkers. Indeed, the weakening of rent regulation over the past two decades — in particular, the implementation of “vacancy deregulation” — has led to the loss of tens of thousands of rent-regulated apartments and is a major cause of worsening affordability in New York.

Myth: If people can afford a television or smartphone, then they really aren’t poor.

Fact: Right-wing pundits and ideologues have long tried to deny the existence of poverty by claiming that poor people are not poor simply because they have access to typical consumer goods like cell phones, refrigerators and TVs. As the cost of consumer and even some traditionally luxury goods like televisions and smartphones have gone down in price, the cost of essentials like food and housing have steadily gone up. People own these devices now not simply because it is the next big thing, but because it is often the only way to stay connected to the world. Phones and internet are critical to securing employment and maintaining it. With ever-advancing technology, it is imperative that this vulnerable group not be left behind.

Myth: It is wrong to give money to people on the street because it is always a scam or they will use the money for drugs.

Fact: Not all panhandlers are homeless, but almost all are poor and in need. Whether or not to give money to people panhandling on the streets or in the subway system is a personal decision. But there is certainly nothing wrong with giving money to people in need, and one can also make donations to the many reputable not-for-profit organizations that help our homeless neighbors.

Myth: There is a city of “mole people” who live under the subways.

Fact: There is a longstanding myth about a large population of homeless tunnel-dwellers in New York City. This myth dates back to a 1995 book called The Mole People, which claimed hyperbolically, and falsely, that there were “thousands” of homeless people sleeping in New York City tunnels.

The reality is that only a very small number of homeless people sleep in train and subway tunnels, largely because they are dangerous and inaccessible. The large majority of homeless people in New York City sleep in shelters, and the vast majority of unsheltered homeless people sleep on the streets, in the subway system, in parks or in other public spaces.

FAQ: Why don’t people living on the streets just go to a shelter?

Answer: The right to shelter was a very important step toward ensuring the safety of homeless people, but municipal shelters can be very difficult places to live for those people who have languished on the streets for years. They are tight quarters with many rules and regulations, which can be confusing. Nearly all municipal shelters for homeless single adults have barracks-style dormitories with as many as 100 beds in a single room, and these arrangements often do not suit the needs of homeless people living with serious mental illnesses like PTSD or mood disorders.