New York City’s historic homelessness crisis takes a tragic toll on the 60,000 men, women and children who bed down in shelters each night. It also comes at a significant financial cost to taxpayers: In the past five years alone, the City has spent $1.7 billion on the family shelter system – a system that, according to a recent Department of Investigation report, is plagued by serious health and safety violations.
The worst violations – vermin infestations, lead paint, mold and more – were found in the cluster-site shelters, whose operators notoriously charge the City significantly more than market-rate rents to house homeless families in dilapidated buildings.
The staggering figure, which was obtained from a Freedom of Information Law request by the Daily News, provides further incentive for the City to take immediate steps to implement humane, cost-effective solutions to homelessness. Eviction prevention services, for example, save people from the trauma of losing their home and save taxpayers considerable money by reducing the number of people entering the costly shelter system in the first place.
One of the most effective ways of reducing the shelter population is by prioritizing NYCHA (public housing) units for homeless families and individuals. But until the City increases the number of NYCHA units set aside for homeless families to at least 2,500 per year, taxpayers will continue to shell out millions while families endure the instability and indignity of homelessness.
Given that the current system is both harmful to families and fiscally irresponsible, the City must make a more robust commitment to implement the proven, cost-effective, housing-based solutions to homelessness. Greg B. Smith of the Daily News outlined the outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars:
During the last four years of the Bloomberg mayoralty and the first six months of Mayor de Blasio’s administration, the annual cost of family shelters rose 34%, peaking at $406.2 million in the last fiscal year.
As the number of homeless families seeking shelter rose from 37,000 in 2010 to top 60,000 in December, city inspectors kept citing many of the shelters for a long and horrific list of infractions.
Inspectors found dead rats and mice, bunk beds and cribs jammed up against windows leading to the fire escape, and numerous nonfunctioning smoke detectors. At one fleabag, staff claimed they weren’t allowed to turn on air conditioning without a doctor’s note.
The average rent at these shelters is sobering: $2,451 to $3,125 a month. In fiscal 2014, the city was paying on average $24.9 million a month in rent for all the facilities.
At 58 of these sites, mostly hotels and a handful of apartment buildings, the city had little recourse if codes were violated because for years there were no actual contracts.
Instead the providers were hired on no-bid “emergency” basis. Last week, DOI Commissioner Mark Peters told the Daily News, “Historically, lax contracting and inspection procedures have created many of the problems we are seeing today regarding the homeless shelters.”
The DOI said the Homeless Services Department should “expeditiously implement the reforms we recommended — including establishing contracts that tie payment to elimination of code violations and timely inspection and writing of violations so that they can then be enforced.”
On Friday, Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor said the agency was moving aggressively to address the many problems after “years of stagnant wages, loss of affordable housing and adverse social policies … (that) led to an unprecedented homeless crisis.”
“While we are focused on preventing more people from becoming homeless and helping those in shelter find permanent housing, we are also working on addressing the loopholes that for years fostered neglect and poor upkeep of shelter facilities,” Taylor said. “We have already begun implementing meaningful changes to improve our accountability and oversight of shelter providers, including increasing compliance and doing more inspections. Our main concern is bringing order to a complex shelter, while providing humane and safe shelter to homeless individuals and families.”