Reality Check: Current State of Homelessness

Last Sunday, the Daily News ran a piece by editorial board member Alyssa Katz in which she discusses the current state of homelessness in NYC and Mayor de Blasio’s response. The piece contains a number of notable errors about the issue that deserve clarification:

  1. Causes of record homelessness:

Katz ignores the disastrous policies of the previous administration that led to a massive increase in homelessness in the ten years before Mayor de Blasio took office. Indeed, the largest increase in modern mass homelessness – a crisis that has spanned the administrations of five mayors beginning with Ed Koch – occurred under the administration of Michael Bloomberg. Under his tenure, the shelter census ballooned from 31,000 in 2002 to more than 53,000 when he left office at the end of 2013 – a staggering 71 percent increase. Indeed, during Mayor Bloomberg’s last three years in office, the shelter census rose by 36 percent as a direct result of his elimination of the programs that helped families move from shelter into permanent housing. Katz also errs when she writes that the core of the crisis when de Blasio took office was a rising single adult population. In fact, homeless families make up 77 percent of the homeless shelter population, and their numbers were increasing at a greater rate than single adults in the six months leading up to de Blasio’s inauguration.

  1. The critical role of permanent housing options:

Katz argues that the provision of permanent housing will incentivize otherwise housed families to become homeless. This myth has long been refuted by academic experts[1], and is even refuted by the very IBO report she cites.[2] The IBO report released in 2012 actually finds that referrals to permanent housing, such as public housing and section 8 vouchers, reduce the shelter census and save taxpayer dollars. This is why the Coalition urged Mayor de Blasio to reverse Mayor Bloomberg’s harmful policy of denying homeless families access to these critical housing resources. Katz cites a flawed figure that does not compare shelter entrants under the period when priority referrals were in place to the period when they were not. With this important distinction in mind, the number of shelter entrants in the years when priority access to permanent housing was cut off for homeless families (2006-2013) was on average 64 percent higher than in years when these resources were made available.

  1. Harmful practices that deter shelter entrants:

Katz argues that a proposal made under Mayor Bloomberg to institute a rigorous application process for single adults, which could deny access to life-saving shelter, is a good idea. This argument makes little sense and indeed has particularly dangerous implications. In 2011, a deputy commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg estimated that at least 30 percent of all sheltered homeless single adults suffer from mental illness. Furthermore, in hearings on this specific proposal, Bloomberg officials admitted that individuals would be denied shelter even if a family member formally refused to take them in. So, where does such a proposal leave homeless single adults..? With no option but the streets.

The issue is admittedly complex. With so much misinformation out there – and with lives literally at stake – it’s important that New Yorkers know the facts. While the shelter system under Mayor de Blasio is still rife with problems – problems that must be addressed immediately – his administration laudably embraced the proven housing-based solutions to homelessness that his predecessor had abandoned. Among the steps that deserve praise are:

  1. A $60 million investment in homelessness prevention resources, including anti-eviction legal services;
  2. Restoration of priority access to federally-funded resources like public housing and Section 8 vouchers;
  3. The creation of an array of rent subsidy programs targeted to specific populations within the shelter system;
  4. An historic commitment to create 15,000 units of supportive housing – which gives homeless people with mental illness and other disabilities a way to move from the streets into permanent housing with on-site support services.

Only by increasing prevention and permanent housing will we be able to bring an end the city’s homelessness crisis. But the City cannot win this fight on its own: The full partnership of the State is crucial. Governor Cuomo must step up and contribute State resources to match the City’s efforts, including at least a one-for-one match of Mayor de Blasio’s 15,000 supportive housing units in NYC – a commitment necessary to match the true scale of need.

[1] Cragg, M., O’Flaherty, B. (1999). Do Homeless Shelter Conditions Determine Shelter Population? The Case of the Dinkins Deluge. Retrieved online: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094119098921283

[2] City of New York Independent Budget Office. (2012). Retrieved online: http://www.ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/dhspriorityletter61412.pdf

Today’s Read: Finally, Urgency on New York’s Homeless

An editorial in today’s New York Times lays out a voice of reason on homelessness in New York City, by contrasting steps the Mayor has taken against a complete lack of response from the Governor.

Homelessness has rightfully been at the top of the City’s agenda lately as Mayor de Blasio has announced a series of sweeping changes and ambitious new programs to address the ongoing crisis. Last week, the Mayor announced the beginning of an intensive 90-day review of the City’s homeless services agencies and a change in leadership at the Department of Homeless Services. Days later, he unveiled the new Home-Stat initiative to connect the thousands of New Yorkers who are sleeping rough on the streets to vital services. This builds on the momentum of last month’s historic announcement that the City would be creating 15,000 units of supportive housing for the most vulnerable New Yorkers over the next 15 years.

While these developments show that the City is stepping up its efforts to combat the crisis of homelessness from multiple angles, more is clearly needed. The New York Times editorial points out that the success of these efforts largely depends on the City having a working partnership with the State government. For a start, Governor Cuomo must agree to match the City’s supportive housing commitment unit-for-unit so that the men and women struggling with mental illness, HIV/AIDS and other special needs will have a real alternative to the streets, in the form of permanent supportive housing.

The thousands of New Yorkers bedding down in shelters, on the streets and in the subways this winter are anxiously waiting for Gov. Cuomo to take action.

… Word is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to tackle New York City’s homeless problem, too. He hasn’t revealed his plans, but his spokeswoman Dani Lever said in a statement last month that the announcement would come in a speech in early January: “It’s clear that the mayor can’t manage the homeless crisis, and the state does intend to step in with both management expertise and resources in a plan to be released in the State of the State.” It was a telling statement from the governor, who hardly bothers to hide his contempt for the mayor.

Mr. Cuomo also used a recent radio interview to sneer at Mr. de Blasio’s supportive-housing program and to tease to his forthcoming “full homelessness plan.” He said, “We have places where the system has broken down in New York City and that’s why we’ve been going methodically, talking to the different provider groups, looking at the population and where is the need.”

Notice that Mr. Cuomo didn’t say anything about talking to the mayor, presumably because he has no interest in doing so. Nor did he say anything about providing real money. Deep cuts in state aid have crippled the fight against homelessness in New York in recent years. The city and state used to work as partners to tackle homelessness and affordable housing, long before Mr. de Blasio became Mr. Cuomo’s punching bag. If the governor is actually going to try to help the city, and not just find another way to humiliate Mr. de Blasio, he will have to help rebuild that relationship.

Finally, Urgency on New York’s Homeless

In the final days of his second year in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio has stirred himself to greater action on homelessness. Under fire for months over a problem that he had promised long ago to solve — but one that he seemed inclined to dismiss or play down, or to blame on others — Mr. de Blasio stepped forward last week with a shake-up and a plan.

The commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Gilbert Taylor, is out. The head of the Human Resources Administration, Steven Banks, is now going to oversee an array of programs and new ideas. There will be more outreach to and monitoring of people living on the street, more caseworkers guiding people to help, more police officers to handle encampments and people who seem disturbed or dangerous.

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