Poverty Drives Homeless Rates? Not So Fast

Fill in the blank. When the economy collapses, the number of homeless Americans goes ___.

While you might expect the answer to be “up,” during the recession of 2007-2009 the number of homeless people in America dropped slightly.

Compare homelessness across states and you find another upside-down relationship. Rich states — not poor ones — have the largest homeless populations.

Today’s Read: How Do Rent-Burdened New Yorkers Cope?

The worsening housing affordability crisis throughout New York City is a direct driver of near-record homelessness. Incomes have stagnated as rents continue to soar, leaving more and more people with massive rent burdens. If they fall behind and are evicted, it’s unlikely that the poorest New Yorkers will be able to find an affordable apartment in any borough. As a result, eviction is one of the main immediate reasons cited for homelessness at shelter intake centers.

Mireya Navarro of The New York Times profiled five tenants who are struggling to pay rents that consume the majority – or all – of their monthly income. She explains:

Housing is generally considered affordable if a household allots no more than 30 percent of its income to home payments and utilities. By that standard, more than half of renters in New York City are “cost-burdened” and may find it hard to pay for other necessities like food, clothing and medical care.

These tenants are only a handful of the thousands of New Yorkers fighting a monthly battle against the very real threat of eviction and consequent homelessness. But keeping these individuals and families in their homes and out of shelters is both compassionate and fiscally responsible. With so many rent-burdened New Yorkers just one missed paycheck away from falling behind in rent, a household often needs only a small, one-time grant to pay off arrears and get back on track – a model that has been consistently proven effective through the Coalition’s Eviction Prevention Program. A grant of $1,000 can rescue a family from entering homelessness, where it would cost the City more than $38,000 per year to shelter them.

In addition to financial assistance, many New Yorkers could benefit from legal help when navigating the daunting maze of housing court. This is why the Coalition has partnered with dozens of other organizations in calling for a legal right to counsel in housing court for tenants at 200 percent of the poverty line or below. An attorney can negotiate more time to pay off arrears, connect clients to rental assistance programs, and ensure that tenants are being treated fairly by lawyers representing landlords. With so many New Yorkers living on the brink of homelessness, a right to counsel would be a critical step toward reducing the flow of people from housing court into homeless shelters.

Visit www.righttocounselnyc.org for more details.

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