Bloomberg on NYC Homelessness: A Total Lack of Accountability

Mayor Bloomberg and top officials finally commented to the heartbreaking New York Times series about Dasani, an 11-year-old homeless girl. But instead of acknowledging that NYC homelessness hit all-time-record levels on his watch, the mayor and his aides responded with evasions, distortions, and a refusal to accept responsibility.

Mayor Bloomberg made his remarks yesterday during part of his “legacy tour” – you can read his entire response here. And Deputy Mayors Linda Gibbs (principal architect of Bloomberg’s homeless policies) and Howard Wolfson took to the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages today to mount their defense of the mayor – see here.

But nowhere in the mayor’s remarks or Gibbs and Wolfson’s spin will you find the most basic facts: the number of homeless people in NYC has soared to all-time record highs under Bloomberg; and the number of poor New Yorkers has also risen and remains at alarming levels. You can find most of the key facts and data in our recent presentation “Rising Family Homelessness in NYC,” available here.

Bloomberg and his top officials refuse to take responsibility not only for their failed policies, but also for the deplorable, hazardous conditions at the notorious Auburn family shelter where Dasanai and her family resided for three years – a shelter operated directly by the City under the watch of Bloomberg and Gibbs.

Instead, Bloomberg stated, “This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.”

Here are the highlights of the distortions and evasions in Bloomberg et al’s response:

1. Record and rising NYC homelessness: According to City data, there are now more than 52,000 homeless homeless people residing each night in the municipal shelter system, up 69% since Bloomberg took office. This is the largest number of homeless people in NYC since the City began keeping records more than three decades ago.

This record-high shelter population includes more than 22,000 homeless children. And the number of homeless families has increased by 80% since Bloomberg took office.

NONE of these disastrous facts were mentioned or acknowledged by Bloomberg, Gibbs, or Wolfson.

2. High rates of NYC child povertyAccording to Census Bureau data, last year nearly 1 of every 3 children in NYC (31.4%) resided in poverty, a 5.3% increase from the previous year. And more than 1 of every 5 New Yorkers (21.2%) resided in poverty, up 1.6% from the previous year. And 1 of every 3 families with children in NYC received food stamps assistance.

These poverty rates, which use the federal poverty measure, are significantly higher than the national rates (15% for the whole population, 20% for children).

3. Distortions about rates of homelessness: Bloomberg claims that NYC has a much lower “rate of street homelessness” than other U.S. cities, with the large majority of homeless New Yorkers residing in shelters instead of on the streets or other public spaces.

He’s right – but the reason for this is simple: NYC has the legal right to shelter, unlike any other city in the U.S., thanks to legal victories won by Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society over more than three decades.

But let’s remember: This legal right to shelter that prevents over a hundred thousand different people from languishing in our streets each year is the very same that Mayor Bloomberg has assiduously attempted to dismantle throughout his tenure. From the first years of his mayoralty, he sought to repeal longstanding court orders obligating the City to provide emergency shelter for homeless children and adults. You might recall that two years ago, right before Thanksgiving 2011, he proposed rules – thankfully blocked by New York State’s highest court – to deny shelter to thousands of homeless men and women each year. And just this year he urged New Yorkers to overturn these fundamental legal protections for homeless people, saying: “New York City taxpayers have just gotta go to call their representatives in Albany and say, ‘We ain’t gonna do this anymore.’”

So, Bloomberg claims credit for the same legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers that he has fought aggressively to repeal!

4. Distortions about the causes of the current crisis: Gibbs and Wolfson penned a breathtakingly distorted, misleading account of Bloomberg’s failed homeless policies in today’s Wall Street Journal. In particular, there is absolutely NO mention of the administration’s fatal error in taking away permanent housing resources from homeless families, which has driven the shelter census to an all-time high.

Back in 2005, Bloomberg and Gibbs chose to cut off homeless families from priority access to public housing apartments and Section 8 vouchers – permanent housing resources that had successfully helped move tens of thousands of homeless kids and families from shelters to stable housing under three previous mayoral administrations. They then replaced those programs with short-term subsidies that became a revolving door back to homelessness for thousands of families — including Dasani’s.

Bloomberg administration officials continue to claim the short-term subsidies were a successful replacement for public housing and Section 8 vouchers. But the verdict is in, and they were clearly a failure that led to all-time record homelessness.

Wolfson and Gibbs steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the ideology-driven mistakes behind this central policy failure. Instead, they conveniently blame everyone but themselves, without admitting that the City has public housing apartments and other resources that could help desperate families if not for Bloomberg and Gibbs’ intransigence.

5. No accountability, no responsibility: Perhaps most galling of all is the fact that Bloomberg and his top officials simply refuse to take any responsibility for their policy failures – as well as for the deplorable conditions in the City-run Auburn shelter where Dasani and her family resided.

Lets’ recall that the notorious Auburn shelter was cited by State and City inspectors for hundreds of violations, including fire safety hazards, mold infestation, vermin infestation, problems with heat and cleanliness, and that at last one worker accused of sexual misconduct was permitted to work at the shelter for a year after he was charged.

But not only do Bloomberg, Gibbs and Wolfson refuse to accept responsibility for the hazardous conditions at a shelter directly operated by a City agency under their supervision – they outright refuse even to acknowledge those squalid conditions. To date, Bloomberg has not held a single person in his administration responsible for those conditions. No one has been disciplined or demoted in any way.

This would be outrageous for any mayoral administration, but is uniquely galling when Bloomberg and Gibbs continue to their mantra that poor New Yorkers need to accept “personal responsibility.”

Indeed, even when Bloomberg announced his (since-discredited) homeless plan back in June 2004, he referred many times to “accountability” – saying, for instance, that “[a]ccountability also extends to public agencies and providers,” and that his plan shows “our Administration’s commitment to hold ourselves accountable and govern based on the facts…” He even went so far as to talk about “the spirit of accountability that is the hallmark of this Administration…”

Well, if Bloomberg’s “spirit of accountability” ever existed, he chose NOT to extend it to the hazardous shelter conditions that Dasani – and countless other children – were forced to endure. And that “spirit of accountability” certainly never extended to seriously address the historic rise in NYC homelessness to all-time record levels, or the failed Gibbs policies that led to this historic crisis.

Instead, Mayor Bloomberg boasted yesterday said he “couldn’t be more proud of” his administration’s work on homelessness. And then, talking about Dasani, he shifted the blame to…well…

As New York Magazine put it:

Based on Bloomberg’s past callous answers to questions about the city’s homeless problem, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that he said today, “This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.”

But if you’ve read the horrible story — about the shelters “where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers” — it still might make you wince.

“Her family situation is extremely atypical,” Mayor Bloomberg explained,according to Politicker. “The article implied that all people are treated this way, or all have the same problems and that just is not true. The average homeless family spends less than two years in shelter and has some employment history; this family did not. This is a sad situation and we’re certainly going to continue to try to help the parents to achieve stability and independence.”

“This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why, that’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.”

As the New Year approaches, we look forward to a new mayoral administration to adopt proven, housing-based solutions to stem the tide of rising NYC homelessness. And that starts with taking genuine responsibility for the care of our most vulnerable children and neighbors.

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