Homelessness Beyond the Inner City

Two recent news reports show how New York’s growing homeless population is impacting people and communities beyond the inner city.

Friday’s New York Times included a report about the controversy in a northern Bronx neighborhood surrounding the conversion of an apartment building into a makeshift shelter for homeless families.

In August, the NYC Department of Homeless Services began using apartments in the Westchester Square building as temporary shelter for homeless families, as the City’s rushed response to the all-time record number of homeless families. The arrangement is part of the misguided “scatter-site shelter” program, in which the City uses apartment buildings — most of which were intended for low- and moderate-income tenants — as costly temporary shelter.  For instance, as the Times article notes:

“The city pays roughly $2,700 a month per unit, far more than the market rate for rentals in the area. The apartments were advertised for $1,400 a month.”

The controversial “scatter-site shelter” program was initiated in late 2000 by the Giuliani administration but has been dramatically expanded by the Bloomberg administration (which, in an act of PR wizardry, re-labelled it the “cluster-site” program — without, however, changing any of the program’s essential features).  After news reports and a City Comptroller’s audit of mismanagement of the program during Mayor Bloomberg’s first term, the administration was grudgingly forced to respond.  As another New York Times article from March described the program:

“By 2002, it had grown from 50 units to more than 2,000, and was widely criticized as an expensive failure costing $2,900 a month per apartment. After a public outcry, Mayor Bloomberg and Ms. Gibbs, then the commissioner of homeless services, vowed to shut down the program.”

However, after a brief reprieve, that promise has not been kept.  Indeed, over the past three years the Bloomberg administration has expanded the program enormously, from 623 “scatter-site shelter” units at the end of November 2006 to 1,727 units at the end of November of this year, a 177 percent increase.

With family homelessness at all-time record levels, it’s once again time to end this misguided, flawed program and move homeless families into permanent housing instead of more-costly shelter.

The second article, also from this weekend’s New York Times, described the rising homeless population in New York City’s suburbs.  In Bergen County, New Jersey, for example, one shelter which has been full for more than a month has been seeing many new faces:

“‘We used to see really hard, down-and-out people only, and now we’re seeing a lot of people who just are kind of in trouble and don’t know anything about the safety-net system,’ said Mary Sunden, who manages the shelter. ‘They’re just kind of running out of money and they’re getting evicted or they’re getting an eviction notice and don’t know what to do.'”

Thus there are more and more signs that, from the poorest neighborhoods of New York City to the surrounding suburbs, the economic downturn has pushed many families and individuals into homelessness.