Missing the Mark and Reviving Old Myths

In a woefully misguided editorial today, the New York Daily News applauds the de Blasio administration for changing shelter intake procedures to dramatically reduce the percentage of families found eligible for shelter – as if turning away families in need is an acceptable solution to the City’s ongoing homelessness crisis. The Daily News points to the 38% eligibility rate for families applying for shelter in February as a positive development, writing, “Why? Not because bureaucrats are heartlessly tossing kids into the street, but because late last year, the city with the state’s cooperation imposed tougher but fair rules limiting slots to those who plainly have no place else to live.”

This statement, based on talking points from the City, simply contradicts reality.

Since last November, when the City made it harder for homeless families to prove their need as a way to reduce the shelter census, the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention Program has seen a notable spike in the number of families wrongly found ineligible for shelter. Contrary to the Daily News’ assertion, a number of these parents and their young children did in fact sleep on the trains or in the streets before finding their way to the Coalition, so that our caseworkers could advocate on their behalf. These families had nowhere else to go, but were denied shelter nonetheless.

As the Coalition’s Policy Director Giselle Routhier explained in a separate Daily News article today:

“We were really disturbed to see that percentage so low for families across the board,” Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, said. “It’s definitely a pretty significant drop.”

Anecdotally, the coalition has seen an uptick in people coming to its crisis center after being rejected from homeless shelter. While the city has determined they have another place to stay — with a relative or friend they’ve stayed with before, for example — the families often say they can’t stay with those people because of medical issues, crowding, disagreements or discrimination, Routhier said.

We also explored the actual effect of the modified directive in our State of the Homeless 2017 report:

As a direct result, too many homeless families are once again being found ineligible for shelter when City investigators erroneously send families back to stay in housing that is not actually available to them. Following implementation of the modified directive, the percentage of homeless families approved for shelter dropped far below the average for prior months – from a high of 50 percent in October 2016 to a low of 42 percent in December. This represents the lowest eligibility approval rate since 2011. This change is forcing more truly homeless families to reapply for shelter in order to receive a correct eligibility determination – often leaving them no choice but to take shelter in emergency rooms, subway stations, or 24-hour businesses, and to miss school or work as they repeat the arduous shelter application process multiple times. The hardship is real: The percentage of homeless families forced to apply for shelter two or more times before being found eligible increased from 37 percent in July to 45 percent in December 2016.

Put another way, the tightened eligibility rules have prolonged the bureaucratic nightmare of applying and reapplying for shelter for homeless families – mostly women and kids. Hardly a cause for celebration.

The Daily News goes on to repeat the disproven myth that the housing resources offered to homeless families are “luring some to seek shelter as a toehold.” A cursory glance at the shelter census between 2011 and 2014 – when the Bloomberg administration cut off all housing resources for those in shelter and the census subsequently skyrocketed – should suffice to silence this “alternative fact” once and for all. And yet, the Coalition must again and again explain why this assertion is plain wrong when the “zombie lie” pops up in editorial pages. The truth is that the severe lack of affordable housing and domestic violence – not some cunning scheme to access scarce housing resources – are driving record numbers of New Yorkers into shelters.

The editorial inexplicably concludes by urging the de Blasio administration to illegally flout the Callahan Consent Decree and subsequent court decisions by implementing shelter eligibility criteria for the single adult shelter system – a move that would undoubtedly lead to a surge in street homelessness (and in contempt fines against the City) at a time when the Mayor has been working to highlight the City’s efforts to bring people in off the streets. It is not difficult to predict how the Daily News headlines would decry the increase in the number of “drifters” on street corners and in the subways should this come to pass.

The Daily News’ editorial betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of homelessness. Furthermore, this myopic focus on the eligibility rate as a way to reduce the shelter census distracts from the much more pressing economic factors that are forcing more and more families and individuals into homelessness in the first place.

The way to reduce the shelter census is by investing in housing-based solutions on a scale to meet the record need – not by erroneously denying shelter to families who are truly homeless.