State of the Homeless 2009: How to Reduce Family Homelessness

Last week, Coalition for the Homeless released the tenth annual “State of the Homeless” report, which documented how the economic recession, coupled with the worsening housing affordability crunch, has driven family homelessness in New York City to record levels. The full 41-page report can be downloaded here.

This year’s report focused on one way the City of New York can actually reduce family homelessness even in the midst of the economic downturn: By reversing a failed, four-year-old Bloomberg administration policy that effectively cuts off homeless families from receiving Federal housing assistance. This misguided administration policy flies in the face of the growing body of academic research proving that Federal housing programs – in particular Section 8 rental vouchers – successfully reduce family homelessness.

New York Times article about the Coalition’s report and Mayor Bloomberg’s policy noted that, “At the time, city officials said that…they believed that some families purposely entered shelters as a shortcut to receive housing vouchers, and that once the practice was stopped, the number of families applying for emergency shelter would decrease….Over time, predictions by city officials were proven wrong: The number of families in shelters has increased since 2004….More new families entered the shelter system in 2008 than in any year since the 1980s, according to the coalition’s report.”

We are hopeful that the “State of the Homeless 2009” report will help re-ignite the public debate about this critical policy issue, particularly in this time of rising homelessness. However, we were perplexed by the comments of the New York City Department of Homeless Services spokesperson quoted in the New York Times article who said that the Coalition is “proposing failed solutions…”

In fact, Federal housing programs are a proven, effective solution to family homelessness. As our report notes, studies by researchers from the National Alliance to End HomelessnessNew York University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania have all documented how Federal housing vouchers successfully help homeless families move from shelters to permanent housing and help them remain stably housed. Indeed, the NYC Department of Homeless Services itself commissioned a 2005 report by the Vera Institute of Justice that came to the same conclusion: “Across all cohorts and follow-up periods, those families exiting to subsidized housing exhibited the lowest rates of reentry. Subsidized housing appears to be associated with better protection against shelter return than exiting to one’s own housing, other destinations, or unknown arrangements.” The full report can be found on the NYC Department of Homeless Services website, and we urge Bloomberg administration officials to review it.

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