The Current State of Homelessness and Crucial Next Steps

Yesterday’s New York Times gave A1 placement to Nikita Stewart’s extensive examination of Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to end homelessness. Stewart’s first sentence succinctly summed up the gist: “By one key measure after another, homelessness in New York City has worsened over the last two years.”

Homelessness indeed continues to hover at near-record levels – reflecting our dire need to address this unprecedented crisis. But to get a more accurate picture of what works and why the most promising efforts may appear to be stalled, a drill down on these basic questions are necessary:

  • How many homeless individuals and families are being housed?
  • Are they staying housed?
  • What needs to be done moving forward?

Since Mayor de Blasio took office, he’s taken major steps to stem the Bloomberg era increases in homelessness by providing stable, affordable housing to homeless families. HRA Commissioner Steve Banks created a series of City-funded rent subsidies, including LINC, as well as City FEPS. De Blasio also re-established priority for homeless families to access federal housing resources – namely NYCHA apartments and Section 8 rental vouchers to rent affordable housing in the private market — a decision that reversed perhaps the single worst Bloomberg policies: denying homeless families access to the most effective permanent housing resources.

Holding out hope for several months that the Cuomo administration would help fund these changes resulted in a year-long delay in implementing LINC and City FEPS vouchers for homeless families. But once enacted, these City-funded vouchers allowed over 2,300 adult and family households to move up and out of emergency shelter between July 2014 and June 2015. Newly freed up federal resources allowed 2,500 more families to move into permanent housing in that same time period. In sharp contrast, in his last year in office, Mike Bloomberg moved just 170 homeless families into NYCHA or Section 8 housing, and zero families via City-funded subsidies, as those programs were eliminated altogether. For the first time in years, seven out of eight months in 2015 (the most recent data available) NYC’s family shelter population decreased.

Another significant piece needed to fully decipher best investments towards reducing homelessness in NYC is the analysis of families returning to shelter. Whatever nascent traction the current administration attempts to build upon is significantly undercut by the substantial number of families who cycled back (and to a lesser extent, continue to cycle back) into the shelter system after their short-term (Bloomberg-initiated) Advantage subsidies ended. In Bloomberg’s last year in office, the percentage of all families entering NYC’s emergency shelter system who were previously homeless hit an astounding record high of 63 percent. This number has started to ebb down to 55 percent during the period between July 2014 and June 2015. This is a modest reduction in returning families – small and slow – but on the heels of the sharp, alarming increases throughout Bloomberg’s last term, it’s important to note that the investments in housing-based relief for families with vulnerable children has, without a doubt, successfully stemmed one of the major streams which contributed to record homelessness in NYC’s modern era.

These data points are evidence of progress, but there is no doubt more needs to be done. Throughout de Blasio’s first two years, the State has failed – again and again – to assume meaningful partnership to staunch the human misery of homelessness. Governor Cuomo steadfastly refuses to provide a modicum of funding – commonsense investment – in cost-effective, longer term rent subsidies for homeless families and individuals languishing in shelters and on our streets. Moreover, it’s imperative that the governor provide invaluable leadership to forge a City-State partnership to fund 35,000 units of supportive housing in New York State over the next decade – 30,000 of which would help individuals with significant psychiatric and/or physical impairments move off NYC streets and out NYC shelters.

We’re puzzled that Governor Cuomo opined yesterday that the homelessness crisis had previously been solved: “We had a terrible homeless problem. We resolved it,” stated Cuomo. What period is the Governor referring to? The last significant period of sustained reduction in NYC’s homeless population was in the mid-1980s, following directly from two significant factors:

  • Ed Koch’s massive commitment to capital investment to construct affordable housing – 10 percent of which was allocated to move homeless families out of shelters; and
  • The advent of the first New York/New York agreement between Mayor Dinkins and Governor Mario Cuomo, which funded 5,220 units of housing with support services for homeless people with significant psychiatric needs.

We know what works. And no one knows what works better than our governor – who is the former Secretary of HUD. How will Governor Cuomo help New York City address the current homeless crisis? Will he take the lead and provide the State’s fair share of funding imperative for 35,000 units of supportive housing over the next decade?

In sum, the City has taken promising initial steps to move homeless New Yorkers into permanent housing, as well as stemming the tide by helping thousands on the verge of homelessness avoid eviction. These crucial steps have led to the first multi-month decrease in family homelessness in years — a key measure that should not be ignored. But as the Times article – and the suffering on our streets – make abundantly clear, much more is needed to have any impact on this historic crisis.

The State inaction helped create today’s crisis and must play a critical role in solving it. Specifically, Governor Cuomo must help New York City redouble its investments in affordable and supportive housing for our homeless neighbors.  It is the right thing to do, and it is the smart thing to do. Permanent housing is far cheaper for New York taxpayers than ad hoc, temporary measures like hospitals, jails and emergency shelters.

Every day, every week, every month we delay, the crisis becomes deeper and the problem becomes more difficult and expensive to fix.

There is absolutely no doubt on the single most important next step: Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo must immediately commit to jointly funding 35,000 units of supportive housing to be created over the next 10 years to bring homeless New Yorkers with severe and persistent mental illness off the streets, out of our shelters and into permanent stability.