Today’s Read: City’s Need for Beds Meets Opposition in Several Neighborhoods

As New York continues to grapple with a severe and catastrophic shortage of affordable housing, the City has been struggling to comply with its legal obligation to provide shelter for the record number of homeless men, women, and children: Tonight, more than 61,000 people will sleep in NYC shelters, while thousands more continue to bed down on the streets.

However, news of a shelter opening nearby can spark community resistance – which is unfortunately often fueled by stigma, misinformation, and unfounded fears. Shelter opponents might forget that many of their neighbors are just one missed paycheck away from homelessness, and that all New Yorkers, regardless of their housing status, deserve our respect and compassion.

While shelter opponents are often the loudest voices in the debate, many other community members treat their sheltered neighbors with kindness instead of protesting their presence. Groups across the city have come together to offer encouragement and support to residents of shelters in their neighborhoods.

For the past three years, the Coalition for the Homeless has sought to highlight the admirable New Yorkers who have furthered the cause for basic human decency in our city with our annual Compassionate Communities Award. If you would like to nominate a group for the 2019 Compassionate Communities Award, please email by September 30th.

Ahmed Jallow, writing for City Limits, points out that despite vociferous protests in many communities, the worst negative outcomes that shelter opponents fear often fail to materialize – and that the people who reside in the shelters are human beings who have simply fallen on hard times.

“You could be in the shelter system anytime,” [shelter resident Daryl] says. “You can have a fire break down in your house, or water main break. It don’t have to be your fault,” he adds. People end up in homeless shelters for myriad reasons, he says. His wife was a social worker and he is a barber and they have been in the shelter system for over four years, he said. For Daryl, it was his wife’s unexpected one-year stay at the hospital. What was supposed to be a one-day procedure in the operating room ended up being a year stay when she suffered a heart attack during the operation. “We couldn’t afford to pay the rent because she was in the hospital. That’s how we got evicted at our apartment,” he said.

Except for some shelter residents gathered under the green ash tree about 40 yards from the facility, there was scant foot traffic here one sunny afternoon. While just a snapshot in time, the scene seemed a far cry from some of the community’s worst fears.

An employee at the Van Dam Express, a deli adjacent to the shelter building, said they haven’t had problems with the residents so far. “Everybody over there is great,” the employee, who declined to give his name, said. “I’ve never called the cops,” he added.

Jimmy, another shelter resident who asked for his real name not be used says: “Not everyone is a drug addict, or a bad person or did bad things. Some people just caught a bad break.” Asked about the backlash the shelter received, he said, “If they really got to know most of us, they’ll know we are nice people just trying to better our lives.” Jimmy, 52, a former construction worker, said he’s been looking for a job but his criminal record has been an obstacle.

Furthermore, while the Coalition continues to advocate for more permanent housing in order to reduce the need for shelters, the right to shelter is a vital component of the safety net – and the reason why New York City does not have the massive tent encampments found in so many other parts of the country.

“Emergency shelter should be just that: a safe place for an adult or family to go when they are displaced for any reason,” Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement to City Limits. “The growing gap between incomes and rents over the past several decades has resulted in an ever-expanding shelter system where people are staying longer and longer.”

Both advocates for the homeless and shelter opponents say they would rather see more permanent housing than shelters. But the city’s legal mandate makes it impossible to do away with emergency shelters altogether. The city’s “right to shelter” mandate is a result of a landmark decision in December 1979 by the state supreme court that forced the city and state to provide shelter for homeless men. The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Robert Callahan, was a homeless man suffering from chronic alcoholism who lived on the streets of Manhattan. Callahan vs. Carey triggered subsequent lawsuits that extended these rights to every homeless man, woman and child.

And practically speaking, a city as large as New York will always need to have some emergency shelter system to help people when crisis strikes. “We need compassion for New Yorkers that are feeling the worst effects of the housing crisis and robust investment in permanent housing to reduce the occurrence of homelessness,” said Routhier, whose group is advocating for 24,000 new units of housing.