Why Are So Many People Homeless?

  • Pre-Callahan
  • 1980 - 1989
  • 1990 - 1993
  • 1994 - 2001
  • 2002 - 2013
  • 2014 - 2021

The Late 1970s:  Modern Homelessness Emerges

While homelessness is certainly not a new phenomenon in the United States or in New York City, where it dates back to at least the colonial era, there is no question that modern homelessness, which began in the late 1970s, is a unique historical occurrence. Indeed, one must go back to the Great Depression of the 1930s to find another period in New York history when homelessness was such a routine, persistent, visible feature of urban life, and when it affected such a wide swath of the city’s population.

Roots of Modern Homelessness in New York City: Deinstitutionalization and the Decline of Single-Room Housing

Why did so many homeless adults, particularly people living with mental illness, appear in such vast numbers on the streets of New York City in the late 1970s? Actually, the roots of modern homelessness can be traced back to dramatic changes in New York City’s housing stock, particularly cheap housing for the poor, as well as mental health policies adopted by the State government as far back as the 1950s.

The most significant single change in New York City’s housing stock during the emergence of modern homelessness was the extraordinary reduction in the number of single-room housing units. Since the early part of the century, single-room housing — which includes single-room occupancy (SRO) units and residential hotels, typically with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities — had played an essential role in providing low-cost housing for poor single adults, childless couples, and even families (until regulatory enforcement in the early 1960s prohibited occupancy by families). In the decades following World War II single-room housing continued to be a vital and relatively plentiful source of cheap housing in New York City. In 1960, by one measure, there were approximately 129,000 single-room housing units citywide. By the 1970s, single-room housing had become the “housing of last resort” for poor single adults, many of whom were disabled, elderly, addicts, or ex-inmates.

Single-room housing was also a vital resource for discharged patients of New York State psychiatric centers and hospitals. In the 1950s the State began to adopt a policy of “deinstitutionalization” for thousands of patients of State facilities who were living with mental illness. The policy was adopted largely due to the development of psychotropic medications and new approaches to providing therapeutic treatment in the community instead of in institutional settings, but also because of the scandalous mistreatment of patients in some facilities.

Deinstitutionalization led to the discharge of tens of thousands of mentally ill individuals from upstate facilities to New York City communities. Between 1965 and 1979 alone, the number of resident patients in State psychiatric centers fell from 85,000 to 27,000 patients, a 68 percent decline. However, the State and local governments failed to invest the enormous savings garnered from hospital closings in community-based housing for people discharged from hospitals, and many deinstitutionalized individuals living with mental illness had no alternative but to move into single-room housing.

The single-room housing stock became increasingly regulated, and in 1955 changes in housing codes essentially prohibited the conversion or construction of new single-room housing; additional provisions of the zoning code made conversion practically impossible. Therefore, after 1955 the number of single-room units had essentially reached a maximum limit, and erosion of this housing stock was inevitable.

In the 1970s the decline of the single-room housing stock accelerated at a tremendous rate due to conversion and demolition. By one measure, the number of single-room units fell from approximately 129,000 in 1960 to just 25,000 in 1978. This erosion was especially rapid in the late 1970s. A 1979 study of “lower-priced hotels” (which included SRO units, residential hotels, and other facilities such as YMCAs) by the City found that the number of permanent residents had fallen from 35,000 to 23,000 between 1975 and 1979, a precipitous decline over a brief period.

Changes in property tax policy played a decisive role in the loss of the single-room housing stock in the late 1970s. In 1975 the City amended a property tax abatement program — which had been created two decades earlier to encourage developers to renovate and upgrade deteriorating buildings, such as warehouses, into residential buildings — to include SROs. Because most SRO buildings were located in areas that were gentrifying, in particular the Upper West Side, owners took advantage of the tax amendment to convert single-room housing to higher-cost rental housing, cooperatives, or condominiums. By the early 1980s, the City was forced to reduce the tax abatement available for SRO conversions. Finally, in 1985, in response to the enormous loss of the SRO stock and the growing homeless population, the City established a temporary moratorium (eventually overturned by State courts) on all SRO conversions and later issued more restrictive procedures for the conversion of SRO housing. Nevertheless, most of New York City’s single-room housing stock had already been lost, and it continued to dwindle throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

There is evidence that the decline of single-room housing persisted through the 1990s. From 1991 to 1993 alone, according to one study, there was an 18 percent decrease in the number of single-room housing units in New York City. The largest reductions, as in earlier decades, were among units in commercial hotels and rooming houses, continuing the loss of this low-cost rental housing resource.

Modern Homelessness Emerges in the Late 1970s

The first sign of modern homelessness in New York City was the appearance of thousands of homeless men sleeping in parks, on sidewalks, in transportation terminals, and in other public spaces in the late 1970s. Although historically the city had seen pockets of street homelessness in the Bowery and other “skid row” districts, the sight of homeless adults — many of them men living with mental illness — bedding down on streets became more commonplace throughout the city by the end of the 1970s. At the same time, deaths and injuries among the street homeless also became commonplace. According to City officials, incidents of hypothermia and cold-related deaths and injuries among the homeless were “routine” in the early years of modern homelessness.

At that time there was no legal “right to shelter” for homeless New Yorkers. The City’s response to the growing crisis was woefully inadequate. There existed a rudimentary system of emergency shelters which were almost always filled to capacity, particularly in the winter, and thousands of homeless men seeking shelter were forced to turn to the streets. Among the early shelter facilities was Camp LaGuardia, a converted prison located 75 miles north of New York City in Orange County. Camp LaGuardia had been opened as a temporary residence for “vagrants” during the Great Depression and sheltered an average of 700 men per night by 1980. The most notorious of the early shelters was the cavernous Municipal Shelter on East Third Street on the Bowery, where conditions were deplorable and tuberculosis and other contagious diseases were commonplace. Indeed, due to the shortage of shelter beds, by the late 1970s as many as 250 men reportedly slept each night in squalid conditions on the floor of the Municipal Shelter’s infamous lobby, dubbed the “Big Room.”

The City’s welfare agency also provided vouchers to some homeless men (called “ticketmen”) to allow them to rent cubicles in Bowery lodging houses. As far back as the 1960s, the City had provided an average of 1,000 such vouchers per day, with the numbers exceeding 1,500 per day in the winter months. However, in the years before the system was phased out in 1977, lengths-of-stay grew longer and vacant rooms became much more difficult to find, in large part due to the demolition of many lodging houses or their conversion to higher-cost housing.

Securing the Right to Shelter for Homeless New Yorkers

With no right to shelter, thousands of homeless New Yorkers each year were forced to fend for themselves on the streets. In 1979 the founders of Coalition for the Homeless brought a class action lawsuit called Callahan v. Carey against the City and State arguing that a constitutional right to shelter existed in New York. In particular, the lawsuit pointed to Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, which declares that “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions….”  The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Robert Callahan, was a homeless Korean War veteran who had been sleeping on the street like many other men.

In December 1979, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the City and State to provide shelter to all homeless men. And over the next two years the Coalition’s founders entered into negotiations with the City and State, culminating in the 1981 Callahan v. Carey consent decree that enshrined the legal right to shelter for homeless individuals in New York City.

Can homelessness be solved?

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few sensible policies, we can see an end to modern homelessness.

The Koch Years and Worsening Homelessness

The 1980s were marked by a dramatic increase New York City’s homeless population, and most troubling, by the emergence of family homelessness as a significant part of the modern homelessness crisis. It was only at the end of the decade that the City of New York began to address the permanent housing needs of the rising number of homeless New Yorkers.

Family Homelessness Emerges

In contrast to the experience of single adults in New York City, rising homelessness among families with children did not appear until the early 1980s. The majority of episodes of family homelessness in the 1970s were relatively brief, although even in the early part of that decade the City had begun temporarily lodging homeless families with children in decrepit welfare hotels. However, the deep economic recession of the early 1980s, along with dramatic cutbacks in Federal housing programs by the Reagan Administration, accelerated the rise of family homelessness.

In 1983 an average of 2,100 homeless families per night were sheltered by the City, which then relied almost exclusively on infamous welfare hotels like the Prince George and the Martinique as well as some barracks-style facilities. However, as with the population of homeless adults, the number of homeless families rose rapidly throughout the 1980s. By 1988 there were 5,100 families per night sleeping in the shelter system, comprising 17,400 adults and children. By the late 1980s, two-thirds of homeless New Yorkers residing each night in shelters and welfare hotels were children and their families.

Advocacy Efforts to Protect the Rights of Homeless New Yorkers

In the wake of the early court victories securing a right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers, advocacy groups brought additional litigation to ensure basic civil rights and health and safety protections for homeless families and individuals. Coalition for the Homeless brought a landmark lawsuit, Pitts v. Black, to ensure the right to vote for homeless New Yorkers, who previously had not been permitted to register to vote. In addition, the Coalition brought litigation to prevent the dumping of patients from hospital psychiatric units to the streets and shelters. Additional litigation sought to prevent homelessness among youth who were aging out of foster care. The Coalition also sought to secure medically-appropriate housing and shelter for homeless people living with HIV and AIDS. In the ongoing McCain v. Koch litigation, which had initially secured the right to shelter for homeless families, the Legal Aid Society sought to challenge the dangerous conditions in welfare hotels and to end the City’s practice of using barracks-style shelters for homeless families.

These early legal victories were essential in establishing bedrock protections for homeless New Yorkers. But against the backdrop of rising homelessness, and with the courts failing to order the provision of permanent housing assistance, litigation could only accomplish so much. The decade’s homeless shelter population peaked in March 1987 with 28,700 children and adults residing in shelters, while thousands more slept rough on city streets. As homelessness increasingly came to be seen as a crisis, it became clear that the structural cause of modern homelessness lay in dramatic shifts in New York City’s housing stock and in government’s role in providing affordable housing.

The Widening Affordable Housing Gap in New York City

Beginning in the 1970s, the most severe problem characterizing New York City housing changed from substandard physical conditions to affordability. In simple terms, from the end of World War II to the 1970s New York City’s poorest renter households were badly housed, but they were housed. Afterwards, however, homelessness became a routine feature of the lives of poor New Yorkers and the poorest households were often forced to turn to shelters or the streets. As the 1970s began, the number of poor renter households in New York City actually exceeded the number of low-cost rental units affordable to those renters. By the end of the decade, the situation was reversed, and the affordability gap has widened ever since.

The widening affordable housing gap results from structural changes in New York City’s housing markets and economy. Simply put, rents increased at a much faster rate than other consumer prices, while the incomes of the poorest New York City households actually declined in real terms. As the gap between rents and incomes widened, many families and individuals were pushed out of the housing market altogether or were unable to enter it. In addition, dwindling government housing assistance made it harder for the poorest households to obtain tenant-based subsidies or to access subsidized housing units.

Reductions in Government Housing Assistance

Severe cutbacks in government housing investments and assistance played a major role in shaping New York City’s worsening housing affordability problems. For most of the twentieth century government played a crucial role in the housing market, through production, regulation, and direct assistance provided to low-income households. However, since the 1970s the Federal, State, and City governments have substantially abandoned their traditional role in financing the development of new housing, regulating rents, and providing vital housing assistance for the poorest households.

The most dramatic government cutbacks came from the Reagan administration, which slashed Federal funding for low-income housing assistance. Cutbacks in Federal housing assistance under Reagan resulted, by the 1990s, in 40 percent fewer new Federal housing vouchers being provided each year to needy households in New York City. But the State government also reduced its role in providing affordable housing. Beginning in the 1950s, the State’s Mitchell-Lama program had produced 125,000 new affordable apartments in New York City, but the program was ended in the late 1970s. And welfare housing allowances — which provide vital housing assistance to tens of thousands of poor households annually — lost more than half of their real value since the 1970s, at the same time that median apartment rents increased by more than one-third in real terms.

New Housing Initiatives in the Late 1980s

Despite these troubling structural trends, at the close of the 1980s a series of ambitious housing initiatives launched by the City and State resulted in significant reductions in New York City’s homeless population. The centerpiece of these efforts was the Mayor Koch’s “Housing New York” initiative, a ten-year, $5.2 billion capital investment plan announced in 1986. The “Housing New York” plan ultimately created or rehabilitated 150,000 affordable apartments citywide, with fully 10 percent, or 15,000 apartments, targeted to homeless households.

Thousands of homeless families were relocated to new apartments produced under the Koch housing plan, which was continued under the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations; indeed, in the early years of the initiative, an average of 3,700 apartments were produced annually for homeless people. As a result the number of homeless families in the shelter system declined dramatically from 1988 through 1990, falling from 5,100 to 3,600 families per night, a 29 percent decline.

Can homelessness be solved?

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few sensible policies, we can see an end to modern homelessness.

Recession and Reforms in the Dinkins Years

Mayor Dinkins assumed office promising reforms to the City’s approach to homelessness. But despite some significant achievements, problems persisted. The early 1990s economic recession — which had a more serious impact on New York City than many other cities — led to increases in family homelessness. However, the period also witnessed dramatic reductions in the number of homeless single adults, largely the result of investments in permanent supportive housing.

The New York/New York Agreement

During the early 1990s the single-adult homeless shelter census also fell by 37 percent, from an average of 9,300 people per night in 1989 to 6,100 per night in 1994, a low not seen since the early 1980s. At the same time, the population of street homeless individuals declined dramatically, with street homelessness much less visible by the mid-1990s.

The major cause of this remarkable decline was the construction of 3,800 units of permanent supportive housing as part of the “New York/New York Agreement,” a joint State-City initiative signed in 1990 by Mayor Dinkins and Governor Cuomo. The New York/New York initiative was the largest effort ever launched to create housing with on-site support services for homeless individuals living with mental illness. In addition, in the late 1980s the Koch administration had embarked on a plan to renovate and construct other supportive SROs for homeless individuals. Another major factor was the provision of supplemental housing assistance to individuals living with HIV/AIDS; in the early 1990s, in the wake of litigation brought by Coalition for the Homeless, the City began providing enhanced rental assistance and supportive housing to an increasing number of individuals and families with AIDS.

Shelter System Reforms

The Dinkins era also saw significant reforms to the New York City shelter system. Advocates brought class action litigation that led to the downsizing of enormous, dangerous armory shelters which had as many as 1,000 beds. The Dinkins administration also began creating smaller shelters with specialized services for homeless people living with disabilities and special needs. And court orders and local legislation led the City to begin phasing out the use of welfare hotels and barracks-style facilities for homeless children and families. However, serious problems still existed at City intake centers for homeless families, where hundreds of homeless kids and adults slept each night on floors and benches, leading to more litigation and even contempt rulings against City officials.

Can homelessness be solved?

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few sensible policies, we can see an end to modern homelessness.

Punitive Policies in the Giuliani Era

Under Mayor Giuliani, the New York City homeless shelter population rose from 23,000 people per night to more than 30,000 people — at the time, a modern record. Giuliani and his administration also imposed a series of punitive policies on homelessness New Yorkers and launched an aggressive attack on the legal right to shelter.

Rise in the Number of Homeless Children and Families

After declining in the late 1980s to fewer than 4,000 families per night in 1990, the population of homeless families rose again during the economic recession of the early 1990s and then remained at higher levels (more than 5,000 families per night) for most of the decade. Then, from 1998 through 2001, the family shelter population skyrocketed, eventually reaching all-time record levels. Over this period the number of homeless families rose rapidly, growing from 4,400 families sheltered nightly at the beginning of 1998 to 6,800 families lodged nightly at the end of 2001.

Dramatic cutbacks in targeted housing assistance in the second half of the 1990s were the major cause of rising homelessness among families. Under the Giuliani Administration, the number of homeless families relocated to permanent housing from the shelter system declined by 34 percent, from 5,466 in 1994 to 3,614 in 2002. The largest reduction in housing assistance came among City-funded apartments like those that successfully re-housed thousands of homeless families under the Koch housing plan. Compared to some 3,700 such apartments constructed annually in the early 1990s, in 2002 the City produced fewer than 300 new apartments for homeless families.

Academic studies from the 1990s concluded that subsidized housing is the most successful type of re-housing assistance for homeless families, and that it dramatically reduces subsequent episodes of homelessness. A five-year study tracking around 500 homeless families relocated from shelters to housing, conducted by New York University researchers and published in 1998, found that 80 percent of homeless families placed into subsidized housing remained stably housed (i.e., were still in their initial apartments one year later), and 92 percent were in their own apartments. In contrast, among families who left shelters but did not receive subsidized housing placements, only 18 percent were stably housed, and only 38 percent were in their own apartments.

A similar study, utilizing data from the City’s homeless client database, found that families who left the shelter system “on their own” or to unknown housing arrangements were the most likely to have subsequent episodes of homelessness. In contrast, families that received Federal housing subsidies had return rates that were less than a third of the rate for families who found their own housing, and families placed into City-funded apartments had return rates that were half of those of families who found their own housing. Subsidized housing placements therefore substantially reduced subsequent episodes of homelessness among formerly-homeless families.

Number of Homeless Single Adults Increases Again

From the mid-1990s to the early years of the next decade, the population of homeless single adults in shelters and on the streets began to rise again, largely as a result of reductions in permanent supportive housing investments. After 1994 — at the same time that nearly all of the supportive housing units created under the “New York/New York Agreement” had been completed and vacancy rates for supportive housing began to plummet — the single adult census rose again, from fewer than 6,000 people per night in early 1994 to nearly 7,000 people per night by the end of 2001. In addition to the municipal shelter population, by 2001 more than 1,500 homeless single adults turned each night to private shelter accommodations through churches, synagogues, or drop-in centers. And, while New York City’s street homeless population has never been measured with any accuracy, soup kitchens and outreach teams reported that the population of homeless people sleeping outdoors began to rise at the end of the 1990s. In short, by 2001 there were more homeless single adults in New York City than at any time since before the first “New York/New York Agreement” was signed.

Landmark research from the 1990s on the different patterns of shelter utilization has provided important insights into the varying characteristics of homeless single adults. In addition, it has pointed towards effective long-term solutions for the various sub-populations of homeless individuals. One important study was based on New York City shelter system’s client database and analyzed patterns of shelter utilization for 73,000 single adults who resided in the municipal shelter system during the period 1992-1995. Among the major findings of the report were that the vast majority of single adults utilizing the shelter system did so for relatively brief, one-time stays, while a smaller cohort of homeless adults, characterized by long-term stays, utilized the most shelter resources.

The study confirmed what had been known anecdotally for years — that there is a group of long-term shelter residents who have high rates of disability and who are in need of more intensive services, but who represent a small share of the total adult population using shelters over time. For most chronic shelter users, permanent supportive housing with on-site services is the most appropriate and effective long-term solution.

Giuliani’s Attacks on the Right to Shelter and Other Punitive Policies

The Giuliani era was also marked by aggressive attacks on the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers, a basic protection secured two decades earlier. Since the Callahan lawsuit was launched in 1979, the number of street homeless New Yorkers who suffered injury or death, from exposure and hypothermia, was dramatically lower. However, in the twentieth-anniversary year of Callahan, and at a time when homelessness was again on the rise, Mayor Giuliani proposed a plan to eject large numbers of homeless families and individuals from shelters to the streets.

This decade’s skirmishes over the right to shelter arose from a 1995 State regulation promulgated by Governor Pataki at the request of Mayor Giuliani. The regulation forced localities to eject homeless families and individuals from shelters for a minimum of 30 days if the households failed to comply with administrative rules and social service plans. In October 1999, the Giuliani Administration announced its plan to implement the shelter termination regulation and also require shelter residents to perform workfare assignments in exchange for shelter. Under the proposed plan, homeless parents and individuals who failed to comply with new welfare and shelter rules would be ejected from shelters, and children of ejected families would be placed into foster care.

Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society led the legal challenge to the Giuliani plan, while dozens of New York City organizations mobilized to oppose the plan. In December 1999, on the twentieth anniversary of the first court ruling in Callahan v. Carey, thousands of New Yorkers rallied in Manhattan’s Union Square to protest the Giuliani administration’s homeless policy. Shelter providers, advocates, religious leaders, civic groups, and elected officials publicly opposed the Giuliani shelter-ejection plan and joined the “Campaign to Save the Right to Shelter.”

Responding to the legal challenges, in February 2000 New York State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Sklar issued a ruling in Callahan prohibiting the City from implementing the State shelter termination regulation. The strongly-worded decision affirmed the importance of the Callahan decree in preventing the death and injury of homeless individuals. Moreover, it recognized the dangers inherent in the Giuliani plan to link the welfare system to the provision of emergency shelter for homeless New Yorkers, and to deny shelter to all homeless people who have a welfare sanction or case closing. As Justice Sklar wrote about the Giuliani plan, “[B]ureaucratic error is as much a part of bureaucracy, as human error is a part of life.” Therefore, his decision continued, “[T]he simple bureaucratic error which might send an individual out into the street, because he or she was unable to understand or cooperate with these requirements, might be the error which results in that individual’s death by exposure, death by violence, or death by sheer neglect.  The risk is simply too great to take.” Similar rulings in McCain and related litigation also blocked the Giuliani administration’s shelter-ejection plan for homeless families and children.

Unfortunately, Mayor Giuliani moved to appeal the court decisions and to advance the City’s plan to deny shelter to many homeless families and individuals. Indeed, in December 2001, only weeks before leaving office and as New York City was still recovering from the trauma of the September 11th attacks, Mayor Giuliani filed a notice of appeal of the February 2000 decision in Callahan, giving the incoming Bloomberg administration the ability to pursue the appeal.

The Giuliani administration also limited access to shelter for homeless families by implementing bureaucratic barriers at family intake centers, which led to vulnerable children and their parents being wrongfully denied emergency shelter placements. Again, advocates and faith leaders challenged the punitive rules, and even created a sanctuary shelter for families who had been turned away by the City, while the Legal Aid Society challenged the rules in court.

Finally, the Giuliani administration enacted aggressive policing policies that led to many unsheltered homeless people being arrested or issued summonses. Indeed, in late 1999 Giuliani ordered the arrest of all homeless people sleeping on the streets and other public spaces in New York City, triggering protests and legal challenges.

Can homelessness be solved?

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few sensible policies, we can see an end to modern homelessness.

The Bloomberg Era of Record Homelessness

The dozen years of the Bloomberg administration witnessed the most dramatic increases in New York City homelessness of the modern-homelessness era. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the number of homeless people sleeping in municipal shelters each night rose by 71 percent, and the number of homeless families rose by 83 percent. Indeed, during Bloomberg’s mayoralty the NYC homeless shelter population exceeded 50,000 people for the first time ever. At the same time, Bloomberg and his administration pursued even more punitive policies than Giuliani had.

Driving the historic rise in New York City homelessness under Bloomberg were two major factors: (1) NYC’s worsening housing affordability crisis, made more acute in recent years by the lingering effects of the economic recession; and (2) the wholesale failure of Mayor Bloomberg’s homeless policies, in particular his elimination of all permanent housing assistance for homeless families.

NYC’s Widening Housing Affordability Gap

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources show overwhelmingly that New York City’s housing affordability gap — the gap between apartment rents and tenant incomes — grew wider throughout the Bloomberg era. Indeed, unlike in some other housing markets, apartment rents in New York City continued to rise in the years both before and after the 2008 economic crisis struck.

During the Bloomberg era, New York City suffered dramatic losses of apartments affordable to low-income households. From 2002 to 2011, according to Census Bureau data, New York City lost 39 percent — 385,300 apartments – affordable to households earning below twice the poverty line ($39,580 for a family of three).

According to Census Bureau data, median apartment rents increased by 25 percent from 2005 through 2010, and rose every year during that period.  In contrast, median household income fell from 2008 through 2010, as the incomes and rents gap widened. Thus, over the period 2005 through 2010, median household income rose 16 percent while median contract rents rose by 25 percent.

Failed Bloomberg Homeless Policies

Perhaps the single biggest contributor to record homelessness in the Bloomberg era was that, for the first time since modern homelessness emerged, the City eliminated all permanent housing assistance to help homeless children and families move from shelters to their own homes.

Previous New York City mayors, from Koch to Dinkins to Giuliani, had targeted Federal and City housing resources to help homeless families relocate from shelters to stable, permanent housing. Beginning under the Koch administration, the City of New York began helping homeless families re-locate from the municipal shelter system to permanent housing by allocating a modest share of scarce Federal public housing apartments (administered by the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA) and Federal housing vouchers, known as Section 8 vouchers.

Indeed, from 1990 through 2005, under four New York City mayors, the City helped more than 53,000 homeless families — including more than 100,000 children — move to long-term, permanent housing using these Federal housing programs. And over the same period, an additional 11,000 homeless families with more than 20,000 children were moved from shelters to City-subsidized apartments — many of them apartments created under the late Mayor Ed Koch’s acclaimed “Housing New York” ten-year plan. The priority use of Federal housing programs, begun by Mayor Koch, was continued under Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani and even through the first three years of Bloomberg’s first term, when it contributed to a significant reduction in family homelessness from 2003 to 2004.

Mayor Bloomberg broke with the successful approach used by previous mayors in 2005, eliminating priority referrals for homeless families to Federal housing programs and substituting flawed, temporary rent subsidies. Then, in 2010, after a policy and budget dispute with the State, the Bloomberg administration terminated the last of the temporary subsidy programs (the flawed Advantage program), leaving homeless families with no housing assistance whatsoever to move into permanent housing. As a result unprecedented numbers of formerly homeless families ended up returning to the costly shelter system — all due to the lack of proven, affordable housing options.

Instead of providing permanent housing assistance to homeless families and individuals, the Bloomberg administration expanded the costly shelter system. Under Bloomberg NYC homeless services expenditures rose to more than $1 billion, an increase of nearly 80 percent. And most controversially, Bloomberg expanded the shelter system by using low-income apartments as costly temporary shelter.

More Punitive Policies Under Bloomberg

Exacerbating its central policy failure of removing permanent housing resources from homeless New Yorkers, the Bloomberg administration continued and intensified punitive Giuliani-era policies that made it harder for vulnerable families and adults to access shelter and vital services.

The Bloomberg administration intensified punitive shelter access reviews for families seeking shelter, leading to record numbers of families being wrongfully denied shelter. Bloomberg also proposed implementing similar rules for homeless single adults seeking shelter. However, the Coalition, working with the Legal Aid Society and alongside the New York City Council, successfully sued to block the misguided rules.

The Bloomberg administration also pursued an appeal of Giuliani-era court orders that blocked shelter sanction rules that seek to eject homeless families and individuals from shelter to the streets for 30 days or more, and separate children from ejected parents. Unfortunately, Bloomberg’s appeals were successful and in 2003 the City began threatening to eject homeless adults from shelter to the streets. And as the Coalition warned, the majority of the hundreds of shelter residents threatened with shelter sanctions were living with mental illness or other serious health problems.

The Bloomberg administration also imposed and sought to implement other punitive rules, including so-called “next step” shelters with reduced services for homeless families  and individuals, as well as a misguided plan to charge rent for shelter which the Coalition and its allies were able to stop.

Finally, as part of stop-and-frisk and other discriminatory policing tactics, the NYPD continued the Giuliani-era policy of singling out unsheltered homeless people on the streets and in the subway system for harsh enforcement efforts. The NYPD’s mistreatment of homeless people resulted in several legal challenges, including charges of selective enforcement and unconstitutional arrests of homeless and poor people for allegedly loitering and panhandling.

Can homelessness be solved?

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few sensible policies, we can see an end to modern homelessness.

Record Homelessness Persists under de Blasio and Cuomo

During his 2013 mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio promised to end the “tale of two cities” by tackling rampant inequality and record levels of homelessness. Shortly after entering office, Mayor de Blasio reversed some of his predecessor’s harmful policies by launching a suite of City rent subsidies and reinstituting priority access to New York City Housing Authority apartments for homeless individuals and families. Although Mayor de Blasio claimed that his policies broke the trajectory of ever-increasing homelessness that occurred under Mayor Bloomberg, in reality, the numbers merely stabilized, and he has not achieved the promised course-correction. The Mayor’s obstinate refusal to allocate more of his affordable housing plan to homeless New Yorkers has impeded the City’s ability to appreciably decrease the numbers of men, women, and children without homes.

During his first term, the Mayor saw the number of New Yorkers in shelters each night surpass 60,000 for the first time ever, up from 53,000 when he entered office. During his second term, the average nightly number of single adults in shelters skyrocketed to more than 18,000, up from 11,000 when he entered office. Mayor de Blasio launched several internal reviews and reorganizations of homeless services, but his stated goal of “turning the tide” has faded as his administration made clear that it is more interested in managing the historic crisis instead of ending it.

Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo has failed to be an effective partner in preventing and ending homelessness, and has at times created needless barriers that have exacerbated the crisis. Albany has systematically shifted the burden of paying for shelters and rent subsidies to the City and other localities. The Governor unnecessarily delayed the release of funds for desperately needed supportive housing, and has resisted implementing a statewide rent subsidy to help public assistance recipients avoid or leave homelessness. Without sufficient reentry planning and resources, a growing stream of New Yorkers leave State prisons and directly enter the shelter system. The Mayor and Governor have too often put their political one-upmanship before the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers.

Improvements in Homelessness Prevention

Since 2014, the City has made substantial investments in homelessness prevention by expanding access to rent arrears grants and free legal services for tenants facing eviction in housing court. In August 2017, the City enacted first-in-the-nation legislation that guarantees a right to legal counsel for low-income tenants in housing court – correcting a longtime disparity in which the vast majority of landlords had attorneys and most tenants did not.

By 2018, the right-to-counsel program – designed with a five-year phase-in period – had already shown promising initial results, with number of evictions in NYC falling to about 18,000, down 14 percent from the prior year and 37 percent below the 2013 record of more than 28,800 evictions. In fact, 2018 marked the first time in 13 years that the number of evictions in the city fell below 20,000 per year.

The City also helped more New Yorkers pay their rent through various subsidy programs. Early in the Mayor’s first term, the administration initiated a suite of rent subsidies, many of which could be used both to stabilize people in their homes and to help others move out of shelters and into permanent housing. Between fiscal years 2015 and 2018, more than 23,000 households exited or avoided shelters with City-initiated voucher programs, such as the Living in Communities (LINC) program. In 2018, most of the City’s rent subsidies were consolidated into the new CityFHEPS program.

In contrast to the City’s investments in homelessness prevention, an innovative rent subsidy proposal has stalled in Albany since 2016. Despite broad bipartisan support, Governor Cuomo has refused to back the Home Stability Support (HSS) program, which proposes a statewide rent supplement for families and individuals eligible for public assistance and who are facing eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions. Thousands of New Yorkers would have been saved from the trauma and indignity of homelessness had HSS been implemented when Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi first introduced it in 2016.

Insufficient Housing Supply

Even with the City’s increased investments in homelessness prevention, the number of New Yorkers sleeping in shelters each night has remained near record levels. Facing a stubbornly high shelter census, the de Blasio administration promised a comprehensive assessment of homeless services that culminated in the February 2017 release of its plan Turning the Tide on Homelessness in New York City. The plan detailed a timeline to end the practice of sheltering homeless New Yorkers in hotels and cluster-site units by replacing them with new, purpose-built facilities that would keep homeless New Yorkers closer to their support networks and communities of origin. Unfortunately, the plan also included a disappointingly unambitious goal of reducing the shelter census by a mere 2,500 people over five years – suggesting that the Mayor’s commitment to genuinely address homelessness had dissipated.

The reason why the City set such a low bar can be traced to the egregious disconnect between the Mayor’s homelessness plan and his signature permanent housing plan. The Housing New York plan was expanded in November 2017 with a goal of creating or preserving 300,000 units of purportedly affordable housing by 2026. However, at a time of record homelessness, the Mayor designated only 15,000 of these apartments for homeless households – a paltry 5 percent of his plan. Moreover, just 6,000 of those 15,000 units are set to be created through new construction and available for homeless households seeking to move out of shelters into homes of their own.

In response to these abysmal targets, the Coalition launched the House Our Future NY Campaign in January 2018 to call on Mayor de Blasio to create 30,000 apartments for homeless New Yorkers as part of his Housing New York 2.0 plan. The campaign urges the Mayor to build 24,000 new apartments specifically for homeless households and to preserve the affordability of at least 6,000 existing apartments into which homeless New Yorkers can move when the current tenants leave. The campaign gained significant momentum and broad support among the majority of City elected officials, but the Mayor has continued to resist this commonsense request to align his housing plan with the reality of record homelessness.

At the same time, the inadequate supply of supportive housing (permanent housing with supportive services for homeless people with mental illness and other special needs) has deprived many vulnerable homeless New Yorkers of the dignity and stability of a permanent home. Historically, the City and State had collaborated on three “New York/New York” agreements to jointly fund supportive housing. The campaign for a fourth “New York/New York Agreement” began in 2014 as the development pipeline was winding down for the third agreement and available units were becoming increasingly sparse. Advocates recognized that a new infusion of funds was necessary to ensure adequate access to supportive housing in the years ahead.

When a joint City-State agreement failed to materialize, Mayor de Blasio made a commitment in late 2015 to fund 15,000 units of supportive housing over 15 years. A few months later, Governor Cuomo announced that the State would create 20,000 supportive housing units over 15 years; however, only 6,000 units had been funded as of September 2019.

Even with these commitments, the production of new supportive housing has been far too slow, and the availability of placements far too scarce. The number of homeless single adults who moved into supportive housing units in fiscal year 2018 reached a 14-year low, even as the number of single adults in shelters reached an all-time high.

Record homelessness demands bold solutions, not half-measures and needless delays. Tens of thousands of homeless men, women, and children continue to bed down in shelters each night, wondering whether the City and State will help them access the permanent housing they so desperately need.

Can homelessness be solved?

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few sensible policies, we can see an end to modern homelessness.