It’s no shock that a still-struggling economy, an ever-more-expensive city and a continually burgeoning population have combined to produce record-high rates of homelessness in New York. What may shock some, however, is how difficult it is for the city to help its homeless population. In a time of fiscal cutbacks, the subsidies, grants and programs in place to help these most vulnerable people have all but dried up, leaving advocates on all sides scrambling to find solutions to keep New Yorkers off the streets and out of shelters.
According to data from the most recent available census of homeless people in the municipal shelter system, conducted Dec. 31, 2011, there were 39,787 individuals in the system, including 8,530 families with children. An Oct. 31 count found 16,934 homeless children in the shelter system, an all-time high number.
And these numbers don’t take into account homeless people living on the street or outside the shelter system. The Homeless Outreach Population Estimate survey, conducted across the city earlier this year, aims to approximate those numbers, but results are still being processed. Last year, it counted 2,648 individuals.
City officials, legislators and advocates for the homeless have differing views on what has caused these high numbers as well as the best ways to address them.
“Setting aside the economy, which certainly has contributed, one of the biggest factors is the policies of the Bloomberg administration, particularly cutting off homeless families from receiving federal subsidies,” said Giselle Routhier, policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless. “Right now, for the first time ever, there is actually no housing assistance whatsoever to help homeless families get out of the shelter system.”
She’s referring to the administration’s decision in 2004 to stop giving homeless families priority for federal housing subsidies like Section 8. That decision, based on the idea that continuing to do so would give people incentives to use the shelter system as a sure path to landing cheap housing, has been loudly criticized in recent years as the homeless population grows.
Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Department for the Homeless (DHS), said in an interview that bringing back that prioritization program wouldn’t be the panacea that some groups claim.
“The reality is that there are very long waiting lists for the available programs,” Diamond said. “The Section 8 program has a waiting list of 140,000 or more. For public housing, the chairman of NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority] just testified, the waiting list is 160,000. There is a seven-year waiting list for public housing.”
Diamond also spoke about how DHS has prepared for the effective end of the Advantage program, which previously provided rent subsidies for formerly homeless families for up to two years. When the state cut funding for the program last year, the city determined that it could not sustain the program without the roughly $68 million in state and federal aid they had lost.
The city was still paying the subsidized rents for about 16,000 formerly homeless families and individuals up until last month, however, as a lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society was ongoing. A judge recently ruled that the city could stop paying its portion of these rents, and the fate of the families who had been benefiting is unclear.
“We have been preparing for this for a while,” Diamond said. “We’ve done a lot of outreach to people who are Advantage recipients to help prepare, to talk to them about their individual situations. Most people have been in the program for at least a year. People have had time to establish themselves, look for options, see what’s coming.”
Diamond said that close to 85 percent of those who took part in the Advantage program have not come back to the shelter system and that it has been successful. But others dispute that characterization and say that the city and state need to not only provide more assistance programs but expand on the Advantage model to offer more long-term solutions.
“We can’t just scoop people up, stick them in temporary housing, kick them out, move them somewhere else. It just doesn’t work. It’s not really a compassionate or practical approach,” said Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, whose Upper West Side district contains several of the city’s shelters as well as housing for formerly homeless individuals. Rosenthal said that one current priority in the Assembly is to restore funding to several programs that have been axed this year, all designed to provide emergency assistance or intervention for families facing homelessness.
City Council Member Jessica Lappin, who recently chaired a hearing of the Committee for the Aging on the alarming number of elderly New Yorkers facing homelessness—up 18 percent between 2010 and 2011 for people over 65—said the best thing the city can do to curb homelessness is to help people before they’re out of their homes.
This is especially true, she said, of older people who may have extra difficulty surviving in a shelter due to health issues. “The most important thing for that population is to try to get them the services they need as quickly as possible, to try to help them remain in their home as long as possible if that’s the right thing for them,” Lappin said.
She pointed to a Department for the Aging program that pairs seniors facing eviction with legal counsel as one way the city can step in.
“Maybe your landlord tried to evict you because you’re a hoarder,” she said, naming one example of the cases seniors might face. “Sometimes what happens with older people is they stop paying their bills because they get confused about what bills they’ve paid.” All of these problems are fixable with the right help, Lappin said, but it requires outreach on the part of the city.
Many advocates echo the call to focus on keeping people in their homes and providing more affordable housing options. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in an email that the high numbers of homelessness are “directly linked to scarcity of affordable housing.” He cited a study his office conducted in 2007 that found 2,228 vacant properties in Manhattan he says could be used to build more affordable housing, as well as his suggestion that the city convert foreclosed properties into affordable housing.
Stringer also contested the administration’s rescinding of priority status for homeless families for public housing. “Each year, approximately 5,313 NYCHA units are vacated; many of these units have more than one bedroom and can accommodate families,” Stringer said.
“By reinstating priority for the homeless on the NYCHA waiting list, even if it was only done on a temporary basis, the city could take immediate steps toward placing a substantial percentage of its homeless population into permanent housing,” he said.
While the city works to address the immediate needs of the city’s homeless population—New York has a right-to-shelter law that requires the city to provide a bed for every homeless person—it also has to work on preventing and reducing their numbers.
It’s a problem that won’t be going away any time soon, and some say we won’t see any effective changes until the next mayoral administration takes over.
“Homelessness is a national problem,” said Rosenthal. “But New York City, which has grappled with this problem for so many years, really ought to have some new ideas about how to deal with it.”
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