It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that New York City’s homeless population is the size of a small city.
But with more than 60,000 people in city shelters at the beginning of this year, most of them families with children—23,000 children, in fact— we’re all forced to face that very grim reality. It’s a number, too, that seems to stay the same or edge higher no matter how many families and individuals make a transition to long-term housing.
Even with large numbers of people leaving shelters, new people coming in are keeping the numbers at record highs. Eviction, overcrowding and domestic violence are the main forces driving the crisis, according to a recent report by the Coalition for the Homeless.
To his credit, Mayor Bill de Blasio has the city moving more homeless families into stable housing than at any time since 2004. In the first two-and-a-half years of his administration, the city moved 10,000 homeless families, thanks to the restoration of placements in public housing projects and the use of federal Section 8 rent subsidy funds, as well as a new rent subsidy program.
It’s a good record, and we don’t like to say it’s not enough.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Homelessness is one of the toughest problems the city faces, especially with the upward pressure on housing costs, a dire shortage of affordable apartments and stagnant wages in the kind of low-paying jobs often held by persons who become homeless.
A few weeks ago, the mayor announced a new borough-based approach aimed at turning the tide of homelessness. He said the city will phase out the use of hotels and cluster-site shelters, which are groups of apartments leased to the city in privately owned buildings, often in less-than-desirable neighborhoods.
The mayor plans to replace these sites with 90 traditional shelters throughout the five boroughs, with the aim of housing the homeless in or near their own communities, close to the jobs, schools, houses of worship and support systems they need to get back on track.
Advocates for the homeless applaud the effort, but agree that more is needed. For one thing, advocates say, the city can immediately double the number of units available to homeless families in public housing, from the current 1,500 to 3,000.
Some are calling on the state to release nearly $2 billion for affordable and supportive housing appropriated in 2016, and to implement Queens Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi’s proposal to create a state- and federally funded long-term rent subsidy program known as Home Stability Support.
Many want more aggressive eviction-prevention policies, including establishing a right to legal counsel in housing court for low-income tenants. Archdiocesan Catholic Charities has a good record in helping to prevent eviction through its comprehensive Preserving Housing program, and it’s a model that could be expanded.
In general, we have no objection to Mayor de Blasio’s program to place shelters in 90 city neighborhoods, but we question how it can be done—given the community resistance that’s sure to take place, and may have already started.
Ultimately, given the skyrocketing housing costs throughout the metropolitan area, we think that carefully wrought subsidy programs like the one suggested by Assemblyman Hevesi, along with major improvements to conditions and oversight in public housing, might be a better way to go.
New York is not without financial resources; the issue is using them wisely.
Cardinal Dolan, in a Feb. 28 statement when the mayor announced his homeless strategy, said it’s fitting for Christians to “pledge ourselves to the noble cause of caring for the homeless” as Lent begins.
“The daunting challenge of creating a decent place to live for all New Yorkers will require the collaboration and good will of all,” the cardinal said.
Yes it will, and what better time than Lent to recommit to following the Gospel call to love and serve those in need.