A recent article in the Daily News stated that New York City’s homeless population has surpassed 60,000, which is the highest count on record – outpacing even the darkest days of the Great Depression. The number of homeless has more than doubled in the last 20 years. This fact is disheartening enough but what is perhaps even more disheartening is how little attention this problem gets in the city. The images of the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 have long since faded from the day-to-day perceptions of New Yorkers. It’s rare that a typical New Yorker comes across any homeless in the city, despite the record numbers.
I’ll discuss why the homeless population has grown so much during this period, what the city is trying to do to address it, and why this issue doesn’t get much attention.
First, it’s important to understand the different types of homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless lists three: Chronic homeless, transitional homeless, and episodic homeless.
Chronic homeless are the stereotypical homeless - individuals that have been unemployed for an extensive period of time and rely on the shelter system for long-term housing. They are typically older and often suffer from mental health disabilities and substance abuse problems but can also represent younger families who cannot afford housing. They generally do not transition into stable homing as much as others.
Transitional homeless are usually younger individuals or families that have suffered through some type of catastrophic event that has temporarily forced them into relying on the shelter system. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a domestic abuse situation, or a sudden job loss, these people represent a high portion of the homeless that find new permanent housing.
Episodic homeless fall in between the other forms. They are generally younger and filter in and out of the shelter system over a long period of time, whether as a result of higher levels of unemployment, mental health issues, or substance abuse issues.
The Coalition for the Homeless in NYC breaks down the numbers of chronic homeless. Of the 60,000, reported nearly 24,000 are children. 58% are Black and 31% are Latino. The DHS also reported that over the entire fiscal year of 2015, there were 109,000 people who slept in city shelters, suggesting that there is also a significant transitional and episodic population of homeless that also needs addressing.
So why has the homeless population gone up so much? The obvious answer is the lack of affordable housing. Rents have increased across virtually every neighborhood in NYC and by 75% overall since 2000. During that period median real incomes have declined by 5%, causing an immense amount of pressure for economically vulnerable residents.
The other answer is the lack of support for larger policy interventions. Mayor Giuliani is often (somewhat incorrectly) credited with the large decrease in crime and homelessness in the 1990s, but his policy (based on Broken Windows principles) effectively chased the homeless out of public places rather than addressing their underlying issues.
In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg removed the preference for homeless families to receive vacant NYCHA housing, which many advocates see as a reason for the spike in chronic homelessness.
The number of vouchers to help residents pay rent at a fixed 30% of income, commonly refereed to as Section 8, has also varied wildly over this time period. The number of homeless families in city-subsidized housing declines from 10% under Mayor Koch to 4% under Mayor Bloomberg.
Finally, the construction of new units dedicated to the homeless has generally been a non-starter politically. Mayor de Blasio’s major housing initiatives had little to say about requiring developers to provide homeless housing in private development. Given the political opposition to the plan as it was, the Mayor clearly didn’t want to turn off more developers and residents. He has stated that out of 80,000 new units the administration homes to build 15,000 will be some form of supportive housing, though those details remain undefined.
That’s not to say the city isn’t doing more to address the problem. Many advocates are quick to credit Mayor de Blasio with providing more of an outreach than any previous administration. There is more coordination between city agencies, neighborhood groups, and non-profit organizations which has resulted in, among other things, the reduction of some of the more infamous cluster-site programs that have been seen as dangerous by residents of these shelters and surrounding neighbors. The Mayor has also reintroduced NYCHA priority housing for homeless families.
One area that could potentially see the most gains for transitional and episodic homeless is the guarantee of a right to counsel in housing court. Right now, many residents don’t have representation in housing court, which leads to a large amount of evictions (and a heavy cost on the city to provide homeless services.) The Right to Counsel Coalition has suggested that by paying $260m a year in defense counsel, the city could save a net of $320m on homeless services by keeping people in their homes. This type of intervention has support from the Mayor, who has expanded city legal services by $70m, but he has so far not supported the larger policy change.
Developing meaningful programs to address chronic homelessness is admittedly much harder. The number of individuals suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse calls for more intervention from health and social services in coordination with DHS. Efforts in places like Salt Lake City show that a commitment to providing basic shelter can make addressing these underlying issues easier for social workers and health care providers, but the costs in NYC appear to be prohibitive.
Despite how large a problem homelessness has been in NYC for decades, there is a basic “Out of sight, out of mind” element in play for most New Yorkers, although that has started to change. Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg had a much stricter policy on removing the homeless from park benches and other public places, which has been relaxed somewhat under Mayor de Blasio. This has resulted in a larger presence of homeless than some New Yorkers have been used to seeing.
In this sense, given the raw numbers and the fact that some New Yorkers see the homeless more than they used to, you might say that the problem is objectively ‘’worse” than ‘before.’ But that's missing the point. The homeless population has indeed grown considerably, but it has been at an alarming level for years. Contrary to the media coverage over that time period, many advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm with little fanfare.
We're hearing about the homeless problem now because it's starting to become politically useful. The Mayor has made many enemies in his first term. Some of those enemies are products of differing political agendas and some are the product of missteps by the Mayor and his administration. As the next citywide elections crop up on the calendar, you can expect potential rivals to test issues with the public that might be weaknesses to exploit. Homelessness might very well be a weakness for the mayor given the increase in raw numbers despite his background advocating on this issue. Christine Quinn, who lost in the primary to Mayor de Blasio last time out, was curiously quoted in the Daily News article about homelessness.
It's a shame that this issue only crops up in the media with any consistency as primary season gets closer. Politics are politics, but framing this as some type of horserace wedge issue is missing the point. This is a problem that spans multiple administrations and should transcend shallow election media coverage or the occasional outrage piece.
We can’t otherwise ignore that for years, thousands of New Yorkers, many of them families with children, haven't been able to afford to live in the city and have nowhere else to turn to but the city’s over-stretched shelters. It should concern everyday New Yorkers beyond the discomfort of occasionally stepping over a homeless person on the way to the subway. The truth is, that experience is only a small window into the enduring trauma suffered by 60,000 New Yorkers that we don't ever see.
Finally, in the larger and more complicated sense, we also can’t otherwise ignore that the homeless represent just the first wave of victims of the affordable housing crisis, a crisis that has too many New Yorkers dangerously close to losing their homes if an unexpected event occurs or if basic economic trends continue. We can’t ignore that homelessness in NYC represents a larger problem about the nature of our economic and political system, where we can’t produce enough good paying jobs, affordable homes, and adequate social and health services for enough of our citizens. No Mayor and no city agency can address those issues alone, but we must start framing them together as one large issue if we want to solve any one of them.