homeless in NYC

Counting the Homeless and the Ways We All Fail Them

(Lawrence'sLense via CityLimits)

(Lawrence'sLense via CityLimits)

(This piece originally appeared in CityLimits) 

Last Monday, a record 4,200 volunteers fanned out across the five boroughs to count how many homeless New Yorkers live outside of the city’s shelter system. The effort was part of the national Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) and has been conducted annually through the Department of Homeless Services since 2005. I don’t know if the numbers are available yet, but last year, 3,900 individuals were counted.

Many of these victims are probably known to DHS, but getting an accurate count of the unsheltered homeless helps identity people that might not know what services are available to them. In addition to the survey, we arrange for anyone who is interested to get picked up and driven to a shelter and we distribute information about comfort centers around the city. On a practical level, the count also sets the amount of additional federal funding the city gets for homeless services — and the city needs all the help it can get.

This is my second year volunteering and, as someone who writes about housing issues a lot, I have been following the shocking rise in homelessness in New York since the Great Recession with increasing alarm. There are 61,000 people in the city’s homeless shelters, the vast majority of them women and children. That is a staggering amount of suffering.

HOPE has put this broader crisis into very concrete and intimate terms for me, as I’m sure it has for all of the volunteers. It has made me stop thinking about homelessness as one big crisis and forced me instead to see what it really is: 61,000 individual crises. It’s all too easy for us not see it that way.

We dehumanize, demonize, and demoralize the homeless in New York City. We dehumanize by referring to them as “the homeless,” a thought-terminating phrase that hides more relevant descriptors like “PTSD-suffering veteran,” “abuse victim,” “addict,” or “mentally/physically-disabled.” And of course, all of these should be further qualified by adding “poor.”

We demonize every time we object to homeless shelters in our neighborhoods. Some argue about a flawed “process” of community engagement, some about the unfair distribution of shelters in poorer neighborhoods. Whatever validity these arguments have doesn’t erase the fact that most of us don’t want homeless people, especially men, around because we are afraid of them and disgusted by them — ignoring the fact that they are the ones who are more likely to be victims of crime and abuse. Our property values will be fine.

We demoralize them because there is no end to this and they know it better than anyone. Imagine the catastrophic events that led someone to being homeless and how that would weigh on that person. Imagine enduring the cycle of shame, confusion, and despair that comes with navigating the limited resources of our shelters and social services. Then imagine that there is no end in sight.

Many of the sheltered homeless are women with children fleeing an abusive home. Many cycle through to supportive homes and on to permanent ones. No doubt there is hope. Tangible, obtainable hope. We should be hearing more about these stories because they are important to champion.

But for too many, especially the people that I have met canvassing for HOPE, where is the actual hope? Are they going to get the medical and mental care they need? Are they going to get the support from the community they deserve? Are they ever going to get a safe, reliable home?

I would be lying if I told any of these men — and I know for sure that I recognized some of them from last year — that I thought so. Maybe they will, but I don’t know. They know better than I do. Many of them were appreciative of our efforts, but in a knowing way that at times made it feel like they were trying to comfort us.

So I’d like to say that participating in HOPE makes me feel good and to an extent it does. I am helping and it does matter. I don’t know how the people of DHS, the NYPD, and other outreach groups manage this on a day-to-day basis. Maybe, at least for one night, I’m helping them carry the weight just a little. I hope that helps too.

But mostly, when I get home at 4 a.m., I feel exhausted, angry, and full of shame. I am not doing enough. We are not doing enough.

I said earlier that I now feel like there are 61,000 crises instead of one big one. But there is one big crisis. Our economic system is obviously failing most of us. Until we fix capitalism — or whatever bizarro form of it we are fooled into accepting — too many New Yorkers will suffer. We are all partaking in a system that demands the dehumanization, demonization, and demoralization of all the poor and vulnerable. Right now, we accept that.

It’s easy to blame the homeless and keep on walking down Broadway. It’s easy to blame the feds for not sending enough funding or the mayor for botching the shelter system and volunteer one night of the year. But these are our sins. I hope that more of us see that because if we do, I know we can change it.

Stop Blaming the Mayor for the Homelessness Crisis, It's On Us

More like a flood (NYDailyNews)

More like a flood (NYDailyNews)

A lot has been made this week of Mayor de Blasio’s announcement of new homeless shelters around the city.  He has been criticized from all different sides, from community groups opposed to more shelters in their neighborhoods, to non-profit groups worried about getting paid for their services, and by political rivals questioning the Mayor’s effectiveness on the crisis.

However, this week also saw a settlement of a lawsuit at the state-level over rental assistance that quietly did more for the crisis than anything the mayor can do.  This speaks to the deeper structural problems causing homelessness in the city and why the political charade around the shelter system is missing the point entirely. The problem is bigger and deeper than any mayor can handle and we’re all partly to blame.

The lawsuit stemmed from the state’s Family Eviction Prevention Supplement (FEPS) program that started in 2005.  For women with children under a certain economic threshold facing eviction, the program offered rental supplements based on a formula set when the program began.  Rents have of course skyrocketed since 2004 while the payments remained flat, so many families were simply not benefiting from the program.

With the help of Legal Aid Society, two women successful sued the state to change the rent allotments to reflect the changing market.  A family of three that used to only qualify for $850/m now can get $1515 a month.  The new formula isn’t perfect, but it will no doubt help thousands of families in New York City under threat of eviction to stay in their apartments.

This is an important program because it has a simple mission: prevent eviction to prevent homelessness.  There are over 60,000 homeless in NYC of which 48,000 are women and children.  The number one cause of homelessness for this group is eviction.  Keeping these vulnerable citizens in their homes not only safeguards their well-being and future prospects, but it also saves taxpayers millions of dollars and lessens the burden on the few communities that host these shelters.

As the Mayor is finding out, it is both expensive and, at times, unpopular to shelter the homeless.  And he can’t simply ignore it.  Since 1979, the homeless in NYC have had a legal right to shelter. The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations both fought to undermine this law, so it is a credit to the de Blasio Administration for not taking the easy way out.

It is a significant financial burden for the city to maintain the shelter system. NYC Department of Homeless Services has an annual budget of $1 billion and the Mayor’s Office estimates that it costs $44,000 to shelter a family for a year.  However, even the most ardent supporters recognize that DHS is barely a stopgap that doesn’t come close to meeting the basic sustainable needs of New Yorkers entering the system.

The shelter system also clusters in only a few communities in the city, which puts a potentially unfair burden on them relative to others.  It’s important to note that very few shelters actually cause ancillary quality of life problems for surrounding communities.  However, when only a few communities host most of them, this concentration inevitably has an impact that other neighborhoods don’t experience. It's unfortunate that many citizens don't want to help the homeless, but it's reasonable to ask all of us to share the burden equally.  We are not. 

All of this is to say that the Mayor has a nearly impossible task.  He has clearly placed too much political capital on his ability to solve this crisis, which is now costing him, but he has made progress.  Guaranteeing counsel in housing court for low-income tenants is a major victory in preventing homelessness. Finding additional resources for new shelters, however controversial, is also commendable.

Look, Mayor de Blasio can’t end the homelessness crisis. No mayor can.  The politics around the mayor’s handling of the crisis mask the larger problems that must be addressed at all levels of government.  Many people recognize this, even if most of the media only focuses on the horserace stuff.  

For example, today State Assemblyman Hevesi, a Democrat from Queens, proposed a state bill to provide comprehensive rental assistance to families receiving public aid.  The plan, called Home Stability Support, would replace FEPS and potentially help 80,000 families across the state, including NYC with real, reliable rent assistance.

The program is estimated to cost $450 million a year, but Assemblyman Hevesi makes a compelling case that it save money in the long run.  Compared to $44,000/year to shelter a family, this program would potentially cost just $11,000 per family.  Scott Stringer has estimated that the plan could the city save hundreds of millions of dollars.  Of course there are complex issues to address around intended/unintended consequences, but this seems worthy of support.

It’s not clear how much support there would be in Albany, though, and it seems very unlikely we can bank on federal help, so the future of the bill is questionable.  But it makes a strong economic argument for supporting greater rental assistance.  We are already paying an immense amount of money sheltering the homeless in NYC and that won’t end anytime soon.  Why not intervene earlier and put less money towards a more efficient policy?

It is crass to approach the homelessness crisis on economic terms, but starting there hopefully allows us to consider the issue on moral terms.  And we should.  We are making the choice right now not to help thousands of citizens who are economically insecure, who have lost their home or are close to losing it.  It is entirely in our power to solve this problem if we choose to. It is wrong that we do not. Blaming Mayor de Blasio lets us off the hook too easily.

As much as the right to shelter for the homeless has been fought by various city and state officials over the years, we must think bigger.  A right to housing for all residents should be an obligation of the state that falls under its public welfare mandate.  New York has always been a laboratory of progressive governance and we should continue this tradition when it matters this much to so many.  We need to make sure the state follows through on this obligation. 

Far from requiring huge amounts of new revenue, committing to housing as a right would allow the city and state to review the many programs and laws that currently apply money as band-aids all along the housing cycle.  It’s easy to see how such a simple policy goal could unleash innovative public programs, private partnerships, and lead to an overall reboot for thinking about housing in New York.  This is clearly what we need to do if we want to address the homelessness and affordability crises - and actually end them. It starts with every one of us deciding that housing is a right.

Homeless Children Are Being Left Behind (and Left Out)

Those aren't for a school project (hbo)

Those aren't for a school project (hbo)

A report from the NYC Independent Budget Office (IBO) was released today about homeless children in NYC and the staggering struggle they face attempting to attend school (let alone excel at school.) The numbers are heartbreaking.  New York State has an estimated 116,000 homeless school-age children, 75% of which are in NYC.  Almost 8 percent of NYC children attending DOE schools have relied on temporary housing during the time of the report (2013-2014). This number has steadily increased since the Great Recession by as much as 25%.

The city agencies responsible for handling this increase have not been able to keep up individually or collectively, causing many students to fall through the cracks of the system.  The impact of the affordable housing crisis on educational obtainment has never been starker, but it remains hidden from the politics of education.  Public education is not failing our children. We are failing public education by not solving the affordable housing crisis.

Temporary housing is a broad term defined at the federal level through the McKinney-Vento Act to signify school-aged children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.  In NYC, this term captures children living in city shelters, doubling up with friends or family in cramped housing, living on temporary motels or hotels, or waiting on the foster system to place them.  By far the largest portion of the overall homeless children population is doubling up with other friends or family (58%) while children in city shelters (34%) and in transitional foster care (8%) make up the rest of the population.

(ibo)

(ibo)

Homelessness for a child in school hurts in three obvious ways. First, in most cases losing a home means losing a school. Although these children have a right to remain in their ‘school of origin’ their temporary housing rarely falls within their current school district.  This makes it incredibly hard for them to secure transportation to and from their school or, more commonly, it means they must attend a new school as often as they switch housing.  For many students, this means multiple moves in one school year putting them in a severe academic and social hole.

Second, not having a stable home environment puts them at a significant disadvantage compared to other students. They struggle with simple matters of having the time and a quiet place to do homework, with access to necessary resources like school supplies or even laundry services for school clothes, and with the additional burdens put on parents in the shelter system that makes it hard for them to help their children.

Third, the compounding problems of home insecurity have a potentially damaging, long-lasting impact on the child’s physical and emotional health.  These issues are as basic as not getting enough rest at night, not getting enough to eat outside of school, and not getting enough educational reinforcement from their family.  And they are as complex as not developing self-esteem, not developing social relationships with friends, teachers and their community, and not developing the basic educational skills to excel in the work force.

All of these issues lead to a staggering and entirely predictable level of absenteeism across all ages of temporarily housed students.  Two-thirds of students living in city shelters are chronically or severely absent from school, while only 27% are who have stable housing.  A generation of students isn’t just being left behind, it is being left out of basic public education.

(ibo)

(ibo)

The report highlights the lack of coordination between the DOE and DHS as a major problem that needs addressing as well as an overall lack of funding within each agency to address absenteeism.  The complexity of jurisdiction, data collection, funding sources, and staffing requirements leaves both agencies in a permanent state of triaging, seemingly in the dark.

Within the DOE, the Students in Temporary Housing unit (STH) remains understaffed and overburdened having basically the same funding and staffing levels since 2003 even though the homeless population has increased by 25% just in the last five years.  The DOE and DHS also don’t share data, partly because, according to the report, DHS doesn’t have a clear idea of how many families are coming in and out of shelters.  This means even as the DOE has announced this year that it will spend $24m on busing students in shelters to their schools or origin, they apparently lack a reliable roster of students from the DHS to do so.

However, the report does point out that Mayor de Blasio has allotted $30 million to hire attendance specialists to coordinate between the two departments and to provide more funding for transportation and special education programs. The city’s struggles just to fund the core operations of the DOE and the DHS make any larger investment in such a relatively small part of the population unlikely.

It is clear that the city is unprepared to aid students once they reach the shelter system, so the focus should be on preventing this in the first place.  Keeping children in a stable home, in a single community, in order to attend a single school district is a simple goal with a dizzying level of complexity.  Asking teachers and social workers to solve these problems (and blaming them for failing to do so) is a morally and intellectually bankrupt exercise. 

The problem is larger than a school or a shelter.  It is a problem of vision.  If we recognize that everyone has a right to affordable housing and take the necessary policy steps to ensure this, we can relieve the pressure crushing too many New Yorkers, especially the young and poor.  Operating along the margins of block funding and transportation subsidizes misses the larger policy needs that could reshape and reduce these issues.  The money is already there, the human capital is already there, we just need the politics to organize them in a new way around a new vision of opportunity in New York.

There are 60,000 Homeless People in NYC Right Now

Homeless in the USA (huffingtonpost)

Homeless in the USA (huffingtonpost)

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.

(DHS)

(DHS)

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.

(DHS)

(DHS)

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.