To Understand NYC’s Homelessness Crisis, Look Beyond de Blasio

New York City is facing a debilitating homelessness crisis. Try as he might, Mayor Bill de Blasio alone can’t keep tens of thousands of people off the streets and out of substandard, temporary housing. As mayor, de Blasio has been forced to own this disaster — he’s the executive, after all — and the media’s ire has been aimed solely his way.

But it’s time to dispense with the fiction that this is entirely de Blasio’s fault. Were the state more supportive and local elected officials less obsessed with guarding their turf from the homeless and the new developments that could house them, progress would be possible. Instead, New York City has 60,000 homeless people, a record high, and it’s entirely unclear how this number will significantly decline in the near future. Certainly not in time for de Blasio’s re-election campaign next year.

The crisis is not unique to New York City. As urban centers across America grow more desirable for the wealthy, rents and property values skyrocket — and the working class can’t afford what they once could. The working poor and unemployed are fast running out of options. Thank Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio’s billionaire predecessor, for that.

Though he’ll always be too beholden to real estate interests, de Blasio recognizes this problem. It was at the heart of his campaign. Build more housing, increase density, and hope the market slowly corrects itself. He’s trying and running out of time, and privately he probably could admit it. Manhattan rents, still comically astronomical, are cooling off, but now the outer boroughs are bastions of privilege too. Soon, the South Bronx and East New York will gentrify. His rezoning plans, if well-intentioned, will only entice developers to create new enclaves for the affluent.

Ideally, de Blasio would move faster and his plans would call for far more housing affordable to the shrinking middle class and poor of New York than the mandated 25 percent for new developments. In the meantime, homeless shelters are overtaxed — more than 42,000 people now live in them. More and more hotels are converted into shelters, an expensive solution that can threaten the safety of families and force children to live many miles from their schools. Housing families in hotels costs the city $400,000 a night, according to a recent report released by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

To house everyone, de Blasio must contradict himself and continue to jam the homeless into so-called “cluster” sites, privately-owned buildings with disreputable landlords. An exploding radiator at one such site in the Bronx killed two infants this month. Converting apartment buildings into temporary shelters also takes housing stock off the market, an untenable proposition in a city with such low vacancy rates.

What should be done? The elephant in the room, which even the most liberal Democrats won’t approach directly, is that mass homelessness is one symptom of our version of capitalism. A system of mass rent-regulation — or a law forbidding all landlords from raising rents beyond a certain number or above a certain rate — could solve this problem quickly, but would cost landlords and developers a lot of money. And it would be antithetical to the free market values cherished by the political class.

In the short-term, realistically, the city must build more shelters and the state must do more to more to keep people from losing their homes. Queens Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi is pushing a laudable plan to create a new rental subsidy; whether Republicans in the State Senate, who are hostile to the city’s interests, and their off again, on again benefactor Governor Andrew Cuomo see fit to usher it into law remains to be seen.

When Cuomo, without hardly a thought, shot down de Blasio’s ambitious proposal to erect more than 11,000 affordable housing units over Sunnyside Yards (which are partially owned by the state-controlled MTA), he ensured at least one serious answer to homelessness crisis would never see the light of day.

The city is still reeling from Bloomberg’s decision to end Advantage, a program that offered subsidies for up to two years to help people in shelters afford their own apartments. Bloomberg made the decision, in part, because Cuomo’s government cut off its share of funding. Austerity measures undertaken when David Paterson, Cuomo’s predecessor, governed during a recession have never been fully reversed. Cuomo’s office believe it’s doing plenty, though: they point to their five-year, $20 billion plan to build 100,000 affordable housing units, and the overall increase in state support for emergency shelters and rental supplements since 2012.

“The Governor is committed to providing every New Yorker with a safe, affordable place to call home,” said Abbey Fashouer, a Cuomo spokeswoman, told the Voice.

The other necessary component is the construction of many new shelters to house this increasingly permanent class of homeless. Here we find the virus of NIMBYism that won’t die. City and state elected officials have disingenuously lamented the surge in homelessness while doing everything they can to ensure the problem isn’t solved in their neighborhood. City and state elected officials — State Senator Joe Addabbo, Assemblymember Mike Miller and Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley — teamed up to torpedo a shelter in Maspeth, Queens, bowing to furious community opposition. Maspeth residents even harassed Steven Banks, de Blasio’s commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, at his home.

A plan to convert an East Elmhurst hotel into a homeless shelter met with misguided resistance from Rep. Joe Crowley, State Senator Jose Peralta and Assemblyman Francisco Moya. Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker, now runs a shelter provider trying to open a homeless shelter in Coney Island. The local councilman, Mark Treyger, is predictably not thrilled. But maybe he remembers how Quinn once gutlessly battled a homeless shelter in her own district.

Where, then, are all these homeless supposed to go?

No elected official will wholeheartedly endorse a new shelter in their district because the people who vote — those who have homes, a savings account, and the time to engage with their local government — don’t like them. Excuses are concocted. Short-term gain trumps long-term wisdom.

Shelters must be spread equally across the city, with wealthy neighborhoods doing their share too. Queens shouldn’t be the only front for this war. Elected officials should stand aside for once and allow the city to build shelters fit for their fellow New Yorkers.


Homeless New Yorkers Say NYPD’s ‘Move Along’ Rule Is Cruel and Illegal

The NYPD’s practice of forcing homeless New Yorkers to “move along” violates a city law that prevents the police from singling out marginalized groups, advocates say.

In a press conference outside One Police Plaza on Wednesday, the group Picture the Homeless decried the NYPD’s so-called “move-along” orders, which are being used to disperse homeless individuals from city streets. Homeless individuals said that after giving these orders, the NYPD has often failed to offer any other alternatives like stable housing or access to mental health care, services that Mayor Bill de Blasio promised would be delivered when he initiated a crackdown on the city’s street population in the summer of 2015.

“We’re here to let the mayor know that illegal ‘move along’ orders are still continuing and that the NYPD is directly violating the Community Safety Act, which labeled the homeless as a protected status,” said Nikita Price, an organizer with Picture the Homeless.

While shelter populations are at record highs in excess of 60,000 people, the city’s street homeless population remains above 2,500, with the majority residing in Manhattan. If homeless New Yorkers refuse to “move along,” as directed by the NYPD, they’re subject to arrest, an act that costs the city an estimated $1,750 per person. For the same amount, the advocates and street homeless argued, the city could easily afford to provide them with safe and stable housing options.

The Community Safety Act, which was passed into law in 2013 (over the objection of then-mayor Mike Bloomberg), enforced a ban on profiling by the NYPD against anyone based on disability or housing status, among a litany of other protected groups. Earlier this year, Picture the Homeless pursued the first ever legal action against the NYPD for violating the Community Safety Act, when it, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission.

“Just as we’re able to stand on a sidewalk without being discriminated against, homeless people have the same rights,” said Jordan Wells, a staff attorney at the NYCLU. Once the complaint was filed, the NYPD responded with several legal arguments against it, and it continues to fight what the NYCLU believes to be violations of the Community Safety Act.

Speakers at the press conference described a deteriorating relationship between the street homeless and the NYPD, which was exacerbated after a 2015 early-morning raid in East Harlem where the NYPD destroyed the possessions (including birth certificates and medications) of numerous homeless individuals. According to Price, the NYPD has changed tactics from targeting not only homeless encampments, where several homeless individuals have clustered, but also what he described as “hot spots,” or places where just two or more homeless people are together.

“Not having a home does not mean you deserve less dignity,” said Jarquay Abdullah, a member of Picture the Homeless. “Public spaces are meant for the public.”

Abdullah pointed out that the city owns hundreds of properties that are sitting vacant throughout the five boroughs. These properties, he argued, could be turned into permanent low-income housing to help combat the city’s affordability crisis.

An audit earlier this year by Comptroller Scott Stringer showed that the city had over 1,100 plots of land that could be turned into affordable housing.


City To Start Paying New Yorkers To House Homeless Families

A new city program aims to put money in the pockets of New Yorkers in exchange for housing their homeless friends and family. Dubbed “Home for the Holidays,” the initiative (first reported by the Daily News) could take 5,000 families out of the city’s overcrowded and extremely expensive shelter system, which currently houses over 60,000 people each night, including almost 24,000 children.

The new program will compensate the families and friends of homeless families depending on their need, with hosts not on public assistance receiving up to $1,800 depending on family size. Those on public assistance will see the difference between their assistance and their rent made up by the program. Both host and client families will each receive a $500 gift card when the family moves in.

“This is a very reasonable approach to a situation where the city has to be doing as much as possible,” said Shelly Nortz, the Deputy Executive Director for Policy at the Coalition for the Homeless. “The city is spending double the amount keeping families in shelters that it will now instead be paying out to these host families, while also fostering the type of social support that young families need.”

Many families in the system have found themselves living in hotels rented out by the city, at a taxpayer cost of $40,000 per family each year. The hotel rooms also lack kitchen units or any of the comforts standard housing would provide. The program is an extension of a similar initiative last year that placed 1,000 homeless veterans in standard housing, which the city considered a success.

“This new City effort will reconnect homeless families with families and friends, assisting them to permanent housing and saving taxpayer dollars directed toward addressing homelessness in New York City,” Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks told the Village Voice in a statement.

While the city’s homeless shelter population has been skyrocketing since the early-nineties and reached record levels under the de Blasio administration, City Hall has insisted that the problem would be even worse if it had not taken aggressive action in getting people out of shelters and into supportive housing. The “Home for The Holidays” program would figure to be the largest attempt yet by City Hall to not only stop the increase in the shelter population, but actually begin to reduce it.

“This is the stimulus we need to finally change the upward curve on homelessness,” said Nortz.

Nortz adds that many families in the shelter system have already tried to double or triple up with family members and friends before entering the shelter system, but the payment from the city might help alleviate strains that made the prior arrangements impossible.

“Maybe now instead of a couch or floor, these families get a bedroom,” Nortz told the Voice. “Before there was just so much burden on the host family. Now, they have more options, and for the city to pair it up with the holiday season, where everyone is stretched for resources, is just smart.”

The city declined to say whether the program would be expanded if it was deemed successful.


Anti-Shelter Queens Reps Grill de Blasio’s Homeless Commissioner

The evening before former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn began attacking erstwhile rival Mayor Bill de Blasio over his homelessness policy, Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks faced some of his most vocal critics: the community board chairs of Queens.

The meeting, hosted by Borough President Melinda Katz during her monthly borough board gathering, offered Banks an opportunity to outline how the de Blasio administration is addressing the city’s ballooning homelessness crisis before he dove into a tense back-and-forth with community board chairs and council members.

Compared to previous public discussions of homeless shelters in Queens, last night’s meeting was relatively subdued, providing Banks an opportunity to put a fresh foot forward in public with the borough’s civic leadership.

But it didn’t always go smoothly. Community Board 5 chair Vincent Arcuri, who has been battling a hotel-to-shelter conversion in Maspeth, accused Banks of not utilizing empty public housing units for the homeless and proffering “make-believe” statistics, before he asked why the city can’t simply build additional housing like it did in the middle of the 20th century.

“Fiorello La Guardia had something that Bill de Blasio doesn’t have—” Banks began, before Arcuri cut him off.

“Brains,” the community board chair said to laughs. Katz admonished him before Banks moved on.

“—a federal partner,” Banks finished.

A chart at last night's meeting.

Absent a reinvigorated federal housing policy, Banks’s goal is to build enough shelters designed for the homeless, instead of renting out apartments or hotel rooms. Thanks to a landmark 1983 lawsuit Banks won as an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, the city must house the homeless each night. Crunched for space, it’s been renting hotel rooms—a policy dating to the Lindsay administration, Banks said—and working with non-profit contractors to convert low-end hotels into shelters.

It’s not ideal, Banks admits, but there’s an even bigger issue he is focused on first: phasing out “cluster sites” of apartments the city had been renting, sometimes for decades, for use by the homeless. Now, the city is working with landlords to convert these units to permanent housing with full-term leases for their occupants. There are about 3,000 of these units remaining, mostly in the Bronx, and Banks hopes to convert them to apartments by 2018.

New York’s homelessness crisis has been building for decades, from less than 24,000 homeless each night in 1994 to over 60,000 today. “We’ve been dealing with this issue way before de Blasio came into office,” said Council Member Donovan Richards. “So to say that this is just a de Blasio issue is just disingenuous.”

The numbers would be even worse, Banks said, if not for efforts to prevent homelessness, including increased anti-eviction legal services, more assistance to help tenants with rental arrears, and outreach to street homeless.

The commissioner has been rolling out additional policy changes since April, when he took over the new Department of Social Services and the mayor released a “90-day review” of homeless policy. Next up, Banks says: a plan “in the coming months” to construct additional purpose-built homeless shelters, instead of relying on hotels.

Banks (center) talks with Queens community leaders.

That didn’t satisfy some of his critics last night, including Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who has backed her Maspeth constituents in opposing a homeless shelter at a Holiday Inn. In a back-and-forth with Banks, Crowley claimed the city had been misleading about its agreement with the hotel owner, and is moving people from cluster-site apartments to hotels like the Maspeth Holiday Inn.

“You keep making the point that we’re taking people out of clusters and putting them into hotels,” Banks said. “For everybody here, this is not the policy of the Department of Homeless Services of the City of New York.”

Crowley wasn’t convinced. “He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” she told the Voice as she left the meeting.

Currently, the city gives at least 30 days notice when it is opening a new shelter, or will be renting out at least half of a hotel for the homeless, Banks said. But when less than half of a hotel is leased, there is no advance notice. “It’s clear to me, and to the administration, the fact that hotel rooms have been rented without any notification process has to change,” Banks said. Elected officials and community boards will begin to receive notice of these types of agreements in the coming weeks, he said.

Banks also said the city is shifting to a borough-based program, where each borough will accommodate its own homeless population, instead of shifting the homeless to far-flung locations around the city. Today, Queens shelters 8,500 of the city’s 60,000 homeless, or 14 percent—about half its 27 percent share of the city’s total population.

The Voice asked Banks if that meant Queens should expect a significant increase in homeless units, so it can shoulder its fair share. “This is a citywide problem,” Banks said. “As we move forward, we want to make sure we put shelter space in places where people can remain in their communities.”


30,000 Children Are Living in NYC Shelters: ‘The System Is Beyond the Breaking Point’

As the rate of homelessness in New York City has reached a record high, with around 60,000 people living in shelters, the effects on the 30,000 children in the system are devastating. Students often move multiple times on short notice, and because the system is so stretched, they’re housed farther from their “school of origin,” which increases commute time and makes them late to class.

They also face emotional trauma: Some 60 percent of the homeless students were either “chronically absent” or “severely chronically absent,” according to a report released Tuesday by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The report focuses on students living in shelters and uses data from the 2013–14 school year.

Liza Pappas, the author of the report, tells the Voice, “the system is beyond a breaking point.”

There are 117 “family assistants” in the Temporary Housing program run by the education department for the 30,000 school-age children in 200 DHS-funded shelters in the city. That’s 1 caseworker per 256 children.

“This isn’t a surprise,” says Randi Levine, an early-childhood expert at Advocates for Children of New York City. “The report confirms the data that we’ve seen over recent years that students who are homeless have poor rates of attendance at schools and poor school outcomes.”

The report describes the numbing bureaucracy the children live with. There are room inspections, for which parents must be present, and these can occur at night, which keeps children awake late. The report also makes note of “death by appointment,” describing all the red tape parents must negotiate to apply for benefits, which eats up much of their days and makes it hard for them to pick up or drop off children at school. “In those instances families could opt not to send their children to school,” the report says.

The vastness of the city adds to the problem. “Time spent commuting to and from school at the expense of being able to be present in school or to do homework resulted in cumulative disadvantages for students living in shelters,” the report states. “Students who come late to school miss out on more instructional time and fall further behind educationally.”

In the report, the mother of an elementary school student said all the travel time to and from school meant her daughter didn’t have time for homework.

“It’s kind of hard for her to be moving over and over and over,” says the parent. “That’s why I tried to keep this school as stable as possible. …’Cause I mean sometimes by the time we finish traveling, I’m not going to force her to sit up and do homework.”

“Right now the shelter system is as full as it’s ever been and it makes it very difficult for the city to operate, and as a result we see families placed very far from their schools,” says Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney of the Homeless Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

A DOE spokesperson says some steps are being taken to address the issue.

“Homeless students are among our most vulnerable populations, and we are hiring attendance teachers to work directly in 23 shelters, adding social workers to 32 schools serving large populations of students in shelter, and building school-based health clinics to ensure they have the resources needed to achieve and excel in the classroom and beyond,” the spokesperson says.

But the real solution, as Goldfein points out, is to end homelessness in the first place.

“The number one thing that people need is a permanent home,” he says. “The governor has been sitting on billions of dollars of housing aid that the city needs to have for housing.”

In his State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to invest in supportive housing units, but he only recently advanced a Memorandum of Understanding to release $2 billion in funding for the creation of affordable housing units. Nearly $20 billion for new housing units was included in this year’s state budget.

“The lion’s share of responsibility falls on the governor to move families into permanent housing. If we can get people settled into permanent housing again, all those problems could go away,” Goldfein says.

We’ve reached out to Cuomo’s office for comment and will update if we receive a response.

UPDATE: Cuomo’s office responded with the following:

You’ll see that this year’s Budget appropriated the full $2 billion. Further, the Governor directed that the Budget Director sign the memorandum of understanding to release the funding to advance the creation of more than 100,000 units of affordable and supportive housing over the next five years. The executed agreement is now before the New York State Senate and Assembly for action.