There are 20,000 kids sleeping in homeless shelters in New York City, according to the city’s latest estimate, a number that does not include homeless kids who are not sleeping in shelters because their families have been turned away. Up to 65 percent of families who apply for shelter don’t get in, and their options can be grim.
“Some end up sleeping in subway trains,” Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, tells AlterNet. “Some go to hospital emergency rooms or laundromats. Women are going back to their batterers or staying in unsafe apartments.”
Families that make it into shelters are taking longer to leave and move into stable, permanent housing. Asked by reporters why families were staying 30% longer than even last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “… it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.”
“Is it great?” He elaborated a day later in response to outcry over his comments. “No. It’s not the Plaza Hotel … but that’s not what shelter is supposed to be and that’s not what the public can afford or the public wants.”
That deep-seated empathy for the poor also runs through the mayor’s policies, which have helped create a crisis that the New York Times has called “an emergency.” Since the mayor took office, promising to slash the rate of total homelessness by two thirds in five years, the homeless rate in New York City has ballooned to 46,000 people sleeping in shelters, an increase of almost 40 percent. The administration blames the financial crisis, but as it turns out, there are ways to make the lives of the very poor tougher in the middle of a recession: you just need to subscribe to a governing philosophy that assumes the poor are both too lazy to get on their feet and working hard day and night to cheat the system.
Here is a guide to how the Bloomberg administration managed to increase family homelessness while using up a lot of public money.
1. Cut access to federal aid.
For decades, Republican and Democratic mayors kept family homelessness down by giving homeless parents and their kids priority access to federal housing subsidies and rental vouchers. But in 2004, as part of the mayor’s five-year plan to combat homelessness, the administration knocked homeless families from the top of the massive waiting list for federal rent subsidies. Administration officials, offering no empirical proof, claimed that poor people were scamming the system by moving into shelters in order to get Section 8 vouchers. (Like many conservative fantasies involving scheming minorities, it’s no doubt true that someone, somewhere, cheated — but studies show this was not a widespread problem straining the system.)
The rate of homeless families who used federal subsidies fell to the low single digits. According to Giselle Routhier, policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, “In fiscal year 2010, at a time of then record homelessness, homeless families received only 2 percent of the 5,500 available public housing apartments and only 3 percent of 7,500 Section 8 vouchers.”
In place of programs that gave them access to permanent housing, homeless families got the gift of personal responsibility! First the administration introduced Housing Stability Plus, a subsidy that fell by 20 percent each year. HSP was mired in controversy following revelations that families were being exposed to hazardous conditions in their new digs: “[M]any formerly homeless families and their children have suffered from lead poisoning, lack of heat and hot water, vermin infestation,” according to a Coalition for the Homeless report.
The Advantage program, introduced in 2007, helped with a percent of families’ rents (requiring they work or take job training) but cut aid after either one or two years. When their subsidies ran out, families were supposed to find their own way into permanent housing. Instead, many found their way back to the shelter, because, as homelessness advocates point out, rents did not magically go down in New York. One out of three families whose Advantage assistance expired applied for shelter in 2011, according to city numbers crunched by Coalition for the Homeless.
2. Cut and run.
Still, the administration touted the program as a success, defending it against homelessness advocates and city officials who pushed the mayor to give families priority in federal housing assistance. So it was strange that when the governor of New York cut half of Advantage’s funding in March 2011, the Bloomberg administration refused to make up the difference and just killed the program. Around that time the mayor suggested that poor families were pretending to be homeless to scam Advantage subsidies.“You never know what motivates people,” he said on his radio show. “One theory is that some people have been coming into the homeless system, the shelter system, in order to qualify for a program that helps you move out of the homeless system.”
When the city officially cut the program, 15,000 families who relied on Advantage to make rent were informed by letter that they had exactly two weeks to find other arrangements. An emergency court order forced the city to continue helping families in the program, but when the order was lifted in February 2012, the city abruptly cut off aid to tenants, saddling 7,000 households with full market rent for apartments they’d struggled to pay 30% to 40% on.
The inevitable return to the shelter of many former Advantage families helped push the number of homeless people sleeping in shelters up to 43,000 in 2012. “In the last 18 months, there has been no housing plan,” Markee tells AlterNet.
3. Spend money on temporary solutions.
Instead, the administration is just frantically opening up more and more emergency shelters. The AP reports that 10 new shelters for single adults and families have opened in recent months to deal with the crisis. The administration plans five more before the year is over.
The problem with that is everything. Putting up a family in a shelter costs $3,000 a month — way more than a rental subsidy. Beyond that, studies have shown that not having a permanent place to live is destabilizing and harmful to kids, even if they end up in one of those NYC shelters that so impressed the mayor with their luxury. Homeless kids get sick more often and with stranger and more serious ailments than poor kids who have homes, suffering respiratory infections and digestive infections at significantly higher rates. The lack of safe, permanent housing delays normal development and homeless kids have higher levels of anxiety and depression, which often manifest in behavioral problems.
“If homelessness is hard on adults, for the young, it can be disastrous, starting a slide into a lifetime of problems,” a NYT editorial put it. (It’s not entirely clear what the long-term impact of Hurricane Sandy will be on the city’s homelessness rates. Right now, families who lost their homes in the storm are staying in hotels paid by the city and reimbursed by FEMA.)
4. Refuse to change course.
The New York City Council has outlined a plan to revive programs proven to reduce homelessness. As Christine Quinn, Annabel Palma and Coalition for the Homeless director Mary Brosnahan wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed, “That means returning to the proven strategy of setting aside a reasonable share of open slots in public housing and marshaling valuable federal housing vouchers for those trapped in the shelter system. In addition, a new rental assistance program, modeled on the successful federal voucher program, must be created.”
An assessment of the plan by the City of New York’s Independent Budget Office found, “if a total of 5,000 families a year were moved out of shelter through priority referrals for NYCHA and Section 8, family shelter costs would be $29.4 million lower, of which $11.0 million would be savings of city funds.”
So far, the administration has rebuffed the plan. At a hearing in September, Department of Homeless Services commissioner Seth Diamond pointed, improbably, to job training programs as the way to address the city’s skyrocketing homelessness. One council member called it a “head-in-the-sand” approach.
Diamond reiterated the administration’s position that shelter residents should not be prioritized for housing aid.