As Homelessness Hits Record High, Bloomberg Gets Callous

As the number of people staying in city homeless shelters passed 50,000 in January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded by saying, “nobody’s sleeping on the streets,” at a press conference Feb. 19.

That statement might seem like a ludicrous lie to anyone who’s walked down the city’s streets in the last three decades. On the other hand, the mayor rides an SUV to work, and state law exempts SUVs from its ban on heavily tinted car windows.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless’ “State of the Homeless” report released early this month, the more than 50,000 people staying in shelters on an average night in January was the highest number “since modern homelessness emerged three decades ago.”

“More children and adults are homeless now in New York City than at any time since the Great Depression,” the report stated. The number of people in city shelters rose by 19 percent in the last year, it said, more than in any other U.S. city. These numbers do not include the about 10,000 people left homeless by Hurricane Sandy, who are in a separate system, and about 5,000 more in shelters for battered women and runaway youths.

Almost four-fifths of the people in New York shelters are couples or families, the report said. That includes 21,000 children, one out of every four kids in the nation’s homeless shelters. The average stay for families is now more than one year. And 63 percent of families turning up at shelters are formerly homeless, up from about 25 percent before 2005.

The Coalition report highlighted a month of debate over the Bloomberg administration’s policies on homelessness. Early in March, the Independent Budget Office reported that the city would spend more than $800 million on homeless shelters this year, 25 percent more than it did in 2008. On Feb. 14, the state Appellate Division upheld a lower-court ruling that the administration had improperly enacted its rule requiring single people who turned up at shelters to prove they had nowhere else to go. City officials said that policy would deny shelter to more than half the 18,000 single people who apply for it each year, says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. The city also quietly dropped its “code blue” policy, which relaxed that rule for families seeking admission to shelters when the temperature is below freezing.

This, Markee says, “wrongfully denies shelter to many families.” In typical cases, he explains, people who lose their homes temporarily stay with friends or relatives, in overcrowded situations. When they get kicked out and go to the shelters, they are told they’re not eligible, because they can go back. As a result, he says, 40 percent of families seeking shelter have to apply more than once.

Bloomberg argues that the rule that the city has to provide shelter to anyone who is homeless is too lenient. “You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine, and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door, and we’ve got to give you shelter,” he said on his WOR-AM radio show Mar. 8.

The Coalition report blamed the increase in homelessness on rising rents, high unemployment and people’s incomes falling during the recession, and the Bloomberg administration’s 2005 decision to stop reserving a share of Section 8 vouchers and slots in public and subsidized housing for homeless people. In fiscal 2005, more than 3,600 families moved from shelters to public or Section 8 housing. In fiscal 2012, 204 did.

“Perhaps the single biggest contributor to unprecedented homelessness in New York City,” the report said, is that “the City now provides no housing assistance to help homeless children and families move from shelters to permanent housing.” Despite the cuts in funding for public housing and Section 8, Markee believes this policy is “100 percent ideological.” Of the 6,000 public-housing apartments that became vacant last year, he says, not one was given to a family from the shelters.

Bloomberg and city officials blame foes of the now-defunct Advantage program, which helped homeless families who found apartments pay their rent temporarily. The city ended that program in 2011, after state and federal funds for it were cut off. Critics said that Advantage, which decreased the rent subsidies after one year and terminated them after two in the name of weaning the poor from “dependency,” failed to account for the cruel mathematics of the housing and job markets: A single mother working for $9 an hour with no sick days can’t pay $1,100 a month rent without help, so she and her kids would likely lose their apartment as soon as the subsidies expired. As of the end of 2012, the report said, three-eighths of the families that lost their Advantage subsidies, 6,500 families with 14,000 children, had returned to the shelters.

“Instead of doing what should be done, to provide permanent housing, they’re just closing the front door,” says Markee. 

The report recommended that the city revive the policy of moving people from homeless shelters to permanent housing, remove the barriers that people face entering the shelters, and construct “affordable” housing at rents that low-income people can reasonably pay.