Homelessness Hits Modern Record, Coalition Says

The average number of people staying in New York’s homeless shelters soared past 40,000 in the last year, the most since the city began keeping records in the early 1980s.

In April, more than 43,000 people a night stayed in city shelters, according to the Coalition for the Homeless’s “State of the Homeless 2012” report, issued June 8. The more than 17,000 children among them were also a record high. Overall, the report said, the average shelter population increased by 10 percent over fiscal 2010, and is 39 percent more than it was a decade ago, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office.  

“Indeed, by any measure, last year was the worst for New York City homelessness since the Great Depression,” the report says. Almost 113,000 people spent at least one night in a city shelter, including more than 40,000 children. 

Homelessness rose across the board, according to city shelter-population data the Coalition analyzed. More than 10,000 single adults a night stayed in shelters, the highest number since the late 1980s. Families are staying homeless longer: The average length of time that families spend in the shelters has gone up dramatically in the last year, from just over nine months in April 2011 to almost a year as of this April.

The report blames the Bloomberg administration’s cuts in housing aid. “Perhaps the biggest factor contributing to unprecedented homelessness in New York City is that, for the first time since modern homelessness emerged more than three decades ago, the city has no housing assistance for homeless adults and vulnerable children to escape homelessness,” it states. 

From the late 1980s until 2005, the city reserved a share of public-housing apartments and federal Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers for homeless families. In that period, the report says, it found permanent homes for almost 65,000 families: about 35,000 through Section 8, 18,000 in public housing, and 11,000 in city-funded apartments. Less than 5 percent of them wound up homeless again, according to a 2005 report by the Vera Institute commissioned by the city.

In 2005, with federal housing aid being cut and more than 140,000 people on the waiting list for public housing, the Bloomberg administration sharply reduced the amount of subsidized housing given to the homeless. In fiscal 2004, about 5,800 homeless families moved into public housing or got Section 8 vouchers. Last year, barely 200 did, and another 20 moved into city-assisted housing. 

Last year, the administration also terminated its four-year-old Advantage program, which gave homeless families who found apartments rent subsidies for two years. Homeless advocates sharply criticized Advantage, contending that it left working-poor families unable to pay high rents once the subsidies expired.

The Bloomberg administration claimed that these policies would encourage people to find housing on their own and reduce the number of families using the shelter system. The results were exactly the opposite, the report says. In fiscal year 2005, slightly less than 9,000 families entered the shelters. The next year, that number rose to more than 10,000. In 2011, it passed 13,500.

In 2009, when he was running for his third term as mayor, Bloomberg told a Working Families Party forum that he had improved the shelters to the point where some families found them “a lot more attractive” than “permanent living situations.”