NYC Is Spending $1.2 Billion On Homelessness. So Why Is It Getting Worse?

This post was originally featured on HuffingtonPost.com

It’s a little-known fact that the City of New York is legally obliged to provide housing for those without it, but with the explosion in the city’s homeless population, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that.

The number of people staying in shelters in New York City has grown by over 10,000 since Mayor de Blasio took office to more than 60,000, with no relief in sight. There is no official estimate for those who are not in shelters, but needless to say the total number of homeless in the city is a great deal higher. After committing to a record $1.6 billion in spending to fight the problem, the city has seen no reduction in the number of people forced onto our streets. Needless to say, there is no shortage of disturbing facts about this issue, but a look at our city streets is all one needs to realize it’s getting worse. What’s absolutely clear by now is that it’s not simply a matter of money. How could the problem be getting worse when our Mayor has made such a public stance against it?

One reason for the growth in the homeless population is also a fundamental source of consternation for most New Yorkers over the past decade or so. It’s no secret that, nationwide, housing affordability is a major issue, and New York City is home to some of the most egregious examples of this. As neighborhoods transform, housing costs go up and many working-class residents end up being priced out to make room for new arrivals. As you go down the earnings line, those at the bottom too often end up homeless after losing their jobs, sometimes even while they are still working. As much as affordable housing is a political bargaining chip, there is still not nearly enough of it to satisfy the needs of lower-income New Yorkers.

The buck doesn’t stop at City Hall, either. Decision-makers in Albany have made their own contributions to the crisis, depriving vital programs of funding. A proposed complex of affordable apartments in Sunnyside, Queens was scuttled by Governor Cuomo, invoking his authority over the MTA, which owned the land. Even going back to Mayor Bloomberg, his cancellation of the Advantage program which provided homeless with housing vouchers was disposed of for claimed reasons that the system was being abused. Today, fewer programs are giving the homeless the help they need.

The programs that do exist are often woefully inadequate. The overcrowded shelter system, the main infrastructural source of help for the homeless, has long been an insufficient source of support for people in need, especially families. Many users of the system have described it as a claustrophobic, prison-like environment where violence is an entirely too common sight. New York Daily News research found that in 2015, there were over 1,500 “critical incidents” of violence and ill behavior in city shelters, more than five per day. It’s no wonder that many choose to take their chances on the street rather than be locked in with a potentially dangerous population. Staying on the street is often a rational choice to be made over taking on the deteriorating conditions in the shelters.

Another inadequate option is what’s called “cluster housing,” where the city rents apartments in low-income neighborhoods for homeless families. Instead of having access to a support system, these families are instead placed at the mercy of landlords who are, in general, not attuned to the needs of their new tenants and are simply collecting checks from the city. The danger of these sites was thrown into the spotlight last December with the tragic story of two sisters under the age of 3 killed by a faulty radiator in a cluster apartment in the Bronx. Hotel placement has been similarly dispiriting, with conditions that are not much better. To his credit, Mayor de Blasio has vowed to shut down these cluster sites, but progress is slow.

A particularly unfortunate aspect of this crisis has been the lack of empathy not just from political leaders, but the population at large. Anger over housing for the homeless has erupted in several neighborhood protests of proposed housing for the homeless, with demonstrations in Maspeth, Queens shutting down a shelter that would have housed up to 220 people. These demonstrators frequently argue that new shelters are merely a bandaid for the problem, but a main opposition seems to be a simple desire for their neighborhood to stay the way it is.

All of us share in the responsibility to help those who need it. It’s clear that a serious problem exists, with no clear solution. What we can all do is maintain awareness and make a commitment to advocate and provide assistance for the unfortunate who live in our city’s streets. Not everyone needs to spend a few cold nights on the street in order for the city to possess some empathy for the less fortunate. We’re all New Yorkers, and we all deserve the dignity and compassion that’s been lacking for so many.

 

5 Troubling Statistics About Homelessness That You Should Know

If you live in a major city, homelessness is getting worse.

This post was originally featured on HuffingtonPost.com

In general, our country is seeing a decline in homelessness, but it’s still way too early to begin patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. From 2015 to 2016, the homeless population decreased by 3%, although that statistic is complicated by the fact that there was only a decrease among individuals living in sheltered locations (such as emergency shelters and transitional housing) while there was actually an increase in those living in unsheltered locations.

While many of the other statistics in The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress depict an overall improvement, there are no shortage of numbers from this and other surveys that when compiled, paint an ugly picture of homelessness in America.

1. If you live in a major city, homelessness is getting worse.

Results from the January 2016 point-in-time count from The Department of Housing and Urban.

Development (HUD) indicated that out of the total 549,928 people experiencing homelessness, 49% (268,322 people) were located in a major city. That may be up less than 1% from 2015, but it’s still a change in the wrong direction. One in five homeless people were living in either New York or Los Angeles with the majority of those in N.Y.C. living in sheltered locations while the majority in LA were living in unsheltered locations.

2. The Big Apple isn’t making it easy.

To add insult to injury: according to the Coalition for the Homeless: State of the Homeless 2017 report, changes to the application process for families to enter shelters have resulted in a decrease of homeless families receiving approval — from October 2016 to December 2016, the percentage of approved families dropped from 50% to 42%. What’s more, “ The percentage of homeless families forced to apply for shelter two or more times before being found eligible increased from 37 percent in July to 45 percent in December 2016,” and due to the complicated and time consuming process of completing new applications, homeless families are forced to resort to living in “emergency rooms, subway stations, or 24-hour businesses, and to miss school or work.”

And as I’ve written about before, the majority of New Yorkers have no savings, and that many are just about one paycheck away from becoming homeless. Considering the cost of rent in the city, this should come as no surprise.

3. Our ‘unaccompanied youth’ are between 18–24.

Unaccompanied youth, or individuals under 25 who are not with a parent, guardian, or their own children are most likely to be between the ages of 18–24. On a single night in January 2016, 89% of homeless unaccompanied youth were in that age range while 11% were under 18. In total, there were about 35,686 unaccompanied youth, making up about 7% of the entire homeless population. In Nevada, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Montana, the majority of unaccompanied homeless youth are unsheltered while the opposite is true for Nebraska, Rhode Island, Iowa, New York, and Maine.

4. There are homeless college students.

Not all of us were lucky enough to enjoy dorm life and all its offerings. In the recent update to the 2015 report from Wisconsin HOPE Lab titled Hungry and Homeless in College: Results from a National Study of Basic Needs Insecurity in Higher Education, it says that 14% of community college students were homeless during their period of enrollment and among the former foster youth surveyed, 29% were homeless. They also found that out of all Black and multi-racial students, there were more who were homeless than there were who were home secure.

College is hard enough as it is without having to worry about where you’re going to sleep at night and how you’re going to finish your assignments and get to work on time. Perhaps what’s more troubling than the first statistics alone is that 51% of those who were homeless were balancing employment along with their schooling and more than half of them worked 20–40 hours each week with the majority making less than $15/hour.

5. There are ways to help.

It may be tempting to write homelessness off as a problem best left for the big guys to solve, but even people like me and you can make a dent in this issue. Visit the National Alliance to End Homelessness Take Action page for more information on volunteering on national and local levels. We can’t stand by and watch.

How Bad is Homelessness in America, Really?

The GDP of America is an astronomical $18 trillion. To put it in perspective, if California seceded from the United States, it would have the eighth largest GDP of all the countries in the world (just beating out Italy).

When you start to consider just how much money exists in America, it makes the fact that we even have homelessness seems all the more absurd.

Depending on where you live across the country, you may have different ideas about how prolific the homeless situation is in this country. That’s why stats can help make the realities a bit more clear.

 So the question is: how bad is homelessness in America, really?

How bad can it be?

Let’s start with the definition: an individual may be considered homeless when they lack permanent housing and have to stay in shelters, abandoned buildings or vehicles, on the streets, or in other forms of unstable situations. They may also be considered homeless if they have to “double up” with friends or extended family members because they are unable to maintain their own housing situation.

We’ve seen this issue arise in some form since the 1870s and it’s continued to pervade our society into the present day. On a single night in January 2015, for example, 564,708 people were considered homelessness in America, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. That’s over half a million people without a roof over their heads.

In a single night in California in 2016, 21.48% of the population experienced homelessness. In New York, 15.7%. That’s over 100,000 people in California and 80,000 people in New York.

Homelessness is an issue that pervades many societies around the world but it seems to be an exceptional struggle for the United States. Among the top homeless cities in the world, New York City ranks the second highest on the list, with Los Angeles following at a close third. Other American cities featured include Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Phoenix.

Although the national rate of homelessness has gone down from 21.5% in 2007 to 17.7% in 2015, there is still a lot of work to be done––the rate of homelessness amongst individual states continues to be high and the amount of affordable housing remains painfully low.

So what can we do?

As a volunteer EMT, I’ve seen my share of what can happen on the streets. Many homeless die when it’s too hot, too cold, or too wet. These are real people who need real resources, like shelter, food, and clothes. We have to do more as a nation to stop treating the homeless as invisible, and start treating them as human beings. We must do more, as fellow neighbors, developers, lawmakers, citizens, to solve this problem and get people off the streets, because everyone, everyone, deserves a home.

But have we already built a system against homeless by design?

Anti-Homeless Design

Have you ever wondered why some public benches have that third arm rest in the middle? Or why some are just not that comfortable? I never used to give it a second thought. I reasoned it was just the cheapest design available. 

As it turns out, they were specifically designed in this way to dissuade people from sitting too long. Or to deter people from sleeping there.

This kind of design practice is subtle but everywhere in our cities and even has an actual term: hostile or defensive urban architecture. It’s used to discreetly target loitering and reduce the visibility of those deemed “unappealing” to the aesthetics of the city: the “reckless” teenagers, the poor, the homeless.

Other measures include camping restrictions and even banning private food donations to the homeless. In 2012, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg outlawed food donations because “the city couldn’t assess salt, fat, and fiber content” of the food. Apparently it was more important to monitor the healthiness of what his people were eating, even if they were eating nothing at all.

A solution for $46 a year

For a more explicit solution, I think we should look towards Housing First, “a proven approach in which people experiencing homelessness are offered permanent housing with few to no treatment preconditions, behavioral contingencies, or barriers.” The project believes that the issues that cause a person to be homeless–unemployment, poverty, mental health, etc.–can be better addressed once they actually have a home.

And the best part is, the program’s proving to be working. Using this approach, homelessness could be eliminated at an annual additional cost of $1.7 billion. If this sounds like a lot––it’s not. It’s about $46 a year per person. Or put even more in scale: 88 cents per week.

Considering it can cost over $100,000 annually to support a chronically homeless person vs. the $35,000 per year to provide permanent housing, this may be a mutually beneficial approach.

Either way, we must continue to take steps towards eradicating homelessness in our country and ensuring that everyone has the basic necessity of shelter. I’d be willing to pay 88 cents more per week for that. Wouldn’t you?

This article was originally published on DanNeiditch.org

The Cost of ‘Sheltering’ The Homeless May Be Too High

A question I hear a lot when I’m talking about homelessness in New York, is: “why don’t the homeless just stay in shelters?” It is more complex than many New Yorkers imagine–both the problems and the purported solutions. For me, the more important question is: ‘why shelters at all?’

As someone who has spent a lot of time with the homeless–as a volunteer EMT and as someone who lived on the streets for 3 nights–I know firsthand how we have failed our homeless population. Providing shelters, both private and public, may seem like a solution for those who aren’t homeless, but for those who are, there are systemic problems. I agree with them, and here’s why:

  1. Shelters are expensive
  2. Shelters are unsafe
  3. Shelters often provide unfit living conditions
  4. Shelters have not been proven to work long-term

According to a Mayor’s Management Report, housing one homeless person as of last summer was nearly $100 a day. But aside from the monetary cost to New York taxpayers, there also exists the very real life-threatening dangers that face shelter dwellers. Because of these reasons, many homeless families choose the streets over shelters.

In 2015, incidents officially labeled as “violent” included 153 assaults, 65 cases of child abuse, 174 domestic violence incidents, and 90 allegations of sexual assault involving residents.

It’s no better in “cluster” shelters (private apartments and hotels converted to house the homeless) either. Though cluster shelters may have fewer incidences of violence, they’re often rat-infested, poorly managed (if managed at all), and lacking in basic accommodations like clean water. Because these shelters are privately-owned and exempt from fines, the incentive to address safety and health violations are lost on the owners and the city. Cluster landlords are not contractually bound to follow DHS’ lead. So, the residents have no recourse.

The conditions are so bad that Mayor Bill de Blasio commissioned the Department of Investigation (DOI) to investigate. The DOI spent four months inspecting 25 homeless shelters across the city, interviewed occupants and landlords, and evaluated the sites based on cleanliness, management, and integrity.

In the five clusters investigated across multiple boroughs including Queens and Brooklyn, the DOI found a total of 223 violations from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), Department of Buildings (DOB), and Department of Housing Preservation and Development since 2012. Hotel cluster shelter facilities didn’t fare any better with 168 violations.

According to the DOI findings, “At its worst, DHS is turning a blind eye to violations that threaten the lives of shelter residents.”

These findings are no doubt a reason for de Blasio’s recent commitment to phase out ‘cluster sites’ and add 90 new shelters in New York City. Sure, this move from expensive and unfit hotels and apartment shelters shows a willingness to solve the homeless housing issue, but I’m not convinced this is a move in the right direction.

In the mayor’s speech on the matter, he estimated that creating 90 more shelters in NYC would cost $300 million over the next five years, but critics have put the figure at closer to $500 million, and that doesn’t include operating and staffing costs.

According to de Blasio, alleviating the homeless problem is a marathon, not a sprint. Patience is the key, “We will make progress, but it will be incremental. It will be slow,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to the people of New York City that we have an end in sight.”

But is the end really in sight? Maybe not the way we’ve been doing it. I suspect that the path to housing the homeless is the one less traveled: get them off the street by giving them a means to support themselves.

  1. Subsidized housing–Provide the homeless a pathway to sheltering themselves
  2. Job training — Training, whether in a trade or resume-building, to provide a pathway for them to support themselves
  3. Food stamps

In my experience, people who are homeless aren’t living on the streets because they chose to do so. Usually, they hit some bad times and ended up there. In fact, New Yorkers are roughly one paycheck away from being homeless because of loss of a job or some sort of injury. They want to work, they want housing, and they want to support themselves in order to get it. We should give them the means to do that. With the money we’re about to pour into building more shelters — something that has been proven not to work — there is an opportunity to enact a system that may work. And 2017 is as good a year as any to start investing in our homeless fellows.

This article was originally published on DanNeiditch.org