NYC’s Newest Homeless Numbers and What They Mean

This post was originally featured on HuffingtonPost.com

It might not come as a surprise, but it’s deeply troubling nonetheless. Our city’s recent push towards a more comprehensive assessment of the homeless population has provided the latest set of results and they are far from positive. The survey from the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) has the number of homeless New Yorkers at 3,892, an increase of over 1,000 from the same time in 2016.

At a time when there seems to be more money in the city than ever, these statistics are a painful reminder that not all citizens are fortunate enough to meet our basic needs. Living on the streets, for some of us a terrifying idea, is a daily reality for a growing number of people in nearly every corner of New York City.

Though these numbers are concerning, and rightfully so, the fact that we are aware of them at all is a promising sign for the city’s future. The HOPE count is part of the city’s relatively recent HOME-STAT homeless outreach program, the latest program designed to assist and house our city’s dispossessed residents.

Implemented in March 2016, HOME-STAT is the deBlasio administration’s attempt to use analytics combined with a street-level approach to evaluating the city’s homeless problem and finding practical solutions. The idea emulates the NYPD’s CompStat program, credited with helping in the massive, unprecedented reduction in crime the city saw in the 1990s and 2000s.

Informed by data collected by HOME-STAT employees, targeted efforts are made to assist and help shelter people living on the street. These “Swarm Teams” follow recommendations from HOME-STAT software to pinpoint areas with large concentrations of homeless people and engage with them personally, in the hopes that they will accept a transition to shelters with the long-term goal of getting them into housing.

While it’s not the cure that many hope for, HOME-STAT has made some headway in taking on the homelessness problem. They made headlines at the end of last year by announcing their programs had led to the temporary housing of nearly 700 of the city’s homeless. Even though they were not all placed in permanent homes, it can be considered a minor victory that some were convinced to come off of the streets. Eventually, it is hoped, more face-to-face interventions will result in a real reduction in the homeless numbers.

The mayor has urged patience in the matter, even at the announcement of the program in December 2015saying that it may take years before concrete results are visible. The kind of one-on-one work being done is indeed something that will take time. The trade-off of spending more effort on each individual means that fewer people will be directly affected, though this more holistic approach is a step in the right direction away from draconian policies that often left citizens dehumanized and disrespected.

One promising aspect of the new program is the level of transparency. On HOME-STAT’s website, detailed maps of 311 requests for homeless assistanceare available across daily, weekly and yearly timeframes. What this means is that citizens are now able to observe, in nearly real-time, where their fellow New Yorkers are calling the city to provide assistance. All of us will be able to keep tabs on the efforts to fight homelessness on a case-by-case basis.

Even though this program will hopefully result in drastically fewer homeless people, we are still seeing some evidence of the old short-term solutions like sheltering. Just recently, the administration announced plans to open 90 new homeless shelters across the five boroughs. Presumably, Swarm Teams will be shuttling the homeless towards these temporary residences, though ideally there would be housing in place.

Sheltering, of course, is a band-aid solution, if it is even considered a solution at all. Many homeless people choose to stay on the streets because they actually feel safer there than in the shelter system, where unclean and unsafe conditions are rampant. HOME-STAT’s true effectiveness will be seen when our homeless are housed safely and permanently, and that still appears to be a far away state of affairs.

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How the Homeless Get By When Disaster Strikes

Catastrophic natural disasters like the ones we’ve seen over the past few weeks frequently leave millions of Americans without their homes. This level of destruction and displacement often serves as a great shock to the country at large and millions of charity and governmental dollars go toward helping rebuild what was lost for so many families.

While this is, of course, a noble pursuit and an appropriately empathetic response, it’s easy to forget that many of the citizens of these stricken regions had already tenuous living arrangements or no place to call home at all. For those disadvantaged residents, the dangers of extreme weather events are not lessened in any way by the fact that they might not have as much to lose as their property-owning neighbors. In fact, the ever-present danger is only increased for this growing cohort of city dwellers.

The needs of the homeless as disastrous hurricanes or other weather disasters approach are multiplied when considering their already disadvantaged existences. Many of the dispossessed experience a compounding of the issues that contributed to their homelessness in the first place, including mental health issues and past traumatic experiences. These needs are often unaddressed in the emergency response and can result in worsened conditions after the storm passes and new traumas have been endured.

It’s sadly not a surprise at this point, but the odds piled up against the homeless are only increased by dire weather emergencies. Though the opportunity to put them into new housing should be most relevant when these kinds of disasters strike, unfortunately, Federal housing assistance offered to storm victims is doled out with higher priority given to those who already have homes. While it’s good that our government can help those who have suffered losses, it leaves behind those whose need for reliable housing is greatest.

In Houston and Miami, the two largest metropolitan areas to be hit this hurricane season, local authorities employed their existing homeless outreach teams to convince people living in the streets to come into specially designated storm shelters as the winds worsened. The usual job of homeless outreach took on a greater urgency as drastic weather bore down on these cities and their perpetually displaced residents. Many homeless Houstonians chose to weather the storm, having been so inured to their tenuous existence that the prospect of a catastrophic hurricane sounded more like “just rain.”

When simple coaxing didn’t work in Miami, the city utilized an unprecedented reinterpretation of the laws regarding detainment to forcibly take homeless people who hadn’t willingly left the streets into storm shelters as Hurricane Irma approached in September of this year. This strategy of taking citizens into custody “for their own good” illustrates the lack of agency that our homeless neighbors suffer from in their everyday lives. Whether the ends justify the means in this extraordinary case can be debated, but the entire episode shows how little power the homeless can have when it comes to their own safety and protection.

The issue of homelessness may be easy to forget when viewing footage of people forced to leave flooded or destroyed homes. It’s a bitter irony of these situations that we forget about the people who had no homes to lose in the first place. In an emergency, the homeless issue can often take a back seat at the very time when our focus on helping these citizens is more pertinent than ever. Absent drastic changes in our cities’ policies, this will be an issue that pops up with every new weather emergency.

To answer the question of how the homeless get by when disaster strikes: they don’t. “Getting by” for the homeless in storm areas and in all locations across the country sadly amounts, on a daily basis, to avoiding catastrophic injury, sickness, or death. As hurricane recovery efforts are underway, it’s unknown at the moment how many homeless people lost their lives but suffice it to say that they had much greater hurdles to escaping the storm than the average city resident. The news might feature heart-rending stories of those who lost everything in the disaster, but for many people in the hurricane’s path, much was lost long before any storm arrived.

This article was originally published on DanNeiditch.org

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.

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