Out on the Streets
by Megan Bungeroth with additional reporting by Marissa Maier
Homeless New Yorkers face new challenges in light of cutbacks
It's no shock that a still-strugglingeconomy, an ever-more-expensivecity and a continually burgeoningpopulation have combined to producerecord-high rates of homelessnessin New York. What may shock some,however, is how difficult it is for the cityto help its homeless population. In a timeof fiscal cutbacks, the subsidies, grantsand programs in place to help these mostvulnerable people have all but dried up,leaving advocates on all sides scramblingto find solutions to keep New Yorkers offthe streets and out of shelters.
According to data from the most recentavailable census of homeless people in themunicipal shelter system, conducted Dec.31, 2011, there were 39,787 individuals inthe system, including 8,530 families withchildren. An Oct. 31 count found 16,934homeless children in the shelter system, anall-time high number.
And these numbers don't take into accounthomeless people living on the streetor outside the shelter system. The HomelessOutreach Population Estimate survey, conductedacross the city earlier this year, aimsto approximate those numbers, but resultsare still being processed. Last year, it counted2,648 individuals.
City officials, legislators and advocatesfor the homeless have differing views onwhat has caused these high numbers as wellas the best ways to address them."Setting aside the economy, which certainlyhas contributed, one of the biggest factorsis the policies of the Bloomberg administration,particularly cutting off homelessfamilies from receiving federal subsidies,"said Giselle Routhier, policy analyst for theCoalition for the Homeless."Right now,for the first time ever, there is no housingassistance whatsoever to help homelessfamilies get out of the shelter system."
She's referring to the administration'sdecision in 2004 to stop giving homelessfamilies priority for federal housing subsidieslike Section 8. That decision, basedon the idea that continuing to do so gavepeople incentives to use the shelter systemas a sure path to landing cheap housing,has been loudly criticized in recent yearsas the homeless population grows.
Seth Diamond, commissioner of theDepartment for the Homeless (DHS), saidin an interview that bringing back thatprioritization program wouldn't be thepanacea that some groups claim."The reality is that there are very longwaiting lists for the available programs,"Diamond said. "The Section 8 program hasa waiting list of 140,000 or more. For publichousing, the chairman of NYCHA [the NewYork City Housing Authority] just testified,the waiting list is 160,000. There is a seven yearwaiting list for public housing."
Diamond also spoke about how DHShas prepared for the effective end of theAdvantage program, which provided rentsubsidies for formerly homeless familiesfor up to two years. When the state cutfunding for the program last year, the citydetermined that it could not sustain theprogram without the roughly $68 millionin state and federal aid it had lost.
The city was still paying subsidizedrents for about 16,000 formerly homelessfamilies and individuals up until lastmonth, however, while a lawsuit broughtby the Legal Aid Society was ongoing.Ajudge recently ruled that the city couldstop paying its portion of these rents,and the fate of the families who had beenbenefiting is unclear.
"We have been preparing for this fora while," Diamond said. "We've done alot of outreach to people who are Advantagerecipients to help prepare, to talk tothem about their individual situations.Most people have been in the program
for at least a year. People have had time toestablish themselves, look for options, see
what's coming."Diamond said that close to 85 percentof those who took part in the Advantageprogram have not come back to the sheltersystem and that it has been successful.
But others dispute that characterizationand say the city and state need to not onlyprovide more assistance programs butexpand on the Advantage model to offermore long-term solutions."We can't just scoop people up andstick them in temporary housing, kickthem out, move them somewhere else. Itjust doesn't work. It's not really a compassionateor practical approach," saidAssembly Member Linda Rosenthal,whose district, which includes parts ofHell's Kitchen and the Upper West Side,contains several of the city's shelters aswell as housing for formerly homeless individuals.
Rosenthal said that one currentpriority in the Assembly is to restore fundingto several programs that have beenaxed this year, all designed to provideemergency assistance or intervention forfamilies facing homelessness.Local not-for-profits have also noticedan uptake in need for their services, like theNew York City Rescue Mission on Lafayette
Street, which provides hot meals, adaily food pantry and 71 beds for transient
Tom Hall, development director forNYCRM, noted an uptake in meals servedin the past year. According to Hall, in 2011,the NYCRM doled out roughly 495 per daywhile in 2008 they only served 416 dailymeals. NYCRM will soon break ground onan $11 million project to renovate threefloors of its building to add 100 more beds.
"Usually, in mild weather like thewinter we just experienced, our dormmight not be full but in this year, far morepeople, irrespective of the weather, havecome here," noted Hall. "We have neverseen so many and there are quite a fewpeople we have to refer to other places ofshelter."
While Hall and NYCRM public relationsmanager Joe Little note that their organization
handles short-term housing and hungersolutions, they did add that one factorin an increasing need for these services isa reduction in homeless service fundinga few years ago. Both pointed to the 2009closing of Peter's Place in Chelsea, whichwas the city's only drop-in center exclusivelyfor homeless people at the time.
City Council Member Jessica Lappin,who recently chaired a hearing of theCommittee for the Aging on the alarmingnumber of elderly New Yorkers facinghomelessness-up 18 percent between2010 and 2011 for people over 65-saidthe best thing the city can do to curbhomelessness is to help people beforethey're out of their homes.
This is especially true, she said, ofolder people who may have extra difficultysurviving in a shelter due to healthissues. "The most important thing forthat population is to try to get them theservices they need as quickly as possible,to try to help them remain in their homeas long as possible if that's the right thingfor them," Lappin said.
She pointed to a Department for theAging program that pairs seniors facingeviction with legal counsel as one way thecity can step in."Maybe your landlord tried to evictyou because you're a hoarder," she said,naming one example of the cases seniorsmight face. "Sometimes what happenswith older people is they stop payingtheir bills because they get confusedabout what bills they've paid."
All of theseproblems are fixable with the right help,Lappin said, but it requires outreach onthe part of the city.Many advocates echo the call to focuson keeping people in their homes andproviding more affordable housing options.
Manhattan Borough President ScottStringer said in an email that the highnumbers of homelessness are "directlylinked to scarcity of affordable housing."He cited a study his office conducted in2007 that found 2,228 vacant properties inManhattan he says could be used to buildmore affordable housing, as well as hissuggestion that the city convert foreclosedproperties into affordable housing.
Stringer also contested the administration'srescinding of priority status forhomeless families for public housing."Each year, approximately 5,313 NYCHAunits are vacated; many of these unitshave more than one bedroom and can accommodatefamilies," Stringer said."By reinstating priority for the homelesson the NYCHA waiting list, even if it was onlydone on a temporary basis, the city couldtake immediate steps toward placing a substantialpercentage of its homeless populationinto permanent housing," he said.
While the city works to address theimmediate needs of the city's homelesspopulation-New York has a right-to-shelterlaw that requires the city to provide a bed forevery homeless person-it also has to workon preventing and reducing their numbers.
It's a problem that won't be going awayany time soon, and some say we won't seeany effective changes until the next mayoraladministration takes over."Homelessness is a national problem,"said Rosenthal. "But New York City, whichhas grappled with this problem for somany years, really ought to have some newideas about how to deal with it."
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