Mayor Bloomberg’s Homelessness Problem

Homelessness has risen so quickly in New York City that the city has opened up nine new shelters in the past two months. More than 43,000 people, including 18,000 children were staying in city shelters two weeks ago, according to the New York Times. This is up 18% from this time last year.

This is obviously a significant problem, and one you would expect the mayor of such a great metropolis to take seriously. But Mr. Bloomberg can’t seem to stop putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to the issue of homelessness. Earlier this month, the mayor suggested that the rising homeless population is due to “out-of-towners” who come to the Big Apple to seek shelter. Who said they could come here? Oh right…”Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Last Thursday, he made another gaff: he commented that perhaps people are staying in shelters longer in part because they are “much more pleasurable” than they used to be. As quoted in the New York Times,

We have made our shelter system so much better than, unfortunately, when people are in it – or fortunately, depending on what your objective is – it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.

There are so many things upsetting with this comment that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, did the Mayor just suggest that it was “unfortunate” that homeless shelters be in better condition than in the past? Obviously he is somewhat awkwardly trying to comment on the role of government assistance – be to incentive self-sufficiency or to provide support – so we’ll forgive the tactlessness for now and move on. The real problems here are that (1) homeless shelters are not nice and (2) even if they were, that is not the reason why people are stuck in them.

Living in a homeless shelter is not a pleasurable experience. As the Daily News reported, the Auburn Family Shelter in Fort Green is in miserable shape. Many tenants we work with have experienced being shuffled from shelter to shelter, and no one enjoys that experience or would call it pleasurable. It is absurd to suggest as much.

People are not staying in homeless shelters because they are good places to live – they are staying because they have nowhere else to go. Patrick Markee of Coalition for the Homeless points out the slow economy and the rising cost of rent as major factors in the rise of homelessness. Further, the Bloomberg administration, citing a lack of support from New York State, abruptly ended the Advantage program last year despite the fact that 15,000 families remained in the system. Many of these families have since faced eviction. We encountered the Advantage program as a cash-cow for bad landlords who were able to warehouse formerly homeless tenants in sub-standard buildings while extracting high rents from DHS.

Mr. Markee has also mentioned the risk that increased homelessness could pose to low income tenants:

We’re facing the prospect of more and more shelters opening in the city,” Mr. Markee said, “and that creates bad incentives for landlords to push out low-income tenants in favor of doing deals with DHS.

We have long maintained that the various city agencies (primarily DHS and HASA) that place vulnerable individuals into affordable housing must demand better conditions and more responsible behavior from landlords. While Advantage was not necessarily the best designed program to help formerly homeless people with need for housing, removing it without providing any sort of other subsidy has naturally contributed to a rise in homelessness.  Does Bloomberg really think that homeless shelters are so pleasurable, or is this a way to avoid confronting the fact that the end of Advantage has left numerous New Yorkers high and dry?

Regardless, this is a very real problem with the city’s homelessness policies that our Mayor should take a little bit more seriously when speaking. To blame it on out-of-towners likens it to a traffic jam on 42nd Street rather than the true crisis of affordability and shelter that it is.


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