What’s behind the Rise in New York City Homelessness?

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Homeless

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April 27, 2012; Source: Wall Street Journal (AP)

Why are there 23 percent more homeless living on the streets of New York City this year compared to last year? The count by the New York City Department of Homeless Services says that there were 3,262 people living on the streets as of January 30th. That doesn’t mean, however, that there were only 3,262 homeless in the city. Thousands clearly live in shelters or temporary housing. Even the “living on the street” count is all but assuredly an undercount, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Ultimately, the solution is to find permanent supportive housing for the homeless, a strategy called “housing first” that has been validated by the experience of cities across the country and largely adopted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as the nation’s preferred homeless housing strategy. It is an approach that the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) and other national housing intermediaries have been implementing with great results, in some cases with support from foundations, several of which are members of the foundation “affinity group” Funders Together to End Homelessness.

But if homeless statistics are going the wrong way in some areas, it may not be a reflection of any sort of shortcoming in the housing first strategy, but rather, perhaps, a result of the weakening level of federal and state government funding combined with a persistent recessionary economy (at least in terms of its impact on people at the bottom of the income distribution). Doesn’t this sound like a call for redoubled nonprofit advocacy on public sector subsidies for affordable housing?—Rick Cohen

  • Joanna Stanberry

    It does! But it is more than supportive housing subsidies, and more than nonprofit advocacy. Housing First is still bigger than housing. It doesn’t do the trick without the supportive part–comprehensive services and programs from detox and primary care to transitional housing, psychiatric care, and job-training in a supportive community.

    Private philanthropy has stepped in and could increase that support, but I think nonprofits can do a better job of helping the public and their donors understand this model. The situation is so complex many NPOs struggle to explain it to their constituents.

    Check out http://projectrenewal.org –they started out helping the “Bowery bums” in NYC back in 1967, and 45 years later they help over 13,000 homeless men and women in NYC a year through this comprehensive philosophy. [full-disclosure–I work there and think they are fantastic! And also, these views aren’t theirs]