De Blasio Removes 400 Kids from NYC Shelters, but Homelessness Levels Remain Overwhelming

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February 21, 2014; The Nation

What does a new mayor do to improve the lot of the homeless when homelessness is a national, societal challenge, not limited to any particular city—even one with the population of a medium-sized country, like New York? Mayor Bill de Blasio inherited the challenge of providing for tens of thousands of homeless persons. The most recent report from the City’s Division of Homeless Services counts 52,171 individuals in the city’s homeless shelters as of February 20th. That number is about 70 percent higher than the homeless population in shelters when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

De Blasio’s latest move, announced Friday, was to take 400 children out of the Auburn Family and Catherine Street shelters due to their unsafe and unhealthy conditions. But there are 22,478 homeless children, members of 10,731 homeless families, in city shelters. Keeping families in shelters—keeping anyone in shelters, actually, as opposed to supportive housing—is an ultimately losing strategy. The one program that was helping some homeless escape the shelter system, a temporary rental subsidy program called Work Advantage, had its funding cut by Governor Andrew Cuomo and was later eliminated altogether by Mayor Bloomberg, leading to a huge spike in the number of people entering the shelter system.

One step for the new administration might be to work with the governor to design a new program of rental housing subsidies to get the homeless into real housing. (Apparently, the two sides are talking.) Another would be for Mayor de Blasio to fulfill a campaign pledge to give priority status for homeless shelter residents applying for Section 8 housing or public housing. So far, he hasn’t done that, suggesting that the provision of housing doesn’t get at the “root causes” of the homelessness of tens of thousands and, not surprisingly, that there are already huge waiting lists for Section 8 and public housing.

De Blasio may be underestimating the importance of housing as a platform for homeless families to address the “root causes” of their situations, but at least he is unlikely to dredge up this canard used by Bloomberg to justify ending the rental subsidy program: “You never know what motivates people,” Bloomberg said on a radio show in 2011. “One theory is that some people have been coming into the homeless system, the shelter system, in order to qualify for a program that helps you move out of the homeless system.” It wasn’t just Bloomberg’s idea. His homelessness commissioner, Seth Diamond, said much the same.

Bloomberg might not have understood that the actual number of homeless families is undoubtedly much larger than the official count in shelters. People don’t choose to become homeless, choose to move into a shelter, and choose to wait until they’re eligible in order to win the prize of a very-short-term rental subsidy. As the former regional director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development for New York and New Jersey, de Blasio knows the score better than almost any other big city major. To oversee the Department of Homeless Services and a variety of other agencies, Mayor de Blasio appointed as deputy-mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who was described by Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, as “perhaps the best regarded and most seasoned leader in the social services arena…smart, dedicated and tireless—exactly the combination New York needs to reverse record homelessness and restore hope to our most vulnerable neighbors”.

At a minimum, with de Blasio as mayor and Barrios-Paoli as deputy mayor, the right team is in place to do what is necessary to address the needs of homeless families and individuals in New York City. What they do in New York will resonate around the nation as a model for municipal responses to the tragedy of homelessness in the U.S.—Rick Cohen

  • john urban

    New York is a welfare state now run by a Marxist Socialist. Let’s see how he continues to fail addressing the true reason people arent thriving financially. The more you do for those that make poor choices in life that lead them to ruin, the more they remain losers

  • On behalf of “Have Nots”

    1st To Mr Cohen, your untiring work is admirable in raising public awareness to matters of which actually don’t personally affect you. Although you could write about popular or gratifying topics, lots of things you write provide insight –and hopefully eventually aid good public policy.

    2nd To commenters like the person below. ALMOST ALWAYS, perfect strangers who do not have omniscience posts these serve-no-purpose ASSumptions, about people making “poor choices” –despite having NO WAY of knowing how people arrived at their predicaments!!!

    Incredibly and pathetically, IT ESCAPES commenters like the ?#@_*!>|~ below, that RAMPANT POLITICAL CORRUPTION PLAYS LARGE ROLES in social maladies and poverty!!! Therefore, smug people who ASSume people’s “choices” caused their troubles, and blame people for their predicaments NEED TO question their own bosoms as to what effort(s) their putting forth to HELP the world be a better place!!!