The Coalition for the Homeless put the total number of homeless people in New York City at 52,400 in September 2013, a record. More than 22,000 are children living in shelters. And they are just the tip of a larger iceberg. There is no accurate survey of the number of those who live doubled-up with friends or relatives under abysmal housing conditions.
The Coalition estimates that fully 85 percent of the city’s homeless shelter residents are black or Latino. Many people probably think of the homeless in terms of single men because we are most likely to see single men living on the streets. But families account for more than three-quarters of those living in shelters. These are the homeless that hardly anyone notices. The New York Times recently ran a five part report on the life of one young girl living in a homeless shelter titled “Invisible Child.”
The number of homeless people sleeping in shelters is almost 70 percent higher now than it was when Mayor Bloomberg first took office. The major reason for homelessness is the lack of affordable housing in the city. Rising rents have put many apartments beyond the financial reach of many low-income New Yorkers. Most families in shelters have suffered evictions because of their inability to pay the rent. The rise in homelessness has persisted over the last decade, in good times as well as bad.
The city policies didn’t help alleviate the homeless problem. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg put an end to priority access for the homeless to Section 8 voucher allocations and public housing vacancies on the grounds that they were incentives to become homeless. The Bloomberg administration also cancelled its short-term rent subsidy program in 2011. It had helped the homeless make the transition to permanent housing.
Ralph da Costa Nunez, the president of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, noted in his book “The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City,” that by 1986, the number of homeless people in New York City “surpassed the level reached in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression. While the nation’s economy entered a period of prosperity, New York’s homeless problem showed no signs of ebbing.”
In order to afford decent housing, people need jobs that will pay them more than poverty wages. The framers of welfare reform in the 1990’s believed fervently that a job was the path out of poverty. But experience has shown that all too often that has not been true. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are working in low-wage jobs and still living in poverty. There are even people living in shelters who go to work every morning and still cannot afford the rent for an apartment.
The amount of affordable housing in the city is decreasing as landlords remove their apartment buildings out of subsidized programs like Mitchell-Lama and private market rents keep escalating further out of reach. The incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio, wants to restore the voucher program, which helped the homeless transition to permanent housing. He is also committed to restoring priority access for the homeless to public housing and Section 8 vouchers that become available.
We need the new mayor to be an advocate for affordable housing – for stronger rent laws, for increased federal funding of existing affordable housing programs like Section 8 vouchers, and for new programs that can meet the growing needs of low-income New Yorkers.