We Should Care about the Homeless – They Look Like Us

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

In New York City today, more than 22,000 children are living in homeless shelters.  And they are just the tip of a larger iceberg.  There is no accurate survey of the number of near-homeless children who live temporarily doubled-up with friends or family members under abysmal housing conditions.

The Coalition for the Homeless put the total number of homeless people in the city at 52,400 in September, a record.  Thousands of people sleep on city streets every night.
Many people probably think of the homeless in terms of single men.  That’s because if we see homeless individuals on the streets, they are most likely to be single men.  But families, in fact, account for more than three-quarters of those living in shelters.  Last week, The New York Times ran a five part report on the life of one young girl living in a homeless shelter.  The report was titled “Invisible Child.”  

One of the tasks that the Bloomberg administration took on was to lower the city’s homeless population.  But the number of homeless people sleeping in shelters is almost 70 percent higher now than it was when Bloomberg first took office. 

Lack of Housing

The major reason for homelessness is the lack of affordable housing in the city.  Rising rents have put many “affordable” apartments beyond the financial reach of low-income New Yorkers.  Most families in shelters have suffered evictions because of their inability to pay the rent.  While the recession no doubt worsened the situation as families lost jobs and income, the rise in homelessness has persisted over the last decade, in good times as well as bad.

Failed city policies are another major contributing factor. 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 “perverse incentives” to become homeless.  Then the Bloomberg administration shut the door on short-term Advantage housing vouchers when it cancelled the city-state rent subsidy program in 2011.  This followed the state’s cut in its contribution to the program that had helped the homeless make the transition to permanent housing.

Ralph da Costa Nunez, the president of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, who has worked on behalf of the homeless for over 25 years, 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.”

Most of those affected by homelessness in New York are blacks and Latinos.  This is not surprising since people of color constitute the vast number of the poor population in the city.  The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that fully 85 percent of the city’s homeless shelter residents are black or Latino.

Poverty Wages

But more than just housing, people need jobs that will pay them more than poverty wages and no benefits.  The framers of welfare reform in the 1990’s believed fervently in the value of work – 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.  We have read the grotesque stories of homeless New Yorkers – living in shelters – who go to work every morning.  But they still can’t afford an apartment.

Politics and policy decisions caused the spike in homelessness.  They can be the solution as well.  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 the Advantage 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 Mayor de Blasio 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.    

Issues Covered

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