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Policy & Research INSIGHTS

The Picture of a City Grappling with a Complex Issue Takes Shape

by Josef Kannegaard -  10/21/2013

Homelessness is an issue that many New Yorkers are forced to confront daily. Even if that means merely seeing a homeless person on the sidewalk or subway, a basic awareness of the growing crisis in New York City is unavoidable. In a city as large and economically diverse as New York, however, it stands to reason that the thought of life without stable housing weighs more heavily on some people than on others. To better understand what New Yorkers think about homelessness, we at the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, in conjunction with Baruch College, recently conducted a survey of local residents to see, among other things, exactly how people's awareness and attitudes toward homelessness vary across the city.

As a whole, the results tell a story of a city slowly coming to grips with increasing homelessness. Almost 1 in 4 (23%) New Yorkers reported knowing someone who had recently become homeless--a slight increase over the 19% who did so in 2010. That percentage rises dramatically if we look only at the Bronx, with 33% of residents there having had personal contact with homelessness. When the data is split by race, the difference is even more stark: 39% of black New Yorkers know a homeless person, compared with only 13% of whites. These racial and geographic disparities are not surprising; the magnitude of the overall trend, however, is. Clearly, homelessness still affects some groups more than others, but its growing prevalence has led more New Yorkers to become aware of it on a personal level.

Unfortunately, the full scope of local homelessness still seems to elude most people in the city. When asked to identify the number of children sleeping in city shelters, 57% of New Yorkers either said they did not know or underestimated the total (which passed 20,000 kids late last year). Only 28% of residents said they had noticed an increase in the number of homeless people during Mayor Bloomberg's tenure, a period that saw the total homeless population rise by 61%. This could be partially explained by efforts to get people off the streets and into shelters, but the lack of awareness is still notable. As the city prepares for the political agenda of a new mayoral administration, it remains to be seen if there is enough acknowledgement of this growing problem to reverse the trends of the Bloomberg years.

New Yorkers may not fully comprehend the size of the homelessness problem, but there is still a palpable dissatisfaction and a desire for accountability. Only 23% of the city's residents approve of Bloomberg's policies on homelessness. This lack of approval is not the result of a general anti-Bloomberg sentiment, however. In Manhattan alone, Bloomberg's overall approval rating plummets from 54% to 20% when only homelessness policies are considered. These are the types of results that make opinion polls so fascinating. At a glance, the responses can seem contradictory and confusing. Take a step back, and the picture of a city grappling with a complex issue takes shape. Homelessness is touching more and more New Yorkers' lives, and they have become dissatisfied with the way things are going, even if they have yet to fully understand the size of the problem.

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