By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
Your eyes do not deceive you, the headlines do not exaggerate: homelessness is worse than ever in New York City.
On any given night, some 60,000 people reside in the city’s shelter system — a 40 percent increase in four years. That number includes 24,000 children. It does not include thousands more sleeping rough in the streets, whose true number we can only approximate.
New York’s political leaders are finally responding to the embarrassing crisis that it surely is. Last December, Mayor de Blasio shook up his social services staff and ordered yet another review of homeless programs and policies, with a plan of action due in March. And in January, Gov. Cuomo pledged an unprecedented $20 billion over five years to expand and improve services for the homeless and 100,000 units of affordable housing across the state.
The attention and the investment are overdue. But unless we learn from the mistakes that put us where we are today, these efforts will be wasted.
Previous mayors, from Koch to Bloomberg, all tried to tackle homelessness with big solutions reflecting their political instincts and the theories of the moment. And all of them failed to turn the tide. The challenge faced by de Blasio today is bigger than ever.
In 1986 — during the Koch years, when homelessness first became a major political issue — the fact that 3,000 homeless were languishing in temporary shelters was unthinkable to most New Yorkers. By the end of the Bloomberg administration we saw a 20-fold increase with over 58,000 individuals living in homeless shelters.
The problem is that the city has always approached family homelessness in the wrong way. For decades the city has tried to make families fit an emergency system rather than making the system responsive to the specific needs of families.
It’s as if we’ve been handing the same pill to every patient that ends up in the emergency room. Some will get better, but most will be back, possibly sicker than ever.
Do we need more low-cost housing? Absolutely. Will we ever get enough? Probably not, and that’s the terrible reality.
The last time there was a national balance between the number of low-income renters and the number of affordable low-income apartments was 1970. Today, the deficit is at 6 million. In New York not even Cuomo’s massive investment will remedy that problem anytime soon, especially since the federal government is hardly in the housing business anymore.
Prevention programs also have their place. Who wouldn’t spend money to prevent a family from becoming homeless? But stopping an eviction today doesn’t necessarily change the longer term circumstances that put the family on the brink. Inevitably, a large share of those who benefit from prevention will wind up homeless.
The solution of the day is rapid rehousing — moving families out of shelter with rental vouchers and limited supports in place to keep them from returning.
The Bloomberg administration embraced this policy, giving families in the shelter system priority for placement in public housing and handing out tens of thousands of time limited rental vouchers almost like candy. But this gave families, who were doubled up with relatives, an incentive to enter the system in hopes of finding permanent housing — a rational response from their point of view — and pushed shelters stays to well over a year further clogging the system.
What happens when the voucher runs out? Families return. We’re seeing it now in the skyrocketing shelter census.
After thirty years of working with the homeless, experience has taught us that the answer to homelessness doesn’t begin at the exit door when a family moves out of shelter. It begins at the entrance, when they arrive. Like a good ER, we need to triage: Why did you become homeless? What went wrong? What supports do you need to move on? Understanding the root causes leads to tailored solutions.
People mistakenly believe that there’s no difference between chronically homeless families and those who temporarily find themselves without shelter. They’re wrong: homeless families fall into three broad categories.
The first group is made up of those who have had long-term employment and tenancy, but who have experienced a temporary setback, such as a lost job, illness or injury. These should be the candidates for rapid rehousing. If they turn up at a shelter, move them out as quickly as possible and take pressure off the system.
The second is a group with many needs — typically a single mother, 25 or younger, with an incomplete education and little or no work experience. Her arrival at the shelter is the opportunity to help her complete her education, give her employment counseling, and teach her parenting skills — without these she and her children are unlikely to make it on their own.
The third group has the most serious problems. They’ve lost their homes for reasons often out of their control, including generational poverty, domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, and mental illness. This group requires specialized services and comprehensive support that shelters currently don’t provide.
A smart, well-designed shelter system would identify and focus on the needs of families as they arrive, then provide them with customized services based on that assessment.
This approach is precisely what was recommended by a Dinkins-appointed Commission on Homelessness in 1992. The head of that panel was none other than Andrew Cuomo, not long before he joined the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton.
The recommendations of the Cuomo Commission were never fully implemented and have been essentially forgotten. But now their chief author sits in the governor’s office, calling homelessness “a true human crisis that is a litmus test for society’s compassion and government’s competence.” The mayor, too, is promising fundamental change.
It will take bold leadership and strong political will to turn around policies that have gone in the wrong direction for so long. After 30 years and five mayors, it is time to realize that simply tweaking the system again won’t work. A complete reorganization of its purpose is required.
By doing that, the demand for, the length of stay in, the rate of return to, and the cost of shelter will all eventually decline. The time has come to do the right thing, the right way, right now.