New York mayor’s shelter plan will not reduce the city’s growing homeless population

By Philip Guelpa
21 March 2017

Under the administration of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio the critical lack of affordable housing and consequent growth of New York City’s homeless population have continued to worsen.

Already at historically high levels under his Republican predecessor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who had promised to reduce the homeless population by two-thirds, the number of people sleeping each night in the city’s homeless shelters, including 24,000 children, has risen to more than 60,000, an increase of 70 percent over the last decade.

This does not include the thousands more who live “in the rough” [i.e., on the streets] (2,800 by the last official count, which is considered low), many of whom refuse to go to the decrepit and overcrowded shelters, the administration of which is a bureaucratic nightmare.

Nearly four years ago, when he took office, the new mayor, who campaigned as a crusading liberal against what he called the “Tale of Two Cities,” promised to reduce the number of people in city homeless shelters to 51,000. Under his administration, however, this outrageously inadequate goal has not been met. Rather than shrink, the total has continued to grow.

Having failed to deliver on his promise and facing a campaign for re-election, de Blasio recently proposed a new plan, which would involve the construction of 90 new homeless shelters distributed in neighborhoods around New York. These would be in addition to the approximately 275 homeless shelters currently run by the city.

The new shelters would substitute for the current practice, which places some of the homeless in 360 hotels and apartments in private “cluster housing” sites, due to the lack of space in city-owned shelters. Conditions at these “alternate” shelters, where 18,000 people are currently housed, have repeatedly been described as horrendous. The city pays about $400,000 a day for hotel rooms alone.

The proposed new plan, with its stated aim to reduce the homeless population by a mere 2,500 (4 percent) over the next five years, is even more pathetic than the mayor’s initial goal. De Blasio’s proposal does not, in fact, reduce homelessness. It merely shifts people from one inadequate form of temporary housing to another. Conditions are especially abysmal for homeless families. Most have no kitchens or individual bathrooms.

Shelters are not homes; at best, they should provide short-term lodging while decent, permanent housing is obtained. In reality, people spend months or years in various forms of “temporary” housing. With the acute shortage of affordable housing that currently exists in New York City, and which de Blasio’s policies have done nothing to ameliorate, the prospect of finding actual, permanent homes for the shelter population is limited.

Furthermore, if the current growth in homelessness continues, even de Blasio’s minuscule goal will likely be counterbalanced by the newly homeless. This is, in effect, an open admission that the city is completely incapable of addressing the crisis.

The lack of any effective policy to address homelessness is exemplified by the fact that de Blasio suspended the construction of new homeless shelters for eight months in 2015 due to opposition from business interests and “not in my backyard” sentiments whipped up in local communities. The mayor recently said of the homelessness crisis, “I, today, cannot see an end.”

The severe lack of affordable housing and facilities for the homeless in New York City will be exacerbated if the already inadequate funding from the federal government is cut even further by the Trump administration. Trump’s proposed budget would cut $4.3 billion or 12 percent from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget. The appointment of Ben Carson as HUD secretary indicates that this is only the beginning of the wrecking operation.

Major reductions or the total elimination of such programs as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding, which pays for a large portion of the city’s family shelter system, would further devastate services for the homeless.

Cuts to the Section 8 voucher program, which provides support for low-income people to pay for rent, will worsen the already critical lack of affordable housing. Six thousand vouchers have already been lost over the last four years. The New York City rental market is the second most expensive in the country. Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is nearly $3,000 a month, and the vacancy rate is extremely low—this in a city where nearly two-thirds of its residents suffer severe economic hardship.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the largest public housing system in the US, with a total population of at least 400,000 poor and working class tenants, already has a backlog of $17 billion in needed repairs to its public housing buildings, and faces a major budget crisis due to an anticipated cut of $75 million in federal funds.

Critical repairs, such as water leaks and rampant mold, routinely go unaddressed for months or even years. Life-threatening conditions have developed in some cases. If growing numbers of apartments and even whole buildings become unlivable, thousands of tenants will be forced out and onto the streets, adding to the growing homeless population.

The continuing high level of home foreclosures in the city is another indicator of the acute housing crisis.

While the majority of the population faces increasing difficulty in finding a decent and affordable place to live, the luxury housing boom in New York City continues unabated, including many apartments that are unoccupied.

De Blasio’s broken promises point to a more fundamental contradiction. Growing homelessness is only one manifestation of capitalism’s increasing inability to provide a decent life for the working class. From housing, to education, to health care, to retirement, the voracious drive to maximize profits means increasing misery for workers and their families. Even the modest gains in social programs made over the last century are being clawed back by the rich. Only socialist policies carried out by workers themselves can reverse this tragic situation.

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