In December, under heavy criticism and after the resignation of his commissioner of homeless services, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tried to reboot his administration’s homelessness policy. He ordered a “comprehensive review” of existing programs and launched Home-Stat, an enhanced outreach effort on street homelessness, the problem that continues to weigh down his approval ratings. But last week’s announcement that his administration has “ended chronic veteran homelessness” suggests that the mayor remains wedded to technical definitions of success and lacks a long-term strategy for homelessness and poverty.
The federal government’s definition of “ending chronic homelessness” among veterans doesn’t mean that New York City has no more homeless veterans. A “chronically” homeless individual means someone who suffers from a disability and has been without a permanent home for more than a year or experienced four bouts of homelessness in the last three years. It’s not hard to see how a homeless veteran’s circumstances may not qualify him to be counted in this category. Not only do hundreds of veterans still live in city shelters—as last week’s press release admitted—but also, the city assumes that roughly 100 veterans will continue to fall into homelessness each month. The federal government trusts, however, that city government possesses the resources and ability to connect newly homeless veterans with permanent housing within 90 days. The federal government is more confident in the administration’s competence on homelessness than is the public. And finally, Washington doesn’t send workers out onto local streets to audit city data. The feds rely on whatever figures the city provides.
Strangely absent from last week’s press release was the claim made by administration officials to the city council in November that, under de Blasio, the number of street homeless veterans has fallen by 97 percent—from 329 to just eight. That claim seems about as credible as the city government’s finding that, between 2014 and 2015, street homelessness in Queens dropped from 253 to 20. Even the de Blasio administration has implicitly recognized the need for better data. Only two weeks prior to the “chronic” homeless veterans announcement, the administration promised that its new Home-Stat initiative would “provide a more complete and real-time understanding of homelessness in New York City.”
In other words, New Yorkers who doubted the administration’s claims that it had reduced street homelessness during de Blasio’s first year will be justifiably skeptical of the city’s current claims about ending homelessness among veterans. As one advocate bluntly put it during November’s city council hearing: “I think it’s ludicrous to say that we know every single homeless veteran out there.” But even if one accepts the factual basis of New York’s claims about ending chronic homelessness among veterans—according to the federal government’s definition—it would be foolish to draw general lessons about the administration’s direction on homelessness.
The goals of homelessness policy should, for the most part, be the same as anti-poverty policy. Ending chronic homelessness among veterans requires rapidly connecting homeless veterans with housing benefits. But beneficiaries of housing benefit programs are likely to stay poor. Unlike cash-assistance welfare, housing benefits typically lack time limits and work requirements. It’s questionable that providing more money for rental vouchers or supportive and affordable housing will end homelessness. Such programs’ ability to create upward mobility for the poor is even more dubious. Counting increased dependence on government programs as a policy victory shows just how low a bar this “bold, progressive” administration sets for itself.
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