Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio, by Thomas J. Main (NYU Press, 288 pp., $49.50)

New York City’s annual outlay for homeless services approaches $2 billion, a sum that has ballooned by hundreds of millions of dollars since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in January 2014. Much to de Blasio’s chagrin, more spending has failed to shrink the city’s homeless population or convince the public that the problem is under control. Baruch College professor Thomas Main’s new book helps explain how homelessness became perhaps the most intractable policy challenge that de Blasio and other New York City mayors have faced over the last three decades.

Main stands out from most homelessness experts in having at least considered the possibility that progressive policies do more harm than good. Indeed, that was his position when he began researching the issue in the early 1980s. Over time, however, he’s shifted left, to the point where he now believes that the advocates have always had it right and homelessness boils down to a housing problem to be solved by giving people a home. Main’s arguments aren’t always persuasive. But his attention to detail and balanced judgment makes this a valuable history of social-policy research.

Making sense of homelessness in New York requires accounting for how a subpopulation with every possible disadvantage managed to secure for itself such a large share of the city budget. Main explains that this is largely due to the outsize role that courts have played in developing homeless policy in New York. Almost unique among American jurisdictions, New York recognizes a “right to shelter.” This dates back to a consent decree that Mayor Ed Koch signed in 1981, conferring such a right on single adults. After subsequent litigation, the right to shelter was expanded to single women and families. Koch’s intent was to end a lawsuit brought by homeless advocates. The real effect was to give judges and activist lawyers extensive oversight over how city government provides temporary housing to the homeless.

Main details pitched court battles over questions such as: What toilet-per-person ratio constitutes adequate shelter? Does allowing families to sleep temporarily in a welfare office, for lack of another option, constitute a denial of their right to shelter? May the city impose conditions on the receipt of temporary housing, as it does for cash welfare? Can the city scrutinize the claims made by families that they have nowhere else to go before granting them access to shelter?

Under a traditional model of policymaking, answers to these and related questions would be provided by duly elected politicians and the expert administrators they appoint to deal with the problem. Oversight would be exercised by voters, assisted by the media and other observers, through the ultimate scrutiny of elections. But in New York, homelessness policy was deemed too important to be left to democracy.

After chronicling the decades-long struggle over the shelter system, Main explains how the concept of temporary housing itself became homeless. The mantra in the early nineties was that the city needed to invest heavily in shelter conditions and services in order to make the homeless “housing-ready.” But this theory gradually fell out of favor through the rise of “Housing First,” an approach that insists on immediate and unqualified access to permanent housing as the most effective way to combat homelessness. Housing First originated in New York City and now dominates homeless policy across the nation. That is to say, in recent years, the policy consensus over what to do about homelessness and the policy consensus over what to do about poverty have moved in opposite directions. Whereas mid-nineties welfare reform led to increased appreciation for the value of time limits and work requirements for cash assistance, the conventional wisdom on homelessness holds that permanent-housing benefits are more effective when provided with as few preconditions as possible. Those who call for prioritizing the treatment of “underlying causes” of homelessness—such as drug addiction—are viewed as out of step with the times. Main is an admirer of Housing First.

Main also has high praise for de Blasio, in contrast to most New Yorkers, who polls show have a dim view of the current administration’s record on homelessness. Main prefers de Blasio’s policies over those of prior administrations because he believes that they are better informed by social science research. But much of the research he cites in support of de Blasio’s policies and Housing First relies on a standard known as “stably housed.” This standard is only defensible to the extent that the homelessness challenge may be decoupled from that of poverty more generally. For a homeless individual in the grip of an incapacitating mental illness such as schizophrenia, keeping him housed is indeed a major victory. But if “stably housed” were all that mattered in anti-poverty policy, the New York City Housing Authority, where the average tenant has occupied his unit for more than two decades, would be hailed as a momentous success and spawn imitators in every city across urban America. That isn’t happening.

Main himself cites findings from a 2012 study of the Section 8 rental-voucher program that concluded, “Section 8 vouchers discourag[e] work. Section 8 families had six percent higher unemployment and 15 percent higher welfare receipt than similar families that did not receive the subsidy.” At times, fighting poverty requires promoting greater mobility, not stability. Otherwise, we risk “warehousing” the poor in areas where opportunities for advancement are minimal.

Main also approves of de Blasio’s decision to abandon Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious goal of “overcom[ing]” homelessness. This point is fair enough. Any honest assessment of New York’s homelessness challenge must lead to a certain sympathy for the de Blasio administration’s inability to get a handle on the problem. Not even the overachieving Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations were able to make much headway on homelessness. If de Blasio fails in his bid for reelection next year, public discontent over homelessness will probably be a factor. The truth is, however, that his successor is unlikely to do much better.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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