“I own it,” New York mayor Bill de Blasio told a radio interviewer recently, referring to the city’s metastasizing homelessness problem. De Blasio isn’t the first mayor to be swamped by the city’s host of homeless, and he won’t be the last. Providing for the dispossessed, as a matter of municipal policy, is a task that every administration must manage. As mayor, de Blasio has done a miserable job.

Almost 61,000 homeless individuals were in New York’s shelter system in early December—up from approximately 53,600 when de Blasio took office in January 2014. The official number, itself a record high, doesn’t include several thousand so-called street people: vagrants who employ their own devices to get by, often eluding census-takers. Overall, the city will spend an estimated $1 billion on shelter alone during the current fiscal year, and much more than that if one includes the full range of municipally funded services for the homeless.

More New Yorkers live in city shelters now than ever before. This is a sharp rebuke to de Blasio’s progressive agenda. He pledged to bring homelessness under control during his first term, if not quite to end it altogether. His hands are tied by a 1981 state supreme court consent decree that effectively obliges Gotham to provide the homeless with taxpayer-funded housing as a matter of right—and virtually no questions asked. The order created open-ended demand for shelter housing that is impossible to fill.

New York University professor Thomas Main identified three distinct mayoral approaches to homelessness since the 1981 consent decree: an “entitlement phase” under mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins; a period of “paternalism” under Rudolph Giuliani; and a “post-paternalism” stage under Michael Bloomberg. This last stage continues under de Blasio. Homelessness burgeoned under Koch and Dinkins because they defined the phenomenon as an entitlement to be funded rather than a program to be managed. It contracted during the Giuliani years because city hall insisted on attaching work and similar obligations to benefits, thus discouraging participation, but with no evidence of deprivation. Rolls began to swell again under Bloomberg as reciprocity rules were relaxed. The current administration has essentially dropped all pretenses of work rules or other quid pro quos for benefits.

As a Legal Aid Society lawyer, Steven Banks—the administration’s top social worker—fought for years to establish and then expand a right to shelter for homeless families with children. During the Bloomberg years, roughly 20 percent of those seeking free shelter got it right away; with Banks at the helm, that figure has risen to over 50 percent. Banks and de Blasio opened the spigot yet somehow seem startled by the increased volume.

City hall is increasingly relying on landlords to take in the homeless. In the last year, the percentage of newcomers placed in commercial hotels has tripled. In Maspeth, Queens, angry locals forced de Blasio to abandon a plan to convert a Holiday Inn into a permanent shelter for homeless men. The debacle reinforced the public’s growing belief that the administration hasn’t a clue what to do about the problem.

Mayor de Blasio notes correctly that he “owns” New York’s shelter commitments. He might also reflect on the fact that he’s the one who hired Banks, whose departure might help contain the growing crisis.

Photo by Russel Kwok


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