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New York’s Homelessness Crucible

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New York’s Homelessness Crucible

The issue should be front and center in the 2021 mayoral contest. New York City: Reborn 2021
New York City Reborn
Politics and law

Throughout the Covid crisis, one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leading challenges has been dealing with homelessness. All cities have faced this challenge, but New York’s has been greater because the city has the nation’s largest homeless population. During the de Blasio era, homelessness has swelled, probably contributing more to the mayor’s unpopularity than any other factor.

In his 2013 mayoral campaign, de Blasio invoked rising homelessness under Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a sign of the “tale of two cities” that he planned to “end” as mayor. Many on the left expected the transition from Bloomberg’s “luxury city” urban-governance model to de Blasio–style progressivism to usher in a golden age for the underclass. Since taking office, de Blasio has more than doubled the funding for homeless services and assigned some of his most trusted advisors to the issue.

Homelessness will be a leading issue in the 2021 mayoral contest. Contenders will be tempted to distance their homelessness approaches from de Blasio’s, given his bad polling on the matter. But too much criticism of de Blasio has been of an administrative nature, as if a more effective manager or shrewder communications strategy would have prevailed. To set a better direction on homelessness, New Yorkers need to grasp what happened over the last two terms and how Covid-related concerns will shape the near-term future. They need also to appreciate the limits of progressivism.

During the first year and a half of his mayoralty, de Blasio enjoyed a honeymoon on homelessness. The press and public were chiefly preoccupied with other questions, such as income inequality, labor negotiations, and the mayor’s feud with the police. Then, in the summer of 2015, the New York Post ran a flurry of articles about street disorder on the Upper West Side. De Blasio tried to brush off the criticism as tabloid “fearmongering,” but that defense faltered quickly as evidence mounted that homelessness was getting out of control. In August, a report in DNAinfo noted a spike in homelessness-related 311 calls, and a Quinnipiac poll showed bad numbers for the mayor on “quality of life.” By late 2015, two more polls would also report mounting public disapproval of de Blasio’s handling of homelessness. Meantime, the city’s shelter census, the conventional scorecard on homelessness management, kept rising. A damning New York Times report in October asserted: “By one key measure after another, homelessness in New York City has worsened over the last two years.” Even de Blasio acknowledged that homelessness was both a “perception problem and reality problem.”

In September 2015, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, deputy mayor overseeing homelessness, stepped down in protest. A few months later, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), Gilbert Taylor, was let go, reportedly because of incompetence. Their departures cleared the way for Human Resources Administration commissioner Steven Banks to consolidate control over homelessness policy. Banks is a legend in progressive circles. Before joining the de Blasio administration, Banks led the Legal Aid Society and directed its homelessness litigation strategy. De Blasio’s homelessness record has cost him support among both the public and some of his former progressive allies, but in the second camp, Banks’s reputation remains largely unscathed. Not everyone is an admirer, though. “Steven Banks can’t be trusted,” says Councilman Robert Holden, a conservative Democrat who has tangled with Banks over shelter-siting controversies. “He’s lied so many times, I don’t believe a word out of his mouth anymore. He is probably the worst commissioner that you could have in DHS because his history in dealings with the homeless is miserable.”

Banks devoted 2016 to developing the de Blasio administration’s strategic plan on homelessness. Formally released in February 2017, the “Turning the Tide” plan has several elements, but it’s fundamentally a communications strategy aimed at blaming New York’s homelessness crisis on past administrations. The messaging has remained consistent: de Blasio took office facing a rising “tide” of homelessness that he then “turned” by correcting a long legacy of neglect. In May 2020 testimony before the city council’s General Welfare Committee—almost six and a half years after de Blasio was inaugurated—Banks declared: “We know the current reality is a result of decades of economic changes and past choices at every level of government.”

Michael Bloomberg did not neglect the homeless. One of the more extraordinary myths of Bloomberg’s mayoralty is that he was a steely-eyed budget hawk. Bloomberg spent big across all policy areas, including homelessness. De Blasio inherited from Bloomberg a $1.5 billion homelessness budget. For context, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Continuum of Care” program, the main federal source of homeless assistance funding, was then budgeted at $1.8 billion. Bloomberg’s 9,000-unit “New York / New York III” initiative, jointly funded with state government, was, at that time, not only the largest supportive housing program in the city’s history but also in U.S. history. Bloomberg also built and preserved more than 170,000 units of affordable housing. New York City’s HOPE Count, regarded by many as one of the nation’s most accurate tallies of street homelessness, began under Bloomberg. Bloomberg built a massive new shelter intake center for families. Reports by the Urban Institute, the consulting firm Abt Associates, and the Harvard Kennedy School all praised Bloomberg’s homelessness approach. Several de Blasio initiatives are simply expansions of Bloomberg programs, such as homeless-prevention services, anti-eviction legal assistance, and “safe haven” shelters.

For many years, homelessness policymaking in New York has been mainly concerned with regulating the shelter system’s inflows and outflows. Providing homeless services in New York, in turn, largely consists of running the shelter system, a network of hundreds of temporary housing facilities. For the street homeless, the goal is attracting them into shelter in the first place; for those already in shelter, the goal is a timely and sustainable exit. All mayoral administrations have used rental subsidies to facilitate shelter exits; expanding rental assistance for homeless New Yorkers has been a chief de Blasio focus. The mayor launched a range of new, mostly city-funded, rental-assistance programs, budgeted at $590 million in fiscal year 2020. De Blasio reinstituted shelter clients’ preferential access to Section 8 housing vouchers and New York City Housing Authority units (Bloomberg had eliminated such access in 2005). The de Blasio administration claims that about 150,000 New Yorkers have benefited from its rental-assistance and rehousing programs. The administration carved out units in its much-touted affordable-housing program for extremely low-income and homeless families. And it launched the 15,000-unit NYC Supportive Housing program, a larger effort than all previous supportive housing programs combined.

De Blasio’s Turning the Tide plan has largely hit its benchmarks. Though single-adult homelessness has continued to rise, as the mayor predicted, the number of homeless families with children in shelter has been ticking down since 2017. Banks considers the plan to be therefore validated. It has begun to address, he says, “the devastating impacts of economic inequality and past inaction from prior administrations” that “led to the homeless crisis we face today.” He claims that “after nearly four decades of an ever-increasing homeless population in NYC, we have broken the trajectory of growth in the homeless census and the new programs, reforms, and investments we are implementing are headed in the right direction.”

Annual spending on homeless services now runs more than twice as high as it did when de Blasio took office. That’s due mainly to increased investment in shelter. Initially, de Blasio placed a moratorium on shelter expansion, trusting that his new rental-assistance programs would obviate the need for more shelters. When rental assistance failed to curtail shelter demand, de Blasio proposed building 90 new shelters as part of Turning the Tide. The official goal was, on net, fewer but higher-quality shelters citywide. But the expansion touched off a number of siting controversies in communities across the city.

Racism accusations dominate the debate over shelter siting. Progressives claim that opposing a shelter amounts to neo-redlining. This is ridiculous. On the city council, many of the most strenuous critics of de Blasio’s siting policies have been black and Hispanic councilmembers. A 200-bed shelter for single men is likely to prompt opposition regardless of whether its client mix reflects the host community’s racial makeup. The Facebook group Upper West Siders for Safer Streets has documented many examples of rising public disorder following the Covid-motivated conversion of the Hotel Lucerne on West 79th Street and Hotel Belleclaire at 2175 Broadway into isolation shelters. Public incidents of masturbation, drug use, drug sales, and sex acts are not going to be welcome anywhere, even if all involved parties are white.

Progressives’ stance on siting and “integration” is a jumble of contradictions. On the one hand, Banks, other city officials, and homelessness advocates feel that they must honor minority councilmembers’ objections that their neighborhoods bear too much of the burden of housing the homeless. On the other hand, they deny that there is any burden. An increasingly sacrosanct tenet of progressive housing policy holds that housing for the homeless poses no serious threat to neighborhood conditions.

Social integration, rightly understood, is a sensible policy goal. Many people become homeless, or stay homeless, because of weakened bonds with friends and family. But some neighborhoods send far more people to shelters than others. Shelter clients are most likely to maintain or reestablish bonds when they’re placed in facilities near their former homes where friends and family members still live. Indeed, the de Blasio administration has strived to place families in shelters near home communities so that the children can keep going to the same school. Especially given that the average length of stay in shelter for families and single adults has been surging for years, the city should be highly mindful of community bonds.

Shelters can destabilize neighborhoods. Every advocate can cite an example of a shelter or supportive housing facility that, in their view, is woven seamlessly into the neighborhood fabric. But different communities have different levels of toleration for disorder. A commercial area in Manhattan, used mainly by commuters and tourists, can integrate more disorder than a residential neighborhood. Large facilities for single men pose more risk than small facilities and facilities for families. A permanent housing facility that’s home to a large proportion of old, formerly homeless, men whose wild years are behind them can’t be compared with a shelter that houses young men, many still involved in criminal activity. Security inside shelters is a major concern, on which the city spends over $200 million annually. How, then, can security outside shelters be considered a nonissue? Who sincerely believes that, if they were trying to sell their house, they’d get more bids if a mental-health shelter moved next door? No community can trust city government when told that this will be the last facility to be sited in their midst. As the de Blasio administration has conceded, there’s no end in sight to the rising tide of single-adult homelessness in New York City.

Covid-19 has had a profound effect on homeless services in New York. De Blasio’s Turning the Tide plan pledged to reduce the shelter system’s footprint and phase out the use of commercial hotels. But fears that the virus would harm the thousands of single-adult shelter clients living in dorm-style accommodations prompted New York to disperse its sheltered homeless across dozens of hotels already emptied out due to the tourism collapse. This led to new siting controversies—most notably, on the Upper West Side.

Throughout the pandemic, Mayor de Blasio has faced consistent pressure from his left. Advocates criticized his opposition to encampments, claiming that it puts the street homeless at risk. Mayoral candidates criticized his responsiveness to Upper West Side community groups opposed to the isolation hotels. Though New York’s isolation-hotel program was by far the largest in the nation, city councilmembers deemed it inadequate for failing to give every homeless single adult his own hotel room.

The mayor has wavered on the hotel program’s future—at times, sympathizing with neighborhood groups and reminding people of his previous commitment to get out of hotels and, at other times, echoing advocates’ position that it should last until the public-health emergency is definitively over. The advocates’ position is based more on caution than science. New York’s homeless population was hit harder by Covid than any other city’s homeless population, but not as hard as initially projected; moreover, New York was hit harder than any other city. To the extent that Covid-19’s impact on the homeless wasn’t more severe, it’s not obvious how much credit the isolation hotels deserve, since the city did not move the homeless into them in large numbers until mid-April, close to the pandemic’s peak citywide.

As for Covid’s economic impact, family and single-adult homelessness have generally followed their pre-Covid trends. Many fear a homelessness surge if and when the ongoing eviction moratorium is lifted, though the connection between evictions and homelessness is less straightforward than often assumed. The budget crisis could well affect homeless services. De Blasio’s rental-assistance programs are vulnerable.

The city wants to convert some of the hotels to permanent homeless housing. Precedents exist for such conversions in New York. The administration has converted hundreds of “cluster site” units—apartments originally rented by the city to be used as shelter—into affordable housing. At the same time, homeless services are not the only claim on the budget, and next year’s budget deficit is projected to top $4 billion. The federal government has committed to fund the isolation-hotel program but only temporarily, and it’s clear that it won’t pay for the kind of social services that have always been deemed essential to the definition of adequate shelter in New York City. Transitioning all 13,000 occupants of isolation hotels into their own permanently subsidized units would force state and local officials to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars when the federal funding runs out, amid a historic fiscal crisis. Thanks to Covid, the next mayor must face down homelessness with a weak economy and massive budget deficit. De Blasio had a much stronger hand to play, and yet homelessness remains worse now than under any mayor in modern New York history. The challenge is truly daunting.

Sheltering the homeless in converted local hotels like the Belleclaire on the Upper West Side has led to rising disorder and growing protest among neighborhood groups. (LEV RADIN/PACIFIC PRESS MEDIA PRODUCTION CORP./ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

Still, some opportunities for reform exist. For starters, mayoral candidates must be pressed to explain how they’ll address public order. The quality-of-life crisis attending the isolation hotels, the early summer 2020 encampment in City Hall Park, surging complaints from transit staff and other frontline workers over subway cars taken over by unsheltered homeless people: How would mayoral candidates address these challenges? Covid-19 has made public disorder harder to manage by devastating New York’s tourist and storefront retail economies. With transit traffic still down 70 percent to 80 percent, and a tourism revival a distant hope, public spaces citywide lack vitality. Three or four panhandlers who may have gone unnoticed in a crowded park, pre-Covid, now dominate the setting. Jane Jacobs’s great insight was that busy streets regulate themselves. If we can agree on the value of orderly public spaces and acknowledge that the informal means of attaining that end are presently unavailable, the onus shifts to city government to respond.

Candidates should also be pressed on their opinions about not only the mayor himself but also Commissioner Banks and the Coalition for the Homeless. De Blasio polls poorly, in general, and on homelessness, in particular. But any candidate who supports the advocacy community and considers keeping Banks on the job would not depart substantively from the approach taken over the last seven years.

The city should expand supervision for the mentally ill. Mental illness and homelessness are closely connected. The city estimates that about 40 percent of the unsheltered population has a serious mental illness. Examples of recent spectacularly violent incidents with a homelessness and mental illness tie-in include the April 2015 sexual assault and murder of Ana Charle, a Bronx shelter director, by a former client of that shelter; the 2016 near-decapitation and death of shelter client Deven Black; and the October 2019 Chinatown murders of four homeless men, allegedly by Randy Santos, another homeless man. When challenged about the intersection of mental illness and homelessness, de Blasio would often cite his marquee behavioral-health initiative ThriveNYC. That distraction worked for a while, but ThriveNYC has since been discredited, mainly because of its inattention to mental illnesses severe enough to drive someone to cut off another person’s head.

Simply put, mentally ill New Yorkers need greater supervision. For some, that should mean inside a hospital. For others, a community program sincerely committed to serving hard cases, or outpatient commitment, through New York’s highly successful Kendra’s Law program, would be more appropriate. Inpatient psychiatric beds, already in dangerously short supply pre-Covid, have been cut during the pandemic. Rebuilding New York’s inpatient capacity, at general hospitals and state-run psychiatric centers, must be a priority of the next mayor.

Oversight of providers must be tightened. New York’s homeless-services system is mainly operated by nonprofits. The city set things up this way at the urging of an early 1990s task force appointed by Mayor David Dinkins and chaired by Andrew Cuomo. The Cuomo commission called for “not-for-profitization” of the then-city-run homeless-services system: “Government should provide the performance-based incentives to encourage innovation and initiative among not-for-profit program operators. Results rather than process should be rewarded. In this way the predominance of government-provided services would be ended and competition among the not-for-profits could lead to better pricing and services.”

The point is not to reverse “not-for-profitization” and give the shelters back to the city, whose record of operating facilities such as the Bellevue Men’s Shelter is not much to celebrate. New York needs high-quality service providers, and the original case for giving the job mostly to nonprofits still makes sense. The point is better outcomes. Mayor Bloomberg tried to institute a rigorous benchmarking system for shelter providers, the Performance Incentive program, but it had fallen by the wayside by the early de Blasio years. Provider benchmarking efforts should be restarted. Better oversight is a good in itself, but it could also help inform the siting debate by identifying good, mediocre, and poor providers. It might even save money. The Independent Budget Office estimates that reinstituting a version of the Bloomberg program could save the city over $20 million annually.

Above all, the city should restore the “services” to homeless services. The key focus has been on connecting homeless people with housing—temporary and permanent—while help with unemployment or mental-health and drug problems gets short shrift. Among New York’s single-adult homeless, the number of genuinely down-on-their-luck cases with minimal service needs is probably very small. Moreover, down-on-their-luck cases are the easiest to help because they can largely help themselves.

The single-adult system should establish an eligibility process. Though New York City provides a “right to shelter,” different protocols exist for families and single adults. Families must go through an eligibility process during which DHS staff verify that applicants truly have no viable housing alternatives. The city turns away hundreds of family-shelter applicants monthly. Candidate de Blasio, in 2013, criticized the process as too restrictive. His administration first loosened standards, but when that caused the shelter census to spike, it re-tightened them. As the New York Daily News editorial board observed, the reversal was a remarkable “mugged by reality” moment for a progressive administration. Single adults, by contrast, are not subject to an eligibility process. If they were, though, DHS staff would be empowered to limit shelter to those genuinely lacking alternatives.

The city should expand transitional housing. The state prison system is a major feeder into New York City’s shelter system. According to the most recent analysis by the Coalition for the Homeless, about 3,500 state prisoners were released directly into city shelters in 2018, down from 4,100 the previous year but up from 2,200 during de Blasio’s first year in office. The coalition rightly emphasizes the importance of “reentry housing” to help ex-offenders get on with their lives. Transitional housing is the most appropriate form of reentry housing. Transitional housing is longer-term and more service-enhanced than shelter; but unlike supportive housing, it is not permanent. Despite all the recent focus on criminal-justice reform and investment in homeless services, transitional housing has been in steep decline since the late Bloomberg years, with thousands of units lost.

Ex-offenders have been poorly served by New York’s policy toward three-quarters housing facilities—private boardinghouses for single adults—which the city should preserve. These structures are illegal under the city’s building code, which prohibits four or more unrelated people from living together. Reports by the New York Times and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prisoner Reentry Institute shined a light on abuses at certain three-quarters housing facilities. In response, the city launched a task force to crack down on them. More than 1,000 individuals have been relocated to various temporary and permanent city housing programs.

New York’s “modern” homelessness crisis began when the city regulated away the low-rent flophouses on which destitute single men once relied. With three-quarters housing, New York appears bent on forgetting the lessons of the past. Policymakers should treat substandard private housing as part of the solution to homelessness, not a cause of it. It’s striking that, despite three-quarter facilities’ shortcomings, tenants prefer to pay rent for them as an alternative to the streets and shelter, which are both free. The John Jay researchers found that “the tenants surveyed almost unanimously expressed their preference to live in a three-quarters home, as opposed to a shelter or the street. Some also reported an appreciation for the social support they received from housemates that have similar backgrounds or life experiences, and many reported that the homes struck the right balance between allocating them a degree of autonomy and providing the structure they need to recover, reenter society, and transition to more stable housing.” Homelessness policymakers typically emphasize the importance of client autonomy, but anyone who would prefer a three-quarters bed to the Bellevue Men’s Shelter is at risk of seeing his options dwindle in progressive New York.

Finally, all 2021 mayoral candidates should abandon the conceit that their affordable housing plans will meaningfully reduce homelessness. De Blasio’s affordable housing plan—the largest in city history—did not. Amid a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, New York will have enough trouble maintaining its existing housing commitments. More subsidized housing resonates with many voters, but not everyone is legitimately at risk of homelessness. It turns out that it’s far more expensive to provide subsidized housing to a household making $20,000 a year than $70,000. The de Blasio plan projects 300,000 affordable units by 2026. But as of November 2020, only 4,900 were newly built (as opposed to preserved), completed, and affordable to the “extremely low income” (less than $30,000 for a household of three) cohort.

New York would benefit from a debate over to what degree homelessness is a housing problem. Overly onerous housing regulations restrict the supply of apartments affordable to low-income households. Permanently subsidized housing should be provided to the small portion of individuals who will never overcome their homelessness without it. But when progressives describe homelessness as a housing problem, they mean that it’s driven by too little spending on permanently subsidized housing. New York’s recent history suggests that increased investment in permanently subsidized housing will have a modest effect, at best, on the homelessness crisis.

Top Photo: Midway through Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term, polls showed mounting disapproval of his handling of the homelessness problem. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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