When Bill de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013, castigating his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s record on homelessness was central to his “Tale of Two Cities” argument, in which he portrayed a city of deepening wealth divides. Since taking office, de Blasio has nearly doubled spending on homeless services, which now exceeds $2 billion. The results have been unimpressive, though. The numbers of homeless in all categories—sheltered and unsheltered, families and single adults—have risen on the mayor’s watch. To the extent that New Yorkers worry about a return to the “ungovernable city” days, homelessness is Exhibit A.
De Blasio at first dismissed criticisms of his homelessness policies but has more recently made a few changes. He let go his commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in December 2015, initiated a partial merger of the DHS and Human Resources Administration in April 2016, and, in February 2017, committed to opening 90 new homeless shelters across the city. Two other changes have proved even more significant. First, in late 2016, de Blasio persuaded the state government to tighten shelter-eligibility restrictions for homeless families—a striking reversal of his position in the 2013 campaign, when he described the city’s eligibility process as “unfair and overly punitive.” By my calculations, since making this shift, the de Blasio administration now grants 41 percent of all family shelter petitions, compared with 47 percent beforehand. The average monthly increase of families in the shelter system under de Blasio was 0.7 percent before the new screening procedures were put into place, compared with a 0.6 percent average monthly decrease since. Taking a more conservative approach to homeless policy has thus been more effective in reducing homelessness than the range of progressive policies that the administration usually touts. The Daily News aptly termed de Blasio’s course correction on shelter eligibility his “mugged by reality” moment on homelessness.
Second, de Blasio has lowered expectations about what he can achieve on homelessness. In his “Turning the Tide” master plan released earlier this year, the mayor projected a decline in the total homeless shelter census of a mere 4 percent over the next five years. At that rate, levels of homelessness in New York would still be much higher than under any administration in modern history.
In the near term, the two most important developments to watch will be what happens with the perhaps dozens of neighborhood siting controversies resulting from de Blasio’s expansion of the shelter system; and what the future of rental assistance will look like. At the core of de Blasio’s homelessness policy is a network of rental-subsidy programs. Some of these, such as preferential access to public housing and Section 8 vouchers, provide permanent benefits, but others, such as some of the “Living in Communities” voucher programs, are time-limited. This year, the progressive city council has begun a push to make the temporary programs permanent, though whether the city can find the funds for doing so remains to be seen.
Will the homeless fever ever break? During New York’s “bad old days,” mayors got reelected while presiding over murder rates that look like a humanitarian crisis from a contemporary perspective. The voting public is now at risk of settling into a similar complacency on homelessness. When a social problem gets worse after government doubles spending on it, a dramatically different policy direction would seem warranted. Serious changes are unlikely, though, under de Blasio’s progressive administration.
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