Manhattan Institute senior fellow Stephen Eide speaks with Professor Thomas Main, author of Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio.​

Audio Transcript

Stephen Eide: Hello everyone. I’m Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute filling in for Brian on the 10 Blocks Podcast brought to you by City Journal. I’m joined in the studio today by Thomas Main. Tom is a professor at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College here in New York City. Previously Tom worked for a number of reputable organizations and publications, such as the Smith Richardson Foundation, and he even did a brief stint at the Manhattan Institute in the early 1980s. Today we are here to discuss Tom’s new book, Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

Thomas Main: Thank you.

Stephen Eide: Okay, so I want to start off with, let me just frame the discussion this way. So it’s, you know, sometimes you hear it alleged that we’re not doing enough to help the homeless in New York City but the fact is that city government in New York spends close to $2 billion on homeless services across several city agencies. And one question your book is trying to answer is how did this subpopulation, which faces every possible disadvantage, manage to secure such a sizeable chunk of the city budget to yourself. What answer did you come to about that question.

Thomas Main: Well, let’s see. You know there was a school of thought, the pluralists, who said New York is made up of all sorts of different interest groups and they all get a little something, right? And then in the radical 60s and the 70s that approach came under criticism and the argument was gee, there are some groups who don’t get anything. So, I looked at the homeless and I said well if, you know, if there’s any group that’s not going to get anything it kind of looks like it’s going to be the homeless. But in fact I think that the homeless, they did not succeed in organizing themselves as an interest group the way like a union might or an ethnicity might, but they did succeed in attracting the attention of a homeless policy network that was very effective at representing them in courts and in other policymaking forums. So they weren’t an interest group that fought for themselves but they received the support of an effective policy network.

Stephen Eide: Yeah, one of the things that I think is very useful, that your books does very usefully, is help to remind us of the outsize role that courts have made in homeless policymaking in New York City. Can you talk a little bit about that for a second?

Thomas Main: Yes. I mean it’s clear that as a result of the Callahan v. Carey suit which dealt with homeless single men and McCain v. Koch and its follow-up lawsuits which dealt with families. Yes, entrepreneurial lawyers, activist lawyers, pushing for a right to shelter through the court played a very big role in New York City, you know, partly because New York State’s Constitution, in Article 17, has language that we construe to something like a right to shelter. So that was very important to see the impact of legal activism. However, one thing I would say, though, people do tend to focus on the legal activists and say oh, the city was dragged kicking and screaming to provide shelter all against its will. And there’s something to that, but that’s not the whole story. I mean I think the city could have put up more resistance to the legal advocates if it wanted to and in the end I think the city, for the most part, felt – gee, this is the right thing to do. It’s not politically sustainable to say we’re just not going to help homeless people. And so I think the shelter system that we’ve got, whatever you think of it, was partly built up not only by these legal advocates but also by the city and by mayors.

Stephen Eide: Well, yeah. I think that raises – but doesn’t that beg a question, though, that, you know, that is to say this is New York City, it’s a, you know, Democratic city, progressive-leaning city, surely New York would have provided for the homeless under any scenario. But yet what the real effect of this role that legal advocates and courts played is in this extensive regulation and oversight of the city’s homeless policy.

Thomas Main: Yeah.

Stephen Eide: Especially the shelter system. I mean that’s the question, it’s not whether or not we would provide for the homeless, but how we would do so and whether or not city officials would get, how much leeway city officials would get.

Thomas Main: Yes. I think one of the limitations of the system, alright, was the frame, or one of the limitations of the New York approach was framing the problem as a matter of right to shelter. So if you conceive of it as a right which is to be vindicated through the courts and you can conceive of it as a right to shelter you get two things. One is you get the courts involved in the management. They don’t claim to be involved in the management of the shelters but in fact they are, and that’s oftentimes suboptimal. The other problem is once you define the problem as a right to shelter what you get is shelter. And lots and lots of shelter. And you don’t necessarily get mental health services, you don’t necessarily get cheap permanent housing and so forth. So, you know, I in the end came around to supporting the idea of a right to shelter. It kicked off the system, which – and in fact in the late 70s not enough was being done for the homeless, that’s true. And so in that situation I can sympathize with people who said gee, whiz. We just got to sue these SOBs to get them off their butts. So I’m sympathetic with that but I think the limits of that approach are one, it doesn’t make for a great managerial environment and two, it limits you to focusing on shelter rather than any other approach.

Stephen Eide: Let’s move a bit into the current situation, because you do, in your book, bring it all the way up to the current de Blasio administration and its policy on homelessness. One thing that strikes me about the de Blasio administration it’s I believe the first mayoral administration to not have to deal with the courts in its homeless policymaking. Do you think this might have anything to do with the fact that the man that would have sued the current administration over shelter management and other aspects of homeless policy, Steven Banks, the former head advocate of the Legal Aid Society, is now de Blasio’s HRA Commissioner? Why has de Blasio not had to deal with the courts as much as prior administrations?

Thomas Main: Well I think the main reason is because the big court case, the McCain case that dealt with the right to shelter of homeless families, was settled under Bloomberg. And so you know, the case pretty much went away before de Blasio came on board at all. And I think it’s also probably true that the fact that Steve Banks is commissioner of HRA and now oversees homeless policy, I think that induced a lot of advocates to cut the city some slack that they wouldn’t have otherwise. But I think the main thing is, you know, the litigation just ended and that’s what happened.

Stephen Eide: Now your book is very provocative in a number of ways and one thing that it’s very provocative is, I think, is that it’s fairly sympathetic to the de Blasio administration’s approach to homelessness. I mean a poll showed that New York City’s public has generally taken a pretty dim opinion of the mayor’s approach on homelessness and yet you see de Blasio and Commissioner Banks as generally in the right track. What do you think the public has been getting wrong about the de Blasio approach?

Thomas Main: Well, let’s see. I think the public perhaps has the perception that there are many more homeless people on the street than there were under Bloomberg. And there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that. Now, there are, in fact, people on the street under de Blasio. The question is are there many more people on the street under de Blasio than there were under Bloomberg? And I don’t see much evidence for that. I do think the media has, you know, for political reasons partly, decided to focus on the homeless problem and run photographs of homeless people on the street under de Blasio, and that gave people the impression that there were more people on the street. Now, however, there are more people in the DHS shelter system than there used to be. I believe it’s now in the vicinity of 59,000 people, it’s at an all-time high, so that’s serious. So I would say the de Blasio administration deserves a certain amount of sympathy because they inherited a tough situation. The homeless shelter census was going up, not down, when de Blasio came in, okay? So to turn around a trend like that is challenging and I think de Blasio underestimated how tough it would be and maybe oversold the public on how much progress could be made and so I think there’s a certain amount of frustration.

Stephen Eide: Yeah, and if I could just you know, leap to the public’s defense on a couple of points or at least push back on a couple of things you say in the book, if you don’t mind, I mean first of all we know that the single adult population has been rising. It’s possible that the people that the public see on the streets are people who are sleeping in shelters but are, you know, out on the streets panhandling during the day, in particular the single adults. And second, this issue of permanent housing benefits. Permanent housing as a solution to homelessness, which is a solution that, as I gather from the book, you know, you resisted when you first began researching homelessness back in the 1980s, but you’ve since come around to support. And this is certainly central to the de Blasio administration’s solution to homelessness. Let me put the question to you this way. I mean giving out permanent housing benefits to get people out of shelter you reduce or stabilize the shelter census, but you increase overall levels of government dependence. I mean is this a win for social policymaking in New York City?

Thomas Main: Well I think it’s something to be thought about very seriously. Now, if you say okay, we’re going to take people, mostly families who are in the shelter system, and we’re going to get them out by moving them into public housing or by moving them into apartments that are owned by the city or by giving them a subsidy, then the question comes up well, will that encourage people to come into the system simply for the sake of getting the subsidy or the apartments? Now, I used to think that back in the early 90s I thought it was a very real possibility. I still think it’s a real possibility that the city should keep its eye on. However, there has been, I think, pretty much definitive quantitative work done by Dan O’Flaherty at Columbia. He looked at what happened when the Dinkins administration very rapidly moved homeless families out of the shelter and into city-owned apartments. I claimed that caused more people to come into the shelter system. O’Flaherty demonstrates quantitatively, and I haven’t seen anybody undermine these findings, that, as a matter of fact, very, very few people came into the shelter system in order to be eligible for the permanent housing and he estimated that the city has to place seven homeless families in city-owned apartments before it would draw in one family to the shelter system. So the perverse incentive exists, but it’s weak. Alright, so that’s one question. Now, then there’s another issue, okay? You might say fine, now let’s go ahead and give out the subsidies because we don’t have to fear about the perverse incentives. But then, as you point out, if you subsidize people then you end up subsidizing them and they are now dependent on the subsidy and you have to ask, so you have now – now you have another problem. You don’t have a problem with perverse incentives but you have a potential dependency problem and you’ve got to decide whether that’s, that problem, a dependency problem, is better than the problem you would have of people being on the street in the case of the mentally ill, and so forth, and in general I think we’re rather better off with the dependency problem than we would be with the problem of a lot more people on the street getting nothing.

Stephen Eide: And, you know, can you try to separate what you just said between the two populations that homeless policies typically define it in between. I mean you have the single adult problem and then you have the family problem.

Thomas Main: Yes.

Stephen Eide: And the single adult problem is the one that, you know, this is – these are the type, we see them on the street, they have much higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness. The family problem, most of the people in the shelters, most of New York City’s homeless population is basically single mothers with children.

Thomas Main: Yes.

Stephen Eide: That’s the largest number. The solution that you just laid out, I mean to what extent do we need to distinguish between those two different populations?

Thomas Main: Well, they’re very different populations and they require very different interventions. The single individual man population is much more disabled than the family population. The single men are much more substance addicted, much more mentally ill. And they require some form of intense rehabilitation, right? The family population is different. You don’t have dramatically higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse amongst homeless families than you have amongst housed families that are similarly poor. Homeless families, generally, if you simply move them very rapidly into subsidized housing, even if they don’t get rehabilitation, right, they generally do pretty well. So therefore the rapid rehousing approach seems to work with the homeless families. I’m more skeptical about that approach with homeless individuals because you need some way to, you know, to get them into rehabilitation if you possibly can.

Stephen Eide: Yes, and clearly in the public’s mind I think the greatest concern when you are talking about maintaining levels of public order, you know, making sure…

Thomas Main: Yes.

Stephen Eide: …that you know, the streets are clean, they are not disorderly, we don’t have, you know, encampments, a problem like that. That’s really, has more to do with the single adult issue in…

Thomas Main: Yes, and I think, you know, going back to this question of the public, I mean I’m not arguing that the public, you know, doesn’t know what it’s talking about. The public is very concerned about public order. I am too and I think the de Blasio administration, you know, failed to communicate forcefully that, you know, they were not going to allow the order on the streets to deteriorate. And when the public somehow got the idea that that was not as much of a priority as it used to be they objected and, you know, and de Blasio has, you know, ever since then been trying to convince people hey, I’m really on top of this public order issue with mixed results.

Stephen Eide: Well, you know, I think that’s all the time we have now. Thanks so much for coming in, Tom.

Thomas Main: You’re welcome.

Stephen Eide: We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thank you again, Tom, for joining us.

Thomas Main: Thank you.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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