Stephen Eide joins Brian Anderson to discuss the homelessness crisis in New York City, the problems with Mayor de Blasio’s approach, the right way forward for Gotham’s next leader, and how cities across the country can tackle their homelessness problems.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Stephen Eide. He's a City Journal contributing editor and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Stephen studies a wide range of issues, including public finance, mental health, and homelessness, which is going to be the subject of today's show. New York has the largest homeless population of any city in the country and in a feature for our New York City Reborn special issue, Stephen details the ways that Mayor de Blasio's reforms have really not improved the homeless situation, to put it mildly, and he suggests some policies for mayoral candidates who are serious about improving the situation. Stephen, thanks very much for joining us.
Stephen Eide: Thanks for having me, Brian.
Brian Anderson: Mayor de Blasio, as you note in this essay, which is called “New York's Homelessness Crucible,” Mayor de Blasio ran for office citing homelessness as one of the principal issues that was facing the city, but by most objective measures, his policies haven't really worked. How do you explain this? Do administrative reasons account for the failure, or is there something deeper about his entire approach that that might address the problem?
Stephen Eide: Well, I think that homelessness has probably harmed Mayor de Blasio's reputation more than any other issue, I would say, across these two terms. He's never been a particularly popular mayor, even on the left. Homelessness has been a major driver of that unpopularity. There's just a way in which the issue seems to underscore the problem of government incompetence. Homelessness just, it seems like a problem that, above all the things that we may put on the city government's lap, caring for the homeless should be something that they should know how to do and they don't, so even in this mayorals race this year, when many of the candidates are pretty similar politically to where de Blasio is, their criticisms of de Blasio has been pretty unrelenting, I think because they've looked at the poll numbers showing that New Yorkers are generally very dissatisfied with de Blasio's record of homelessness.
Brian Anderson: Well, you're seeing evidence of this everywhere in the city. On the streets here, you're seeing these tent encampments that are being set up and you're running into a lot more aggressive panhandling on the streets. But again, what has been the central theme of the de Blasio approach? How did they try to tackle homelessness?
Stephen Eide: Well, they ramped up spending quite dramatically. The amount of money that New York spends on homeless services across a couple of different city agencies is now over $3 billion. It's more than doubled under de Blasio. It's important to understand that most cities don't spend anything like that on homeless services. That amount is within shouting distance of how much the federal government's HUD agency spends on homelessness, so the amount is really staggering. I mean, the police department's budget is about $5 billion, so the homeless services system in New York City has now become one of the major municipal functions. It's one of the core things, most expensive things that city government does.
I should say that at the moment, homelessness has been trending down overall in New York, and there is a strong chance that de Blasio will leave office with a lower amount of homelessness than when he entered it. It's been a wild ride and I would certainly not describe the homelessness rate as "stable." Prior administrations have also experienced homelessness dips, such as Bloomberg, only to see it rise later, but many, many of the other problems that we associate with homelessness beyond just the shelter census scorecard measure of homelessness, such as street-related disorder, as you've noted, mental-illness-related disorder, those seem to most people still totally out of control, and thus, they will play a very important role also in defining de Blasio's legacy on this issue.
Brian Anderson: COVID-19 was predicted by many to be a catastrophe for the New York City shelter population, or certainly, those living on the street, and so the city did take some very aggressive measures to deal with that. They actually went as far as to convert several hotels to housing for the homeless and this led to some serious objections from people who were living in the vicinity of those hotels. In your view, were those policies justified? What is the status now of those converted hotels? Have they started returning them to their original purpose, or are they still being used to house homeless people?
Stephen Eide: Well, I think what we need to be focused on now is the debate surrounding whether or not the systems that were built, especially the isolation hotels during COVID, are going to be converted to essentially permanent systems, which is what many advocates are calling for, that both the eviction moratoria and also the isolation hotels, many advocates view those as astounding successes, and thus, why don't we keep these in place going forward as long as possible? There is some precedent for converting hotels for use to house the homeless if you look back across New York City history, but to people outside the circles of homeless advocacy, these hotels do not necessarily look like such a big success. They've created a lot of disorder problems, especially on the Upper Westside. One of these recent incidents that's been framed as anti-Asian violence was this man who attacked this Asian woman who was on parole for having killed his mother many years ago. He was a client of one of the isolation hotels, one in Midtown.
What you see with the isolation hotel program is what happens when you house lots of, lots of single adult homeless men, the vast majority of whom have some sort of behavioral problem, with only a vague idea as to what sort of supervision or social services you're going to provide to them. There's two extremely different ways of looking at how this program has played out, and if the advocates get that way, then we're going to see a lot of these hotels, some of which occupy very valuable real estate in terms of what we think we need to do in terms of promoting tourism in returning Midtown Manhattan to a state of normalcy, if those are going to become housing for the homeless, I think we could see some very permanent changes to the Manhattan streetscape in coming years.
Brian Anderson: You mentioned earlier the mayoral race, which is really intensifying now. Any number of candidates have tossed their hats into the ring, but a number of them have identified homelessness, as you noted, as a major priority, though you would have to say in many cases, their policies seem basically to be following the de Blasio route, or maybe doubling down on the de Blasio approach. You talk in this essay in our special issue about the need to restore services to homeless services and I'm wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on what you mean by that?
Stephen Eide: Well, I especially mean mental health services. The de Blasio approach, the approach taken by basically any progressive is to try to build your way out of homelessness: Just add as much affordable housing as you can. Historically, de Blasio had the largest affordable housing program in city history and it a long while for that to kick in and in the terms of the single adult problem, as I said, there's still a lot of uncertainty as to how successful it was.
Many of the homeless individuals, especially the ones who attract the most notice by the public, have serious mental illness. The rate is probably around 25 to 33%, so about a third of the population, and our mental health system in New York City is just as broken as it always has been. In fact, it seems to be even more broken than ever in light of the many spectacular tragedies, stabbings, subway pushings we've been seeing over the last year. If we're just concerned about connecting those types of people with housing, there's a way in which that tends to crowd out constructive debate over how we connect them with effective mental health services. There's a very big debate that needs to take place about how we make our mental healthcare system more effective, but that debate doesn't tend to get going very far when housing continues to suck all the air out of the room.
Brian Anderson: New York, as you note in the essay, has perhaps the worst homelessness problem in the country, but other cities you would have to say are in the running: Los Angeles has a significant problem, San Francisco is notorious for its homelessness crisis, really, Seattle has had a significant rise in street disorder and homelessness. In your view, in each of these various places, are these discrete problems that require very different solutions, or would some of these suggestions that you've made regarding New York also be successful in these other cities?
Stephen Eide: Well, I think the problem that I just described with respect to how housing tends to crowd out focus on all other concerns, that's certainly applicable. I personally tend to lean hard on the mental health angle because I see a huge gap between basically what more ordinary members of the public would support in terms of mental health reform and what the advocacy community continues to demand, so I think much more focus on programs targeting at the seriously mentally ill needs to be part of the discussion in all these jurisdictions, and especially in terms of just more supervision of seriously mentally ill individuals. We're still not anywhere near where we need to be with that.
With respect to housing, there just needs to be a much more honest discussion about the very modest effect that housing programs have had, especially with regard to single adult homeless people. These are jurisdictions that are very expensive jurisdictions, and the high cost of rent does certainly contribute heavily to their homelessness crises, but if it's very expensive for a private developer to build housing in any of these places, it also happens to be very expensive for government to do so. That's why these historic investments in housing have had such modest effects and I think that politicians really haven't leveled with the public as far as the housing element goes.
Brian Anderson: You're working on a book on homelessness in US history, right? I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and what kind of approach you're taking there?
Stephen Eide: Yeah. Thanks for asking. The working title is Homelessness in America. It's a comprehensive look at the challenge that cities are faced with at the moment, but I go through the history of homelessness, looking at the tramp and Skid Row eras, as well as the emergence of the modern crisis around 1980, I discuss the debates over values that shape what kind of solutions we're willing to consider for homelessness, and I also break the program into what I consider to be its four essential parts, namely disorder, mental illness, unstable families, and housing. The basic overarching point is that we need to rethink the concept of homelessness itself and understand it to be very artificial concept in a lot of ways.
Brian Anderson: You mentioned disorder here. I wonder, the push to make marijuana legal in various cities and states, is that something that could worsen the problem here?
Stephen Eide: If it leads towards increased marijuana use, it will make a number of mentally ill people more difficult to handle, I would say. I think that the effect on untreated serious mental illness has not been enough of a part of the conversation about marijuana legalization, as it should be. Generally, if you understand marijuana decriminalization as the larger part of criminal justice reform, criminal justice reform appears to be placing a lot of pressure on the homeless services system as we become more and more reluctant to give the criminal justice system any type of role in social policy and just continue to push the jail population down as far as it can go. In the case of many people, if we're not going to put them in jails, and if they're not going to be in mental hospitals, the only other option is the streets, and that's what we seem to be seeing happening. We especially seem to see that happening even more over 2020, which saw enormous reductions in the number of mentally ill people in jail as a result of the combined effect of bail reform and humane releases for COVID.
Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Stephen. The essay is called “New York's Homelessness Crucible.” It's in our special issue, New York City Reborn. Don't forget to check out Stephen's work for City Journal. It's on our website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter at @cityjournal and on Instagram at @cityjournal_mi. If you like what you've heard on this podcast, please give it a ratings on iTunes. Stephen, thanks very much for your time today.
Stephen Eide: Thanks for having me, Brian.
Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images