The Partnership for the Homeless

Homelessness Today, a Guest Editorial in the NY Daily News by Arnold Cohen

Adult answers on homelessness: We cannot arrest our way out of this quality-of-life problem

Friday, August 14, 2015, 5:00 AM
New polling suggests great dissatisfaction with our city’s quality of life. The image driving this negativity, at least in part, is of large numbers of homeless people suddenly appearing again on our streets and doorsteps.
Most blame Mayor de Blasio. After more than a year and a half in office, it does seem as if he should own the problem.
But it would be a mistake to blame the mayor for the rise in homelessness. This troubling problem is the result of powerful economic forces beyond any mayor’s control — and failed city policy spanning three decades.
Surely, some mayors have been more adept at skillfully hiding the problem. Aggressive police tactics drove those on our streets to the outer ridges of the city. And quick fixes, such as short-term rent subsidies, cosmetically lowered the shelter population, but only until the subsidy expired.
A few mayors even blamed homeless people themselves, labeling them as ne’er-do-wells in order to absolve their administrations of responsibility and divert public attention from the depth of the problem.
Unfortunately, no mayor has taken the long view and approached homelessness — with respect to families, who are overrepresented in shelters, and single adults, who are overrepresented on the sidewalks — with a strategy for solving it. As a result, we’ve created a sprawling shelter system that now costs us more than $1 billion every year, and that warehouses nearly 60,000 people every night.
There are now nearly 12,000 families with more than 23,000 children languishing in shelters every day. These families reflect a problem that has its roots in generational poverty, and that now seems intractable, in part because of our neglect in confronting underlying structural causes.
Given the current hue and cry, the de Blasio administration has a huge task ahead — without the infrastructure they need to solve the problem, especially for those living on our streets who struggle with mental health issues.
Shelters are not the starting point. We’ve learned over time that shelters cannot get many people off the streets or help them move into long-term care.
No, the street is not a lifestyle preference; people choose it because the alternative, shelter, is thought to be much worse — and often is.
So what should de Blasio do?
First, he must loosen the stranglehold that the shelter system has on our city’s homeless policy. His administration must engage in a paradigm shift, to a “housing first” model. This would completely bypass shelter and move people right from the street into apartments with intense wraparound services, particularly focusing on mental health supports.
Cities across the country, especially large cities like Chicago, have used this model and made great strides in reducing their street homeless population, while also finding it much more cost-effective than shelter.
Long-term outcomes underline the wisdom of the approach. When in permanent housing, people adhere to medication protocols, avoid reinstitutionalization and don’t return to the street.
This effort can also be supplemented by our city’s supportive housing network, which is doing a much better job than shelters to really give New Yorkers who are homeless the services they need to stabilize their lives. Supportive housing is significantly less costly than shelter, saving about $20,000 each year per person housed.
Unfortunately, the city-state partnership on this program has fallen significantly short this year. Some think reduced state funding was the result of animus between Gov. Cuomo and the mayor; whatever the reason, the flagging support for a program that’s proven is unacceptable.
So while fears of returning to the terrible times of the 1970s are in the air, there are tested approaches we can rely on to actually address homelessness. We just have to be willing to attack the problem seriously, rather than pretending that homeless people can be swept off the street by the police, never to return.