The Partnership for the Homeless

Housing, not Shelter

We need to dramatically shift our nearly 40-year old homeless paradigm

As is clear by now, Mayor Bill de Blasio must change our city’s strategy on homelessness, eschewing our long-standing reliance on emergency shelter.

Our chief disagreement isn’t that shelter is not necessary to provide immediate, short-term, emergency relief. Far from it. But it can’t predominate virtually all of our efforts. Otherwise, we’ll continue to find individuals and families trapped in shelters with virtually no way out.

Thus we need to dramatically shift our nearly 40-year old homeless paradigm, so that housing, and not shelter, is understood as a fundamental right. 

And while we’re, unfortunately,  still opening more shelters, spending $1 billion on stop-gap measures, it does seem as if Mayor de Blasio is signaling an essential change in approach. His broad-based policy of inclusionary zoning (e.g., setting aside 20% of new construction for affordable units) is an important break from the Bloomberg administration. But much more needs to be done with respect to both affordability and housing preservation.  Indeed, inclusionary zoning has met with only moderate success in other jurisdictions, and cannot be the sole initiative to underpin the mayor’s housing plan.  Nor can that plan meet the needs of the countless thousands who are homeless or near-homeless.

While the mayor surely needs to do much more to address the affordability crisis (there are many proposals and platforms which can provide a realistic, feasible framework), with the city’s shelter population exploding, we desperately need to find some immediate relief.

So, yes, let’s applaud the mayor for bringing back a rent subsidy program that should, to some extent, ease the pathway out of shelter.

We cannot, though, think of that rent-subsidy as a panacea to the problem. Otherwise, we’ll simply be perpetuating the belief that we’ll always have a permanent underclass – and insidiously shoring up the status quo.

More importantly, any rent subsidy plan, especially one that’s time-limited, needs to be tied to a larger and bolder set of initiatives that begins to support economic stability and independence. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves, once again, in the same predicament as the Bloomberg administration did, asking, “what happens after the subsidy ends?”

Thus, we need to couple the mayor’s short-term subsidy plan with a broad, integrated neighborhood-based homeless prevention strategy that invests in a multi-generational approach - one that works with young children and families to older adults.

For example, a great early development program for a toddler must be matched with programs that help older siblings thrive in high quality schools, that assist mom and dad to complete their own schooling and aspire to well-paying career paths, and that ensure grandparents healthfully age-in-place in their own homes. 

While this may seem like a tall order, the enormous dollars spent on shelter and other interim measures solve nothing and only continue to be a drain on the public fisc. The human cost is incalculable.

Arnold S. Cohen

President & CEO

Nov. 9, 2015