The Partnership for the Homeless

Mayor Bloomberg’s Legacy on Homelessness

Now that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is soon to leave office after more than a decade at City Hall, the startling fact that we now have more than 50,000 families and single adults languishing in shelters each night is perhaps a good moment in time to reflect on his legacy — and earlier promises made. One that looms quite large is his pledge, made at the start of his administration more than ten years ago, to reduce the City’s shelter population by, at the very least, two-thirds.

Today, despite the Mayor’s assurances that his administration would change the old ways of doing business, we’re faced with the reality that homelessness is at an all-time high. And that tragic reality does not even include the countless thousands sleeping on living room couches in the overcrowded apartments of family members or friends, or those about to lose their home as they struggle to pay more than 50% of their income in rent.

And, despite the facile response by the Mayor and his spokespeople, these dramatic increases are not simply the result of the economic crisis. Rather, the New Yorkers desperately seeking shelter are from communities that have been suffering under a “great recession” for decades, routinely making unthinkable choices between paying for rent or food or medical care.

Moreover, and contrary to his promises, the Mayor never charted a new course on homelessness or broadened the frame in which his administration viewed the problem. Instead of understanding it in the context of the larger struggle against poverty, his early promises drove his lieutenants to create a patchwork plan that just tinkered with a fundamentally flawed system. A prime example is the Mayor’s prevention programs, which were not designed to create robust community support systems of care or build neighborhood-based structures that could address the systemic causes of homelessness. They merely tried to divert families from shelter in a desperate attempt to keep them out of the system and the shelter numbers from growing even larger — but as we see now, for how long.

In short, as with past administrations, the Mayor’s efforts focused on shelter at the expense of solutions. As a result, this year, the City will spend a staggering $465.5 million to shelter thousands upon thousands of families and their children. It has already opened at least 15 new shelters, with more to come. Factor in the cost of sheltering single adults as well, and that figure doubles to nearly $1 billion. For that staggering sum, we’re left with little or no investment in the future of these families and individuals beyond the act of warehousing them and keeping them out of our sight.

So as a new Mayor and administration takes office, there needs to be a fundamental commitment to change course — to invest in the production and preservation of low-income affordable housing, and to strengthen rent regulations. And as a parallel effort, there needs to be a better mix of subsidies to ease the pathway out of shelter, especially greater access to federal section 8 certificates.

But we cannot end our efforts there, or we’ll simply perpetuate the belief that we’ll always have a permanent underclass, and insidiously shore up the status quo. Any new housing plan must be tied to a set of initiatives that truly prevents homelessness over the long-term, in which housing becomes the first step on a course to health and well-being, and economic opportunity.

Yes, it’ll require us to develop audacious goals. But it’s a sure way to inspire New Yorkers to dedicate their collective energies, creativity, and resources to a fundamentally different approach to combating homelessness. These tough economic times demand nothing less. The enormous dollars spent on shelter and other emergency stop-gap measures solve nothing and only continue to be a huge drain on the public treasury and the human spirit.