The Partnership for the Homeless

The “Dark Side” of NYC’s Right to Shelter

The Department of Investigation’s report on the squalid conditions in homeless shelters surely gave us all a peek into the “dark side” of the right to shelter in New York City.  That right – borne from a lawsuit against both the City and State - was truly an important breakthrough in the late 1970s when so many people suddenly appeared sleeping on our doorsteps and streets, and in our parks and subways. Requiring government to provide emergency shelter was surely the humane thing to do at the time, especially when the problem was thought to be a short-term crisis that would soon be solved with a robust affordable housing effort.

History, of course, proved everyone wrong and now, three decades later, we have an ever-growing sprawling shelter system, which warehouses nearly 60,000 people every night, with little available in the way of housing and other resources to help the increasing number finally find a way out.  And as the DOI starkly reports, they’re trapped in places that are just intolerable, with families and young children living in conditions that jeopardize their health and safety.

While we should certainly applaud the de Blasio administration for initiating the probe conducted by the DOI, hopefully they’ll use the report as the impetus to do more than try to fix an already irreparably broken system, for which we have the pleasure of paying over $1 billion dollars every year. Promises of greater oversight of those organizations providing shelter should give us little solace.

I’m sure we’ll hear, in response to the report, a hue and cry from shelter providers that they’ve been underfunded. That claim, however, is just no excuse for allowing those New Yorkers, desperately seeking shelter as the last refuge from the street, to live in such inhumane circumstances.

As a start, I say revoke the contracts of these shelter providers (and stop doing business with those without one) and find organizations that truly appreciate the moral imperative of caring for the people they shelter, instead of using our City’s shelter program as an avenue for amassing government contracts for the purpose of growing and financially sustaining their organizations.

Indeed, shelter providers, many of whom are non-profits that gobble up City contracts to run shelters, have become a significant bloc in supporting our continued dependence on shelter. And it’s all terribly insidious, with organizations couching their interests in outmoded social services theory to perpetuate the belief that shelter is necessary because homeless people are not supposedly “housing ready”.

But housing, and not shelter, is the critical first step to solving the problem; the place where all other positive outcomes can flow. Indeed, the research literature in the field has conclusively shown that housing is central, even for those who are struggling with significant mental health issues or drug and alcohol use.

So the revocation of contracts should just be thought of as a first step in dealing with the immediate, most pressing problem. Ultimately, we need a complete shift in approach and make this massive shelter system obsolete, in the long-term, by putting our energy in homelessness prevention, with housing affordability and economic stability the key indicators of success. In the end, it is so much more preferable to allocate our dollars to create neighborhood-based support systems that help stabilize a family in housing rather than spend $36,000 a year to shelter an already evicted family. And for every family that isn’t uprooted, every child who remains in her own school, every senior citizen who can stay in her home of 40 years, that’s a tremendous victory.

And this paradigm shift shouldn’t be thought of as heretical to the right to shelter. No matter how crucial it may be in protecting New Yorkers from the rigors of the street, that right could never have been intended as a substitute for housing, as it has now become over time. So while there’ll surely be an ongoing need for some level of shelters to deal with those truly short-term emergency situations, it simply can’t predominate our efforts as it does today. The cost to the public fisc is too astronomical, with little results. The human cost is just incalculable.