The Partnership for the Homeless

There’s No Simple Cure to Homelessness

A response to the New York Times op. ed., 10/19/15

Providing tenants with a right to counsel will go a long way in creating a balance of power in Housing Court, where the vast majority of tenants are vulnerable to evictions because, unlike landlords, they go unrepresented by attorneys. And, in a time of rapid gentrification of neighborhoods throughout the City, attorneys can surely provide a bulwark against tenant harassment that often leads to illegal evictions.

Let’s be careful though not to overstate the value of the right to counsel as a homeless prevention tool, as if it’s the key to finally unlocking the solution we’ve been searching for after all these years.

Yes, it’s certainly an important tool in our tool kit, but no cure. In reality, for many young families in shelter this right will be illusory. Statistically, based on past studies, more than 40% of families in shelter were never the leaseholder of the apartment to begin with and not subject to eviction proceedings where counsel would have helped. Instead most were doubling up with families and friends until the relationship became untenable – and shelter was their last resort.

Moreover, while having counsel in eviction proceedings is critical for those families in housing court, especially in the short-term, it’s only addressing a symptom of a much larger problem – and not the cause. 

Thus, if we’re serious about solving homelessness with a longer term strategy, we need to focus on our housing affordability crisis and the lack of economic opportunity (e.g., the dearth of effective job training and skill building programs) that is plaguing those who unfortunately find themselves and their children languishing in City shelters.

If we don’t look at larger, root causes, we’re simply relegating ourselves to accepting poverty and homelessness as inevitable in our City, ignoring the depth of the problem at hand, providing counsel to some who find themselves about to fall over the edge of the precipice. Unfortunately though, nothing will happen to break generational patterns of homelessness. The household bottom-line will be the same as it was before – marginally above, at or below the poverty level.

Arnold S. Cohen
President & CEO
Oct. 19, 2015