< Return To News Archive
August 1, 2006
Bloomberg Confronts Homelessness - and Neighborhoods

by Julia Vitullo-Martin
"Record Homelessness" proclaims the web site of the Coalition for the Homeless, reporting that the "number of homeless New Yorkers residing in shelters each night has reached the highest point in New York City's history." On August 28, the Daily Census of the Department of Homeless Services said that 32,900 people slept in shelters the previous night - 8,599 families and 7,452 single adults.

(?Julia Vitullo-Martin)Do these numbers mean that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to prevent and reduce homelessness since the late 1970s have been wasted and that the programs have been ineffective?

Not at all.

New York is far better off today than it was in the 1980s - when homeless families with children mixed with alcoholics, drug abusers, and deinstitutionalized former mental patients in shelters and on the streets.

(?Julia Vitullo-Martin)The Coalition says that the decade's homeless population peaked in March 1987 when 28,700 people lived in shelters. Since New York's population then was around 7.2 million, the percentage living in shelters was roughly .4 percent. The city's population today is a little over 8.2 million, so the percentage living in shelters is also .4 percent - in other words, rather than a new record demanding radical action the percentage of homeless people is roughly the same now as in 1987. This is surprising, since housing is far more expensive, at every price level, today than it was then.

George McDonald, president of the The Doe Fund, which runs employment, training, and housing programs, recently criticized the Coalition and other advocates for refusing to acknowledge the progress made by the city on homelessness: "The city's success," said McDonald, "refutes the advocates' philosophy of giving no-strings-attached handouts to the homeless, and expecting nothing of them."

(?Julia Vitullo-Martin)McDonald estimates that at least half of the people he works with for the first time have previously been homeless for substantial periods - mainly because of years of substance abuse and/or incarceration. He notes that Doe's employment programs have been successful: well over half of every cohort of new clients make it the first time they try to live and work on their own, after graduating from Doe.

Mayor Bloomberg addressed the issue on July 17, in a keynote talk to the National Alliance to End Homelessness Annual Conference in Washington D.C. To end homelessness, the mayor said, "we must first liberate ourselves from the chains of conventional wisdom, from the fetters of political correctness, from the tyranny of the advocates."

It's good to hear a mayor censure the advocates who, after all, designed and drove the shelter system that is today outrageously expensive, dangerous, filthy, and mismanaged. He's able to throw off the fetters of political correctness in part because advocates like McDonald have paved the way, distancing themselves and their programs from the irresponsible positions of their predecessors. Increasingly, the productive advocates - the ones who actually build and manage supportive housing - understand their facilities as good neighbors, like any other.

(?Julia Vitullo-Martin)In former days, says Rosanne Haggerty, the president of Common Ground Community, most advocates didn't think about what their facilities meant for a neighborhood. Or if they did, they denied there could be a negative effect. Yet Common Ground, whose declared mission is "to solve homelessness," thinks about the neighborhood carefully. "We blend into the neighborhood, and we treat our neighbors respectfully," she says.

Advocates were often stubbornly nonjudgmental, insisting, as Coalition founder Robert Hayes used to say, that the only problem of homelessness was a lack of housing. Despite Mayor Ed Koch's misgivings, his administration responded by offering shelter, without question, to all those asked for it - whether or not their personal behavior had led to their difficulties.

In fact, homelessness is overwhelmingly associated with other problems, including substance abuse, that can make formerly homeless households unwelcome neighbors. When households are helped with supportive services, such as mental health counseling, medical care, and job training and placement, they have a far better chance of holding onto their new housing - and being accepted by their neighborhood - than if they are simply thrown into a new environment unaided.

Along with being a social service provider, Common Ground is a careful landlord prepared to evict tenants who behave badly. "We have clear rules and we enforce them," says Haggerty. "Our people don't want to lose their housing."

Mayor Bloomberg is definitely saying the right things. In his keynote address on ending homelessness he cited the economy - a subject of little interest to traditional advocates. More New Yorkers are working than at any time in history, he noted. At 5 percent, the city's unemployment rate is the lowest since 1988. For those who are ready, willing, and able - to use the title of the Doe Fund's employment program - the city's workforce picture is strong.

The mayor has pledged to reduce the extraordinarily expensive and squalid temporary shelter system, moving instead towards supportive, permanent housing. This is good, but not without its dangers. Neighborhoods are right to be wary and to keep track of how every facility is managed. Facilities that start out great don't necessarily stay that way. Neighborhoods are supposed to be protected by the City Charter's fair share requirement, giving community boards the opportunity to comment on new, converted, or expanded facilities. But agencies can do end runs on community boards - a tactic regularly employed by the Department of Homeless Services,

< Return To News Archive ^ back to top