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December 18, 2012
NYC?s huge strides on homelessness

by George T. McDonald

The Coalition for the Homeless just announced a new public-service-ad campaign to highlight the record number of children living in New York City’s homeless shelters: nearly 20,000.

The number is appalling, of course, another sign that we have a long way to go before we can say that we have effectively reduced the number of homeless New Yorkers.

But the handwringing over such statistics also tends to obscure a larger point: New Yorkers have been extraordinarily generous over the last three decades in helping the least fortunate among us.

We’ve spent literally billions of taxpayers’ dollars to provide decent temporary shelter to the homeless and to build tens of thousands of permanent apartments for homeless families and other poor and working-class residents.

And it’s not just government action: Individual New Yorkers have been unusually generous in their private contributions to the many nonprofits that work with the homeless to stabilize their lives and help them become independent.

People often forget the remarkable scale of what the city and state have achieved. By 1995, after a 10-year effort by the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations to create new housing out of abandoned buildings and on vacant lots in the city’s most distressed neighborhoods, 51,000 new apartments and houses had been built at the cost of more than $4 billion.

The city’s program was not just larger than those of other cities — it was larger than the housing efforts of all other American cities combined.

We also created a sophisticated network of temporary shelters and transitional housing for homeless families and for singles, run by nonprofit agencies and providing all kinds of social services, from job training to treatment for substance abuse.

We should be proud of our city and state. New York is a very different city from what it was 25 or 30 years ago. Then, homeless people were lying on the streets and huddled in subway stations and Grand Central Terminal. The crack epidemic was escalating, and crime was rampant.

We need to recognize how generous New Yorkers have been and to acknowledge the effectiveness of many of these government programs. Last year alone, the city spent more than $1 billion on providing humane, transitional housing to homeless families and individuals. We have responded well to the crisis of homelessness.

Can we do better? Of course. And we should. It’s certainly not time to declare victory. One homeless person is one too many.

But it wouldn’t hurt to stop for a moment and take stock of exactly what we have achieved.

Much more needs to be done. But additional housing subsidies won’t by themselves end the scourge of homelessness, despite what some advocates say. As the New York City Commission on Homelessness (led by Andrew Cuomo) determined 20 years ago, a shortage of affordable housing is not the sole reason people become homeless.

Homelessness has many causes. For many, it is the culmination of a nexus of problems: a lack of job skills and job opportunities, educational deficiencies, domestic violence, questionable mental health, alcohol or drug abuse, the culture of poverty.

Because people are homeless for many different reasons, it would be foolish for us to respond with a one-size-fits-all mentality.

So let’s not give in to despair. Let’s stop briefly, though, to give ourselves a big pat on the back. Then we need to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.

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