By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Two days before Christmas, the Coalition for the Homeless announced that the number of families sleeping in city shelters had hit an all-time high. The precise figure was 9,720. This is five times the number of people who were in shelters back in 1983, when the issue of homelessness was considered a major municipal scandal, rating regular attention on the evening news and newspaper front pages.
For its statistics, the Coalition relied on the city's own monthly report, something called "Emergency Family Services for Homeless Families." The figure cited by the Coalition was found right there, on page three of the November 2008 issue, under "Total Number of Families." Like clockwork, for 25 years, the city sent this report to agencies, nonprofit groups, and concerned officials, providing a detailed breakdown of where families are sheltered and how long they have been there.
The last anyone saw of these reports was right after the Coalition's announcement.
"They just stopped sending it out," said Patrick Markee, the Coalition's research director. "We've filed Freedom of Information requests for the December and January editions."
Homelessness is another of those issues in which Michael Bloomberg, the optimistic, can-do entrepreneur, has morphed into Michael Bloomberg, political cover-up artist.
In his first term as mayor, the Mr. Fix-It Bloomberg committed himself to an ambitious five-year plan to reduce city homelessness by two-thirds by 2009. This is the toughest kind of work there is, but Bloomberg insisted he knew how it could be done. He listed each of his goals, saying he did so as "a way to hold everyone involved in this process publicly accountable." This was a magnificently successful businessman talking. People listened.
A year later and safely re-elected, Bloomberg-the-pol stopped issuing reports on that effort as well. Last year, City Council member Bill de Blasio, who heads the Council's general welfare committee, got to wondering how things were going. He asked the Independent Budget Office to analyze the mayor's progress. The IBO issued its findings last August. It summed things up this way: "So far, it has not worked as planned."
While the number of homeless single adults had "fallen somewhat," the IBO wrote, "the number of homeless families has risen." The agency noted that its analysis was hampered by the fact that the city had "not produced an annual progress report on the various components of the Mayor's homelessness reduction plan since July 2005."
The mayor's office quickly remedied part of the problem. A new report on the homeless initiative was hastily assembled and issued. The good news went right up front with a huge pie chart: The mayor's people had completed 86 percent of the initiatives pledged by the boss. Although no further breakdown was offered, it reported that some 175,000 people had been moved from shelters to permanent housing. The bad news was buried a page later: Despite some gains among homeless single adults, "the ambitious goals set in 2004 still remain out of reach," the report admitted.
Normally, this kind of public admission of failure does damage to elected officials. Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani all suffered public embarrassment when the homeless crisis swelled under their watch. Koch and Dinkins were both sufficiently shamed to re-order strategies and policies. Even Giuliani, eventually and grudgingly, responded to pressure.
Bloomberg, however, manages to float above it all. He has stubbornly stuck to his most significant course change that has helped fill the shelters, a 2004 decision to break with past practice that granted homeless families priority access to emergency federal housing assistance. Such a policy, Bloomberg argued, created an incentive for people to claim homelessness. Advocates countered that, in this city, even the insane avoid crowded shelters whenever possible. But the proof was in the numbers: Despite Bloomberg's cutoff, the homeless have kept pouring in the door.
"In a famine, you give available food to the hungriest," says Steve Banks, who heads the city's Legal Aid Society and has been representing homeless families for 25 years. "We've got what amounts to an affordable housing famine, yet the neediest New Yorkers—homeless families with children—have no priority for federal Section 8 rental assistance or federally subsidized public housing. Meanwhile, families are languishing in expensive emergency housing."
Bloomberg does get credit for having invested resources in programs aimed at keeping families from becoming homeless. His administration launched its own rental assistance program and set up programs in neighborhoods around the city to intervene for those in threat of losing their homes. But the single most effective effort along those lines is a state-funded initiative called the Homeless Prevention Program, which taps into special state housing benefits. And when Governor Paterson's budget called in December for eliminating the $5 million program entirely, Bloomberg's team simply shrugged.
"They said, 'It's the state's obligation, not ours,' " reports one Albany official trying to rescue the program.
This is an odd perspective for several reasons. For one thing, the city is currently slated to receive some $74 million in new federal stimulus funds won by the Obama administration. Bloomberg has yet to say exactly what he intends to do with the funds, but the money is supposed to be targeted toward keeping people from losing their homes. The state's Homeless Prevention Program would seem like a natural fit. Using a pocketful of special rent-increase supplements, along with long-established relationships with landlords and housing court judges, the program last year kept almost 7,000 families from being evicted.
The cost-effectiveness here is hard to beat: It costs about $36,000 a year to keep a family in a city shelter. The eviction-prevention effort runs about $750 apiece. In a letter to Governor Paterson, the five groups that administer the program pointed out that even if only half of the families they kept in their homes had wound up in shelters for just nine months, it would cost the government some $90 million.
"Our batting average is about 99 percent," says Carolyn McLaughlin, executive director of the Citizens Advice Bureau on Morris Avenue in the Bronx. "The landlords generally want the money more than the eviction, and tenants can't get access to the state rental money without our help."
"We're getting a lot of people being forced out of legal and illegal apartments because of the mortgage crisis," says Irma Rodriguez, the group's executive director.
Aides to Robert Hess, the city's commissioner for Homeless Services, said he was unavailable last week to discuss the city's efforts. But a spokesman sent an e-mail stating that city officials had "worked closely with the governor's office to ensure they knew the importance of the [homeless prevention] program to both the city and the state." Meanwhile, state legislators say they're hopeful that Paterson is restoring the funds, using the state's share of federal stimulus money.
One of the things that kept the homeless crisis in the public eye in the 1980s was that families were lodged at midtown hotels, where editors and producers couldn't avoid seeing them. Mothers and children were boarded in expensive and appalling rooms at the Hotel Carter, for instance, directly across West 43rd Street from the old offices of The New York Times. Hundreds of others slept at the Hotel Martinique in Herald Square, where commuters and shoppers couldn't miss them. These days, shelters are dispersed in the outer boroughs.
Maybe the smarter demand should be that they be brought back where everyone can see how much bigger the problem is today.