Mayor Bill de Blasio struck a somber tone as he unveiled his newest plan to mitigate the city’s homelessness crisis on Tuesday, lowering expectations for making a dent in the intractable issue he pledged to tackle when he campaigned for mayor more than three years ago.
“I’m going to say some things that are hard to hear,” the mayor announced at the beginning of his speech, telling reporters and homeless advocates that the city’s skyrocketing shelter population was the result of thirty years of ineffective policies, and that just keeping the population from exploding even further was an accomplishment his administration took pride in.
De Blasio’s plan, his third comprehensive initiative to address homelessness since he took office, aims to close all of the city’s “cluster sites” shelters and replace them with 90 new shelters based in communities closer to where the homeless originate from.
Yet even this new strategy would only reduce the city’s record homelessness population by 2,500 over a five-year period. There are currently just under 60,000 people sleeping in NYC shelters every night.
“It will be a long, long battle. A tough battle. We will be at this a long time. If I told you anything more pleasant it wouldn’t be the truth, de Blasio, who is on his way towards probable reelection, said during the announcement. “We’ll make progress, but it will be incremental.”
Under current procedure, families are often sent miles away from where they used to live, where their family is based, or where their kids go to school.
“The numbers speak so clearly. Right now, 70% of the shelter population are families,” the mayor said. “This is very different than what we’ve had in the past.”
Advocates for the homeless have chastised de Blasio for announcing another new plan so close to his last one, which was delivered last year. But the mayor said that this new plan was based on experiences he’d had over the past three years in trying to deal with the shelter system.
De Blasio has also pledged to curtail the use of hotels, which his administration has resorted to as shelter populations continued to rise. Earlier this year, after announcing homeless New Yorkers would be moving into a hotel in Maspeth, Queens, locals erupted with dissent, convening a nightly vigil castigating the mayor and his commissioner of Human Resources, Steven Banks, and going so far as to protest outside of Banks’s home.
“I today cannot see an end. I can see improvement and constant progress if we all do things right,” the mayor said. “But again, I am not going to lie to people New York City and say I have defined end in sight.” Instead the mayor opted that he wanted to “break a pattern,” where homelessness has risen year after year.
While the plan will eventually open 90 new shelters, the overall footprint of shelters in the city will be lowered by 45%. Still, the mayor conceded that his plan would not be popular politically, as it asks more neighborhoods to accept the construction or conversion of buildings into shelters, something that many community board across the city have resisted. The new plan also calls on the governor and state legislature to support a pledge it made last year to free up more than $2 billion for new supportive housing in the city, something that it has not yet done.
Many advocates of the homeless were not enthusiastic about de Blasio’s plan, which directs money to go towards more shelters instead of creating more affordable permanent housing.
“Any comprehensive plan to address homelessness absolutely needs to include housing and it needs to address a bold plan to address the housing needs of the record number of people that are in shelter now,” Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, told the Voice. “Housing has been proven to be the best way to stabilize people that are homeless. The only way to address this issue is to provide stable, long-term housing.”
The Coalition for the Homeless also pointed out that it was in de Blasio’s power to give homeless families priority for NYCHA housing, something he has not done.
In the 128-page report outlining the new plan, the de Blasio administration claims to have helped more than 51,500 New Yorkers pay their rent or move out of a shelter through some sort of subsidy, but his larger housing plan has not yet seen results in helping low-income New Yorkers find more affordable housing.
“Literally no one is asking for more shelters,” Jose Rodriguez, a member of Picture the Homeless, told the Voice in a statement. “Homeless people don’t want to be warehoused in these demoralizing institutions that break up communities and families. Bill de Blasio can’t keep letting the real estate lobby set his agenda. He needs to create real housing for the poorest New Yorkers, not bogus so-called affordable housing that doesn’t benefit the people who need it most.”
The mayor declined to do a question and answer after the announcement, and has not answered questions from his press pool since his meeting last Friday with federal investigators over his fundraising tactics (though he did appear on NY1).