"When I say the word ‘homeless,’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind in less than two sentences?” asked Jean Rice, board member of the New York City community-based organization, Picture the Homeless. “I get responses like ‘substance abuser,’ ‘mentally impaired,’ but almost never do I get an economic answer and never do I get a political answer.’
Rice has a point; those common explanations often attributed to the issue of homelessness in New York could not explain the 85% increase in people sleeping in shelters since 2008. Despite the common assumptions of what causes homelessness, aspects such as a lack of affordable housing, eviction and hazardous housing are a few of the primary causes of homelessness. As the state of New York continues to pour large sums of money into the shelter system, a short term answer is provided. But can a short term solution truly solve the problem of homelessness? A direct solution is exactly what advocates like Rice have been reaching toward for years: permanent housing for New York’s homeless population.
Jean Rice was clearly passionate about the issue, as he has experienced homelessness himself. In fact, many Picture the Homeless organizers are or have been homeless in their lifetime. Picture the Homeless was started as a response to the criminalization of the homeless under the Giuliani Administration, and was founded in the principle of viewing homelessness as a condition, rather than a crime. Creating a space for support, the almost 20-year-old organization has helped to implement many programs and acts and has actively called for the public to pay more attention to the issues.
According to Coalition for the Homeless, in May of 2018, 61,495 homeless people, including 15,023 homeless families with 22,538 children slept in the New York municipal shelter system. Homelessness in New York has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Families who enter the shelter system usually come from a few low income zip codes, with a significantly disproportionate number of African-American and Latino people entering the system.
As homelessness rises, the budget for shelters assigned to the Department of Homeless Services of New York continues to increase every year, going from $1.6 billion in 2016 to an estimated $2.14 billion. Yet, organizations such as Picture the Homeless believe that simply investing in the shelter system is not a solution. Instead, they advocate for creating accessible permanent affordable housing. Although Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration has set a goal to create 300,000 units of public housing, there is a clear divide between what is considered to be affordable as opposed to what is actually affordable for potential renters. And, only 24,500 units have been made available in the past two years. Thus, an increasing number of people cannot afford housing and end up entering the shelter system.
With a new record of over 60,000 homeless people in New York sleeping in shelters per night and De Blasio’s affordable housing plan lacking in providing truly affordable housing in New York, the current budgets and policies set in place will ensure that private homeless shelters will remain in business. This has contributed to what is referred to by activists, such as those at Picture the Homeless, as the “shelter industrial complex,” a system which makes a profit from rising homelessness.
It is estimated that nationally the shelter system has $12 billion in revenue with a 1.3% increase in the past 5 years. Private companies continue to profit from the shelter system, ultimately feeding off of the homeless community of New York. These shelters, although funded by the government, are former hotels and apartments which cram the city’s homeless population into overcrowded spaces. With an increase in homelessness, the Department of Housing Services (DHS) sought ‘creative’ solutions to the crisis, and began to contract private companies to both landlords and private companies to house the homeless community. Yet, as the DHS pays such companies an upwards of $3,000 per person per month, many question why this money is not being spent on providing permanent affordable housing.
The goal of finding permanent housing for the homeless is not only central to the individual’s well being, but enforces upward mobility for entire neighborhoods, as clearly stated in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. He writes, “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form bonds and take care of the block.” (Desmond, p. 296).
A thoughtful look fell onto the face of a middle aged man named Darian, who is another member of Picture the Homeless. “You know, at the age of 30 I was a young man but I was homeless. None of the apartments were mine.” While many, including Darian, remain in shelters, one must wonder why in a city full of empty high rises that is known for its wealth, people have nowhere to live.
Photo by Annika Heegaard
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