In January 2013, New York City broke a record: over 50,000 men, women, and children were homeless and staying in shelters; the highest number of people since the Great Depression, and the highest number in the country. This number does not include the countless individuals and children that sleep on the streets each night. While advocates and the Mayor square off over the issue – and potential solutions – those in shelter are left to wait.
Almost as alarming as the swell in the number of people in shelter is the reality that there is no program in place to move people OUT of the shelter system and onto a path to permanent housing. Until 2005, New York City prioritized those in shelter for federal housing programs, such as Section 8, helping people achieve stable housing and saving taxpayers the annual cost of $36,000 to shelter a homeless family. Mayor Bloomberg ended this policy, and put in place a short-term rental subsidy called the Advantage program. The Mayor did so to disincentivize shelter as a path to rental assistance, and as part of his larger plan to reimagine the shelter system in New York City.
With a mix of funding from the City, State, and federal government, the Advantage program provided two-year subsidies for families, but one in three families who used the program returned to shelter once the subsidies ended. Advocates rightly pointed out the flaws of the Advantage program, but perhaps were not prepared for the State and City to cut funding for the program entirely, ending any type of subsidy program – imperfect or not – for roughly 45,000 people.
Since the Advantage program ended in 2011, 2,818 families have returned to shelter, straining an overburdened and underfunded system. While the overall price tag of shelter versus other options – rental assistance or supportive housing – is more expensive, because the federal government pays for a significant portion of shelter, the cost of shelter for the City ends up being less than rental subsidies. However, the total cost of shelter is still higher, and the City did receive federal and State funding for Advantage, and would likely receive funds for any new rental assistance program. When considering cost, it is important to think about the over $800 million New York City plans to spend building new family and individual shelters this year to accommodate the dramatic spike in need; hardly a cost-saving measure.
More importantly, savings found by ending Advantage fail to take into account the human and community cost of a growing shelter population. New York City’s homeless population has increased an astounding 73 percent since 2002, exacerbated by the financial crisis which put many middle-class families out of their homes. The increase in the homeless population shows no signs of slowing, and building new shelters meets resistance in many neighborhoods. For those in shelter, staying in a transient system leaves families and individuals adrift, making it difficult to find and keep a job, or stay on top of schoolwork. These are the real costs of a ballooning shelter system.
While Mayor Bloomberg warns that New Yorkers will rise up against paying the growing costs of shelters and advocates fight to get Section 8 and public housing opened to those in shelter, 50,000 people – including 21,000 children – continue to be homeless. Adding to the issue is that programs run by nonprofits to assist people in moving out of shelter through job training and placement, financial assistance, and mental health programs have been cut over the last five years. While those in shelter are left adrift, the public debate continues to center on the Mayor blaming advocates for not fighting to keep the Advantage program, and advocates pointing out the Mayor’s increasingly poor record on homelessness issues. In the meantime, there has been no attempt to coalesce over what to do with the 50,000 people – and growing – who survive in the shelter system.
We have to do better. Instead of playing the blame game, the Mayor and homeless advocates need to work together to develop a long- and short-term strategy to reduce the shelter population and move people into permanent housing. Waiting for the next Mayor to address this problem or reverse the section 8 housing policy is unacceptable. Those living in shelter need a solution today – their needs should be at the forefront of this debate and not just a side note in the discussion.
Contributed by Michelle Jackson of the Human Services Council.