The audio version of this story is at the bottom.
There are roughly 50,000 people living in New York City shelters on any given night. According to The Coalition for the Homeless, the shelter population grew by 61% since Mayor Bloomberg took office reaching Depression-era levels. But reducing homelessness has been a complicated issue for the city. It's the only municipality in the country that has a court-mandated 'right to shelter’.
And as part of WFUV's series on Bloomberg's New York Claudia Morell talked with some homeless New Yorkers about their struggles to get out of the shelter system.
Fifty-one-year-old Michael Gonzales is chronically homeless. He's been moved from shelter to shelter over the past 7 years. Like many others who are chronically homeless, Gonzales had a substance abuse issue. He is mandated by the courts to stay in a rehabilitation center within the shelter system until 2015.
"I'm working, I'm making my money and saving it, who knows? Maybe someday down the line I'll make enough money to just leave,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales (sitting at the computer) is a member of Picture the Homeless, a Bronx organization started by homeless New Yorkers.
Getting people out of the shelter system has been a challenge for the City, stemming from a 1979 class action lawsuit, Callahan v. Carey which required a mandated right to shelter for individuals and a 1986 lawsuit, McCain v Koch, extending that right to families. According to an Independent Budget Office report in 2002, these mandates have largely shaped much of the city’s homeless policies.
“The city’s substantial spending on homeless is characterized by an emphasis on short-term solutions and fragmented responsibility. This fragmentation may undermine effective policies to combat homelessness, and may waste critical resources and result in duplicative administrative efforts, particularly in terms of contracting with service providers,” the report warned.
Back in 2004, Mayor Bloomberg tried to remedy this issue. That summer he outlined a 5-year-plan to end chronic homelessness by shifting city resources away from the shelter system to fund more prevention programs.
"Between now and the end of 2009, we must cut the size of the city's homeless shelter population by two-thirds, reduce the number of homeless men and women living on the streets of New York City by two-thirds,” Bloomberg told an audience at a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York. “By doing these things, [we will] make the condition of chronic harmlessness effectively extinct in New York.”
Prevention efforts expanded, and the shelter population fell slightly in 2005 and 2006. The city spent 19.1% more on homeless prevention programs in 2007 compared to 2004—this includes the total spending for all six agencies that provide services for homeless New Yorkers.
But then the economy went sour, and many of the programs Bloomberg outlined in 2004 were cut because they lost needed state and federal funding.
Mayor Bloomberg also ended the Emergency Assistant Rehousing Program (EARP), an initiative that gave priority-housing vouchers for homeless New Yorkers. Bloomberg ended the program citing unsustainable demand. At the time, there were already 120,000 people on the waitlist for section 8 vouchers, and another 160,000 people waiting for public housing. The Department of Homeless Services replaced priority housing with a rental subsidy program called Housing Stability Plus (HSP). It was a 5-year plan that aimed to help 6,500 homeless families a year. It was later replaced with the Advantage program in 2007, another rental assisitance program that subsidized a portion of homeless families' rent for up to two years. It ended in 2011 after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo cut state funding for the program.
Picture the Homeless advocate Kendell Jackman said that is where the real issue lies, "It's not the design of the shelter system. It's the design of the real estate in the city."
Jackman, a formal Postal Worker, first entered the shelter system in 2009 after her landlord went into foreclosure. She said the lack of affordable housing options for those in the shelter system coupled with Bloomberg's push to make New York City more attractive has made rents too high for those struggling to get by.