In the sixth Housing Brass Tacks discussion, we sought to move beyond stereotypes to understand the origins and experiences of homelessness: what happens when people can’t find housing. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless (CFH), which provides education, oversight, advocacy, and direct support to people experiencing homelessness in New York City. Jermain Abdullah is a Housing Campaign Leader with Picture the Homeless (PTH), which, founded and led by homeless people, advocates for homeless people’s civil rights and policy solutions to the affordable housing crisis. Together, they helped us understand how homelessness and housing are inextricably linked — and why shelter, while important, is never enough.
Definitions of homelessness agree on who counts as homeless. For its purposes, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” sleeping in a public or private place not designed for sleeping (like a car, subway station, or park bench), residing in a supervised temporary shelter, or facing imminent eviction from a stable residence. But for homeless advocates, it’s more complicated than that. Coalition For the Homeless (CFH) accepts the US Department of Health and Human Services’s definition, which includes individuals and families who are “doubled up” — bouncing between friends and family members, lacking a stable housing situation. Picture the Homeless (PTH) takes it one step further: any head of household whose name is not on a lease — and therefore lacks legal tenant protections — is homeless.
Determining how many New Yorkers experience homelessness under this broad definition is challenging, to say the least. Even getting an accurate count of people living on the street and in shelters can be difficult. CFH’s most recent shelter census, conducted in January 2017, counted 62,435 people sleeping in New York City shelters. The 2016 federally-mandated Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) census of street homelessness counted 2,794 people sleeping in public places. But as Abdullah noted, imprecise intake processes at shelters and restrictions governing the HOPE census (preventing census-takers from waking people who are asleep, for instance) mean that some people may be counted twice, and others not at all.
The changing face of homelessness While the number of people counted as street homeless in New York City in 2016 marked a twelve percent decrease from the previous year, the number of people sleeping in shelters rapidly escalated during the Great Recession and reached an all-time high in November 2016, peaking at 62,840 people. Homelessness has also undergone a significant profile shift. While stereotypes remain the same — single men, struggling with substance abuse, mental health, or chronic health issues, sleeping on the street or in dormitories — in reality, the majority of New Yorkers staying in shelters are now women and children. According to the CFH's State of the Homeless 2017, three-quarters of people in shelters are members of a family, and 38 percent are children. Nationally, in 2016, only 47 percent of homeless people in shelters were in families, and only 22 percent were children. But, again, shelter statistics do not represent the full picture of homelessness. According to data collected by the New York State Education Department, 99,196 students in New York City public schools (excluding charters) lived in temporary housing last school year. Of the families who end up in shelters, fully a third have earned income, and thousands of single adults and adult families also work while living in shelters. According to an Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness report, in 2014, the top reason that families sought shelter citywide was domestic violence; eviction was a close second. So the new profile of homelessness is a working family, often led by a single mother, forced out of their home by violence or unaffordable rent. What’s more, the average length of stay in shelters has been steadily increasing — Routhier attributes this to a Bloomberg-era rollback of a policy prioritizing homeless families for placements in subsidized housing programs. Though Mayor de Blasio has reversed that rollback, the effects reverberate. Though the length of stay for families is easing up, the average stay in shelter overall is still 60 percent longer today than in 2009, and the length of stay for single people continues to increase, now averaging 384 nights.
At the advent of modern homelessness in the 1980s, the stereotype of shelters fit the profile of their residents: large public buildings like hospitals and armories filled with repeating rows of twin beds, housing single men. But in the decades since, the city’s shelter typologies have changed in response to shifting needs. By state law, homeless families must transition to shelter with private space and supportive services within 21 days of their admission into the system. Therefore, homeless people in New York are now primarily housed in apartment-style shelters, some of which the city owns and operates as Tier II facilities. (The Department of Homeless Services oversees about 275 shelters citywide). However, as the population of homeless people has ballooned, sheltering families exclusively in city-operated buildings has become untenable. Additional family shelter units, called “cluster sites” (apartments rented as shelter) and commercial hotels are added to the system through contracts with hotel owners or private landlords.
Four walls and not much else Mayor de Blasio released a new plan to tackle the homelessness crisis in February, committing to end the city’s use of cluster sites and commercial hotels by 2021. During the Bloomberg administration, cluster sites and hotels were introduced as a temporary measure to deal with surging homelessness without building shelters. Now, cluster sites contribute 3,200 units to the shelter system, housing more than 11,000 people, and 80 hotels house an additional 7,500 people. Nearly a third of the shelter population lives outside city shelters. What’s more, creating shelters from private apartments has often been made possible only by taking affordable or rent-stabilized units off the market. But the biggest sin of cluster sites is their conditions: In these apartments, rodent and roach infestations, faulty smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, leaky roofs and mold are the norm. Clusters account for more than half of potentially life-threatening violations across the city — like the faulty radiator that burst in a Bronx cluster site apartment, scalding and killing two toddlers in December 2016. What’s more, cluster sites are singularly resistant to reform: since the implementation of a citywide shelter oversight system and intensive efforts to repair city-owned facilities in the last two years, health and safety violations per site have declined across every type of shelter except cluster sites, where the rate of violations has continued to climb. “People tend to languish without services there, and they may not be aware of their rights,” Routhier said. The de Blasio administration’s plan, besides placing families in healthier and safer shelter, would also save the City $400,000 per day on hotel rooms and the exorbitant cost — as much as $3,735 per family per month paid to private landlords and shelter operators — of cluster site agreements. But as the administration claims that the homeless population housed in cluster site apartments outpaces the city’s supply of affordable housing, terminating the use of cluster sites will be easier said than done. Already, the replacement of these units with 90 new city-owned and -operated shelters has ignited conflict in neighborhoods that some residents feel are saturated with shelters and desperate for affordable housing.
New York City has the highest rates of homelessness of any city in the US, and disproportionately more homeless families and children. But this doesn’t quite answer the question: Relatively speaking, how does New York City stack up in the fight against homelessness? On the one hand, Routhier credited the de Blasio administration for its supportive housing plan, increase in legal assistance in housing court, and prevention grants to tenants facing eviction. The city’s efforts in homelessness prevention in the last year have enabled 40,000 people to stay in their homes and not enter the shelter system, finally knocking eviction from its spot as the top cause of homelessness. The city has also embarked on person-by-person outreach to unsheltered homeless people that is beginning to show results, and new municipal rental subsidies are slowly chipping away at the legacy of Bloomberg-era exclusions, helping sheltered families and individuals transition into permanent housing.
But protections on paper don’t always translate into solutions in practice. The city’s Living in Communities (LINC) Rental Assistance Program has been dogged by implementation problems, from landlords refusing to accept the vouchers to unrealistic credit and guarantor requirements standing between would-be tenants and housing. “It’s basically meaningless. Even though there are laws in place to prevent landlords from refusing to accept the vouchers, the laws aren’t being acted upon,” Abdullah said. Furthermore, advocates from PTH have criticized the program as time-limited and encouraging recidivism. Meanwhile, skyrocketing rents on New York’s overcrowded private housing market push more and more low-income people out of housing and into shelters — and make it ever more difficult to get back into a permanent home.
Right to shelter When it comes to homelessness, one thing sets New York City apart: in no other municipality in the US are residents guaranteed a right to shelter. Callahan v. Carey, the 1979 class-action lawsuit led in part by a lawyer who went on to co-found CFH, won an unprecedented consent decree from the New York State Supreme Court establishing a legal right to shelter for homeless men. It was followed by two 1983 suits brought by the Legal Aid Society that established legal rights to shelter for homeless women and homeless families. Universal shelter is no small mandate, and the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations repeatedly attempted to amend or repeal the decree to institute “workfare” requirements, shelter rent payments, and eligibility restrictions. But through the advocacy of CFH and others, attempts to limit the universal right to shelter have been repeatedly blocked and struck down by state courts. Still, getting in the door to shelter is far from automatic, and eligibility criteria still lock many families out.
“At Picture the Homeless, we say, there isn’t a homeless crisis, there’s a housing crisis,” Abdullah said. Routhier agreed that the root cause of and only viable long-term solution to homelessness is in the city’s supply of affordable housing. Both also affirmed that nominal affordable housing is not enough — they demanded permanent affordability, at prices accessible to people on the lowest end of the income spectrum.
But from the same diagnosis, PTH and CFH draw different prescriptions. According to Routhier, the homelessness crisis could be addressed by targeting existing governmental programs, like low-income rent subsidies and Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing construction plan, Housing New York, toward homeless individuals and families. Routhier also recommended a capital development program to build 10,000 units of affordable housing specifically targeted to homeless families and adults. Through more aggressive building and allocation, she argued, the city can make greater strides toward ending the homelessness crisis than the anemic population reduction promised by de Blasio’s plan to combat homelessness (2,500 people, or four percent, in the next five years).
Abdullah, meanwhile, advocated change to the fundamental structures of the housing market. In partnership with the New York City Community Land Initiative, which it helped found, PTH has worked for the establishment of a land trust in East Harlem, and supports similar efforts underway in the South Bronx. Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit corporations, formed by neighborhood residents, that own and manage land as a public good, leasing the right to build permanent affordable housing or other spaces as deemed necessary by the board of directors. The development of the land is made viable through foundation grants, governmental support, or sustaining private tenants paying market-rate rent. Abdullah described the advancement of non-speculative housing development models as key to keeping low-income people in permanent housing and out of shelters.
(No) Vacancy Equally important in the fight for affordable housing, Abdullah argued, is combating the myth that New York City has no more room. Frustrated by repeated claims by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development of citywide vacancy hovering around three percent, in 2015, PTH and Hunter College took the matter into their own hands by counting vacant lots and abandoned buildings in Manhattan. They found 1,723 abandoned buildings and 505 vacant lots, which together, PTH claimed, could provide up to 24,000 apartments — enough to house the entire sheltered and unsheltered homeless population at the time. City Comptroller Scott Stringer followed up with his own audit of vacant city-owned properties a year later, identifying 1,131 lots he said could be developed into affordable housing. Now, PTH is advocating for the “Housing Not Warehousing Act,” a package of bills introduced to the City Council that would require landlords to register all vacant property (and impose a fine for failure to do so), institute an annual citywide count of vacant private property, and take stock of city-owned land suitable for the development of affordable housing. Increasing transparency around the resources available for the development of affordable housing will make the failure to do so harder to hide — and easier to fight.