The Homeless in New York


By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine

Housing is a visible manifestation of status. As the population increases, so will the demand for adequate housing. In recent years, planners and policymakers have come to realize that housing is more than the construction of buildings. It is the hub from which people are able to function, to make alliances and networks, to thrive and to reach their potential. In the developing world low-income housing has carved it’s way into cities and the slums. But whether it is in the city center or the periphery such housing is a dimension of urban poverty.

In 2007, human history witnessed a unique event: the world’s urban and rural population numbered the same. According to the United Nations ‘ one out of every two people is a city-zen.’ In many Third World countries, the poor house themselves, far removed from conventional approaches. Modernization has obviously failed to reach them but this hardly traps the initiative of the poor.

The megacities are not the only places in which housing and other amenities need to be addressed. In the developed world urban planners were armed with the vision to convert shabby dwellings into garden cities. But this did not work due to a lack of funding and political support. In the United States the crusade for federal public housing took hold in the thirties and while this was promising it did not catch the attention of the masses. Catherine Bauer, and others, argued that the top down approach to housing ‘created a hierarchal system that deprived the program of enthusiastic support.’

It was concluded that the lack of support for public housing left it, ‘ vulnerable to attacks by conservative foes and local residents who feared having poor African- Americans or other low-income residents in their neighborhoods.’ By 1950, the US government was producing more than a million units of housing annually, and by 1970, the private sector and big business were also making a dent in building and renting.

In New York ‘inequality’ is a popular word. It applies not only to incomes but to housing as well. During the 2016 presidential debates, there were many references to the top one percent rolling out big money to influence the agenda. Mayor Bill de Blasio was able to articulate this inequality in his ‘tale of two cities’ argument and this helped him to win power. The Homeless Services Department has said that homelessness, ‘is part of a bigger inequality like low wages and a lack of affordable housing.’

The statistics on the homeless are interesting. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has reported that in 2014 there were 67,000 homeless people in New York City and about 3,000 of them were the street homeless. The overall numbers included 10,845 families and 10,334 singles. The ethnic breakdown suggests that 56 per cent of the homeless were African Americans, 33 per cent Latinos and 4 per cent whites.

In his State of the City address in 2015 Mayor de Blasio said, ‘ if we fail to be a city for everyone, we risk losing what makes New York, New York. And nothing more clearly expresses the inequality gap-the opportunity gap-than the soaring cost of housing.’ The Mayor’s proposals included affordable housing in the five boroughs, a $200 million in affordable housing in the Bronx with job creation, a new vision for Sunnyside Yards in Queens, an end to homelessness among veterans and helping seniors to live independently.

Rental housing has continued to increase. In 2013, 2.1 million households rented their homes. According to a recent report ‘renters made up 68 per cent of all city households in 2103.’ But as is well known renting an apartment in New York is expensive and could be out of the reach of many persons. One reason for this is that rent increases have outpaced the growth in incomes. The figures show that between 2005 and 2013 rents increased by 12 percent while the median incomes of renters increased by about 3 per cent. It can be concluded that New York will continue to face a shortage of affordable rental housing.

In a city as diverse as New York housing policy has to be discussed in terms of ethnicity as well. Asians appear to have the biggest demographic increase from 2000 to 2013 with whites placing second but income inequality grew in all the categories. In Queens it was and perhaps is still common for persons to rent their basements. The City has clamped down on this practice citing violations of the rules. The renters were mainly Indo-Caribbeans from Guyana and Trinidad.

The 2016 ‘feud’ between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio includes the state of housing for the poor. Governor Cuomo gave notice that he will issue an executive order to force those that are homeless into shelters. This was to be done when the temperatures dip in the winter. The Governor said, ‘ we want to make sure that every New Yorker has a place to be sheltered and don’t have to be in the cold weather.’ He added that he wanted to construct 20,000 housing units that will help with homelessness. ‘ It’s like every time we walk past a homeless person we leave a piece of our soul on the curb,’ Governor Cuomo said.

But de Blasio had his own plans and he unveiled them in November 2015 when he said that he was ‘acting decisively’ to make possible 15,000 units of supportive housing. This means that the competition between the Mayor and Governor will result in a total of 35,000 new units, if they ever get built.

In October 2015, it was reported that 57,448 persons were living in shelters. What was alarming was that about half of this number comprised children. The shelter program is run by the Department of Homeless Services. It is suggested that by February 2016, the figure will reach around 60,000 as the cold weather increases. The stay in shelters is around eleven months for single adults while a family without children would stay around eighteen months and those with children will stay about fourteen months. What has to be worrying for the de Blasio administration is the numbers that are re-entering the shelters within a short time of leaving.

The Mayor can point to the fact that 38,000 persons were moved from shelters to permanent housing but as fast as people were moving out others were taking their place. There is usually a resistance to shelters from the homeless. In the old days those that were caught lying down or sleeping on the sidewalks were given a summons. But the new policy is to encourage this population to go to shelters.

One of the main objections to living in shelters is that they are not safe. The statistics show that by the end of 2015 there were 3,650 persons that refused to go to a shelter.
A good number of these suffer from mental illnesses and can be violent and there is definitely need for more mental health services. Governor Cuomo said in 2016 that, ‘We’re now in winter. We’re in freezing temperatures. We have people who are on the streets who don’t want to go to the shelter system because the shelter system is dangerous and dirty. And it is literally a matter of public safety.’ There is disagreement as to whether the State or City can forcibly remove anyone to shelters and the media has recently stated that the application of force is unconstitutional.

One of the best ways to look at the homeless population is to literally walk the streets and find those that sleep on the streets. Each year, the City of New York sponsors the HOPE project in which teams are sent out to different parts of the City. This was my second year with HOPE. In February 2016, we met at York College on one of the coldest nights of the year. Each team was assigned a portion of the neighborhood to survey. The rules were clear. No one was to be forced to enter a shelter if that person were found sleeping on the sidewalks.

Those found on sidewalks were to be advised that shelter was available and if they agreed arrangements would be made to have them transported to a shelter. If they didn’t agree we were to leave them with information in the event that they changed their minds at some point. This information was in the form of a card that says ‘ Accessing Homeless Services’ with a 311 number. We then set about walking in the Jamaica area covering from 211 Street to Francis Lewis Boulevard and then on both sides of Jamaica Avenue from 172 Street.

It was tedious and it wasn’t made any easier by the falling snow and slippery roads. We met a number of persons who were on the move and said that they had a place to say or that they were going home. We returned to York College around 3:00am and spent some time preparing the data. It was suggested that there may be around 3,000 persons sleeping on the sidewalks every night.

Policy prescriptions should include education, outreach, the construction of new dwellings, safety, partnership with not for profit organizations such as the ‘Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing’ and other agencies.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.