A homeless man rests under a blanket while sitting on a bench in a New York subway station, Jan. 28, 2014. Mark Lennihan/AP
New York City’s homelessness crisis broke city records during the final year of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, according to a report released Wednesday by Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy and service organization.
The former mayor's dramatic expansion of for-profit shelters — as in commercial hotels, motels, and so-called “cluster site” shelter units — instead of long-term, permanent housing options caused New York City homelessness to soar.
The report, titled “State of the Homeless 2014,” also blamed rising housing costs in New York City and income inequality for increasing rates of homelessness, including record numbers of children.
The city experienced a 7 percent increase in homeless people sleeping in shelters compared to the year before — up from 50,135 in January 2013 to 53,615 in January 2014, the report found.
The number of newly homeless families entering the shelter system rose by 12 percent, and the number of homeless single adults sleeping in shelters rose 5 percent — another all-time high, according to the report.
The Coalition for the Homeless also reported an all-time high of 22,712 children sleeping in homeless shelters in 2014. And, according to a San Francisco advocacy group, the rising number of homeless children extends far beyond New York.
“We did our first housing report in 2006, and there were 600,000 homeless children (across the United States) — today, there are 1.2 million,” Paul Boden, organizing director for Western Regional Advocacy Project, told Al Jazeera. Boden is based in San Francisco, where he said cuts to federal housing funding and skyrocketing rent prices have also led to a citywide surge in homelessness.
“This is a crisis," Boden said, "but it’s merely one example in a growing list of documented examples of local governments using their power to enrich their friends and make us disappear rather than push for a federal housing program.”
According to the report by the Coalition for the Homeless, in 2005, the Bloomberg administration eliminated priority use of federal housing programs for homeless children and families. The former mayor — the 16th richest person in the world with a net worth of $33 billion, according to Forbes magazine — replaced those programs with “wasteful, ineffective short-term rent subsidy programs.”
By March 2011, all long-term housing assistance for homeless families was terminated — triggering long shelter stays and costing taxpayers more in costly shelter expenses. As a direct result of rising homelessness, the report found, New York taxpayers spent $1 billion on homeless shelters — a 5 percent increase over the previous year.
But San Francisco's Boden said the trend of decreasing federal assistance for permanent housing for the homeless began long before Bloomberg came to office in January 2002, and is part of a national trend.
“Massive cuts in affordable housing from 1979 to 1982 had a direct correlation to opening all the homeless shelters in 1983,” Boden said. “We’ve never restored the affordable housing funding and cuts continue to this day.”
The new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who took office in January, has taken some steps to protect the city’s homeless — including reinstating “Code Blue” shelters during sub-freezing weather. Under Bloomberg’s policy, many families were turned away.
But the Coalition for the Homeless argues that more must be done — including targeting long-term housing subsidies for homeless families and children to get them out of costly emergency shelters.
“While Mayor Bloomberg’s failed homeless policies played a major role in causing New York City’s historic homelessness crisis, the widening gap between apartment rents and incomes of poor New Yorkers also fueled the current crisis,” the report said. “Housing costs soared during the Bloomberg era — including the Great Recession — while wages and incomes for most New Yorkers fell or stagnated.”
Today, more than 20 percent of New York City households are living below the federal poverty line ($19,790 in annual income for a family of three). Renter incomes have fallen as rent costs increase. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the recession from 2007-2011, median apartment rents in New York City rose by 8.5 percent while median renter incomes fell by 6.8 percent.
From November 2010 to July 2013, according to city data, the number of working families and individuals in municipal shelters rose by a 57 percent.
“Anything that you couple with the federal government abandoning any pretense of giving a shit about the poor, like rising rents, is going to make things worse,” Boden said. “Rising rents would be a drag … but if the federal government maintained its responsibility to ensure everyone has a decent home, they would just be a drag — instead, they’re deadly.”