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Victor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

Advocate: NYC’s homelessness crisis has ‘reached historic proportions’

The de Blasio administration must deal with a shelter system that’s overflowing thanks to Bloomberg-era policies

In "Shadow City," Fault Lines examines the historic crisis of family homelessness in New York City and investigates the forces displacing so many from their homes. The film airs on Monday, March 30, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


New York City is in the midst of its coldest winter since the 1930s. The metropolis is also in the grips of an epidemic of homelessness that is unrivaled since the Great Depression.

According to the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, the number of New Yorkers sleeping in the city’s many shelters is up more than 65 percent from 10 years ago. In January, the system held more than 60,000 people, including more than 25,000 kids.

Patrick Markee is deputy executive director for advocacy at the Coalition. He points out that, while New York City has a mandate to provide shelter for its homeless population, the city isn’t doing enough to take care of its least fortunate residents. He points to several policies enacted during the 12-year term of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg as fueling the current crisis.

Fault Lines spoke to Markee about the steep rise in New York City’s homeless population, how it got to its current point and what could be done to get people out of the shelter system.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:


Who's actually homeless in the city? Who makes up this population of more than 60,000 people?

People have stereotypes about who is homeless, and the common stereotype is that it's sort of older men who are sleeping on the streets or panhandling on the subway train. In fact, the majority of homeless people in NYC are families with children. Eighty percent of our homeless shelter population is made up of families with children. Of the 60,000 people sleeping in New York City shelters each night, about 25,000 of them are children, the highest numbers ever recorded.

It's actually much more likely that you would encounter a homeless mom working at a fast food restaurant or as a security guard than you would a homeless person sleeping on the street. Many homeless people are working. A third of our homeless families in our shelter system are working, many of them working two jobs. They simply can't afford apartment rents at market costs.

Also in contrast to the stereotype, homeless people are not primarily people living with substance abuse problems or mental illness. Having said that, the majority of street homeless folks—people who are sleeping unsheltered or in our subway system—are people living with serious and persistent mental illness and serious health problems. That's obviously an issue that needs to be addressed with supportive housing and other special needs housing.

Finally, nearly 60 percent of homeless New Yorkers are African-American, well over 30 percent are Latino. So homelessness disproportionately affects those groups largely because their rates of poverty and the rates of serious housing problems among them are so much greater.

How difficult is it to find affordable housing these days?

It's bad and getting worse. What we've seen in New York City over the last decade, really over the last 30 years, has been a widening gap between incomes, particularly of working class and low-income New Yorkers, and apartment rents and housing costs. While New Yorkers have seen their wages stagnate, and in some cases fall, over the last decade— particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and then economic recession—apartment rents and apartment costs have continued to rise. In many other cities around the country, during the economic recession, apartment rents actually stagnated or fell.

Melissa Rivera and her three children have been denied housing in New York City's shelter system seven times and are currently living in her grandmother's living room in a public housing unit.
Victor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

At the same time, we've seen government cutting back on the kinds of affordable housing programs that make a difference, that really bridge that gap between what people can afford and the cost of market rate rental housing.

What exactly was cut?

In different levels of government, we've seen cutbacks to major affordable housing programs. We've seen the major federal housing programs, in particular the housing voucher programs, suffer significant cutbacks.

One of the keys to preserving affordable housing is the fact that half of all rental housing units in NYC, so 1 million of the 2 million rental housing units in NYC, are rent regulated, meaning that landlords can only increase rents by certain amounts each year and that tenants have fundamental tenant protections in order to maintain their housing. We've seen the state legislature weaken those laws substantially over the last two decades.

One of the major causes of record homelessness in New York City really is at the feet of Mayor Bloomberg and his administration. For 25 years, under various mayoral administrations—mayors as different as Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani—the city always had a policy in place where it would allocate a certain number of federal and city permanent housing resources to help homeless families and kids move from shelters into their own homes. It was an incredibly successful approach to the problem. It helped tens of thousands of families and children move from shelters into their own homes and stay in their own homes.

Why did Bloomberg cut the permanent housing program?

It was pure ideology. They simply said that they felt that these families should not get access to federal housing assistance and that if you provided this kind of assistance you'd see more families come into the shelter system, which was absolutely false. It is a little bit like saying providing medical care creates more sick people.

We've had the situation in New York City now since the spring of 2010 where there is literally no affordable housing assistance targeted to help homeless families and kids leave our shelter system.

Where does that leave families?

Families are spending longer and longer in shelters than ever before. The average shelter stay for a homeless family is now around 420 days, which is about 14 months. We're seeing some families that are staying in shelter much longer than that. We've talked to families whose kids have spent almost all of their childhoods in shelters.

What we had under the Bloomberg administration was a massive social experiment to test the proposition that if you take away permanent housing assistance from the neediest families and children in our city—homeless families— what will happen?

Patrick Markee

Coalition for the Homeless

Wow. That’s a long time in shelters, 14 months.

The way that it used to be in this city, say 20 years ago, when the city was providing and targeting permanent housing resources to help families leave our shelter system, average shelter stay was much much shorter: 6 months, 9 months. We'd work with families that would spend only a few months in shelter and then they'd be able to attain an apartment they could afford, maybe because they got a job and at that time rents were much lower than they are now. Or they would get one of the housing vouchers or city-subsidized apartments that the city had allocated to address this problem, to help these families to get out of shelter and stay out of shelter. For nearly five years, we've had in place a situation where there is no housing assistance designed to help these people escape the shelter system.

Tell me about the shelter system. What does it include? How much money does it get?

To begin with, the cost of shelter is exorbitant. The city spends more than $38,000 a year for each shelter for homeless families, on average. $24,000 on average to shelter a homeless individual.

As a result of legal victories that we won more than 30 years ago, New York City has an obligation to provide shelter to all individuals and families who are homeless. Our partners at the Legal Aid Society brought the major right to shelter lawsuit on behalf of homeless families with kids; we brought the major case on behalf of homeless individuals. Because of that tradition, New York City has the largest public shelter system in the United States. But it's not a uniform system. The city provides shelter in a variety of ways, and there's a lot of very distinct facilities for families and for single individuals.

For single individuals, primarily, the city provides shelter in kind of barracks-style, dormitory-style settings, lots of folks sleeping in a single sleeping room with as many as 50 or 100 beds. It really does run the gamut. In general, there are some very large and unfortunately very poorly maintained shelters, many of which are run directly by the City of New York. They're in older buildings that have a lot of maintenance issues. Services tend to be sort of more mediocre.

For families with kids, there are really three models of shelter. There are the traditional shelter facilities, most of which are run by not-for-profit organizations and which tend to have pretty good conditions, good services on site, like child care and often, additional services, like job training or educational programs. The families have their own units. They sleep in their own shelter units with kitchen facilities and bathrooms.

But there are also within that group a couple of shelters run directly by the City of New York that have really some pretty poor conditions. Then the city also uses hotels and motels, which are owned by for-profit entities, corporations. These hotels and motels tend to have, in general, pretty poor conditions. You see some number of families with children, but also a large number of childless families sleeping in these hotels and motels. Then finally there's the cluster sites model, essentially when the city uses apartment buildings, permanent buildings, affordable apartment buildings as temporary shelters.

Patrick Markee chats with Fault Lines correspondent Anjali Kamat.
Victor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

What happened under the Bloomberg administration was that the city actually began to utilize more and more for-profit shelter arrangements of hotels and motels and cluster site shelter models. To the point where the majority of families sleeping in shelter were actually sleeping in for-profit shelters.

In real terms, how much did homelessness increase as a result of the policies under the Bloomberg administration?

Under former mayor Bloomberg, the number of people in homeless shelters in NYC went from 31,000 people a night, when he took office, to more than 54,000 people a night when he left office—just an enormous increase. The numbers of homeless families increased by, I think, 75 percent under his watch, or more than 75 percent. We saw family homelessness reach levels that we haven't seen since the Great Depression of the ‘30s.

Essentially, what we had under the Bloomberg administration was a massive social experiment to test the proposition that if you take away permanent housing assistance from the neediest families and children in our city—homeless families— what will happen? What happens is what we all predicted will happen: more homelessness, families staying homeless for longer and longer periods of time, more and more homeless kids and families suffering for longer periods of time.

We do have an opportunity now to kind of correct those mistakes, but it's going to take a lot of work to undo a crisis that reached historic proportions.

What is your assessment of current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s response to the homelessness crisis so far?

Mayor de Blasio, even though he has restored the use of federal public housing resources to help homeless families and kids, has not allocated nearly enough public housing apartments to these needy families. We and many others believe that the city should be allocating at least 2,500 public housing apartments to homeless families each year. That's out of the more than 6,000 public housing apartments that are available each year, so this is clearly something that is possible and doable. Unfortunately, the de Blasio administration has only allocated 750 public housing apartments each year.

Then they’re in negotiations with the state on a new rental assistance program. At this point, the government has moved nearly 400 families out of shelter, with these new rental assistance programs, but that's out of a target of 4,000 families they intend to move using those programs in the coming year. So really they've only gotten to 10 percent of their goal.

We have 14,000 families with 25,000 children sleeping in our shelters each night. Mayor de Blasio inherited just a historic crisis, you know. Clearly, much more needs to be done to address that crisis. It's not enough to just sort of stop the increases in family homelessness or just bring the numbers down a little bit. We've got to address a lot of the mistakes that were made under the last administration.

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