It’s Delusional to Say Homelessness is a Mental-Health Issue

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New York's main shelter intake facility, in the Bronx. Eviction, not mental illness, is what fuels the homelessness crisis.

Adi Talwar

New York's main shelter intake facility, in the Bronx. Eviction, not mental illness, is what fuels the homelessness crisis.

With its latest op ed (“Mayor de Blasio’s Pathetic Push on Homelessness“), the New York Post continues its tradition of willfully distorting the issue of homelessness in order to pressure the Mayor to “crack down” on people without homes who are committing no crime.

The op ed trots out the tired, inaccurate misrepresentation that homelessness is an issue of mental illness and substance abuse rather than extreme poverty. In fact, it wasn’t until Reagan’s devastating cuts to federal housing programs in the 1980’s that modern homelessness skyrocketed.

Losing your home is one of the most devastating things that can happen to any human being. And in this economy, it’s next to impossible to get back on your feet and get housing. For too long, advocates have presumed to speak for the homeless: calling for programs that don’t truly end homelessness but instead create a bloated service system where folks can find themselves stuck in for years because there’s no housing that the poor can actually afford in NYC – or worse, creating a revolving door like temporary rental subsidy programs.

The bottom line with homelessness isn’t individual dysfunction – it’s systemic inequality. Rents and income don’t match up in New York, or most places in the U.S. Rents keep rising, but jobs disappear or they are replaced by minimum wage service sector jobs, where you don’t earn enough money to pay rent. A third of homeless people living in shelter have at least one full-time job! Income is stagnant for seniors, folks who are disabled or unemployed. As the Post itself recently reported, countless full-time city workers are homeless… and a new report found that workers need to make at least $38/hour to pay rent in NYC!

Poor people instinctively know that we need truly-affordable housing and stable jobs and adequate income supports for folks unable to work. Homeless people have their own plan. Members of Picture the Homeless developed a “Gaining Ground” pilot project to move resources away from temporary shelter and into permanent housing, by using alternative development models like community land trusts and large scale housing cooperatives that will help properties stay permanently affordable at the same time as they keep long-term neighborhood residents in their homes and create opportunities for small businesses that create decent jobs. One thriving example right in New York City is the Cooper Square Community Land Trust. We believe that this model can help New York City transition away from band-aids and temporary fixes to real holistic solutions.

But right now, city agencies and private landlords keep properties vacant while tens of thousands of people deal with horrid conditions in a Billion Dollar homeless service system. In 2012 we released the results of a vacant property count we conducted in partnership with the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development, which proved there’s enough vacant property to house just under 200,000 people in just 1/3 of the City. The rehabilitation and construction of that housing stock would create tens of thousands of jobs and shut down the shelter system.

Unfortunately, under this mayor, the City continues to subsidize bad actors like the Podolskys, who get tens of millions of dollars every year for “cluster site” shelter units in the 40 rent-stabilized buildings that they own, even though those buildings have over 1400 housing code violations. There’s no reason why there should be so many homeless people in New York City when there are so many homes without people, and so much taxpayer money being wasted on the problem. In spite of campaign promises to solve the problems of homelessness and an out-of-control NYPD, Mayor de Blasio has not broken with the Giuliani/Bloomberg/New York Post school of thought where handcuffs are the solution to homelessness.

The mayor’s massive police purges of homeless people from 125th Street and other public spaces do nothing but move vulnerable people from busy public spaces to less visible ones. An administration truly interested in assisting people with mental illness to get off the street would not unleash the NYPD on them.

While the mayor’s recent move to fund lawyers in housing court to help people avoid eviction is a welcome one, as long as the administration continues to use the NYPD as the solution to homelessness – instead of large-scale housing creation – it will be working at cross purposes with itself.

Do New Yorkers not realize that the NYPD won’t stop with homeless people? That once the cops can get away with arresting or ticketing someone simply for occupying public space, they’ll use that power on protesters – or youth of color – or LGBTQ folks – or anyone else the cops or the tabloids decide they don’t like? De Blasio’s critics want a city that belongs solely to businesses and very rich New Yorkers, where everyone displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods has been housed in Rikers Island. They want a police state, and so far Mayor de Blasio is playing into their hands.

The Post says that for most homeless people the problem is in their heads. That’s simply untrue. People who live in the shelters and on the streets see that clearly. If anyone’s heads need clearing, it’s a certain editorial board’s.

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Lynn Lewis is the executive director and Sam Miller the communications director at Picture the Homeless.