You could say that Michael Bloomberg’s homelessness problem goes back to 1981, when a series of municipal lawsuits made New York the only U.S. city to guarantee a roof over every one of its residents’ heads—and gave the city’s mayors the job of funding that guarantee. Since then, successive administrations have struggled to manage an ever more unwieldy shelter system, each to its own degree of controversy and failure.

In 2004, then-first-term-mayor Bloomberg pledged to wrestle the beast down to size. Over the following five years, he said, he’d shrink the city’s homeless population by a full two-thirds, using a combination of targeted prevention initiatives and behavior modification programs aimed at making homeless New Yorkers more accountable for their own transitions into stable housing.

At its launch, the Bloomberg plan was well-received by much of the city’s homelessness advocacy community, which lauded the mayor’s ambitious goals and his emphasis on prevention. But the honeymoon ended quickly, starting with the mayor’s 2005 decision to reduce homeless families’ access to federal Section 8 housing vouchers. Advocates have spent much of the past term-and-a-half wrangling with the Administration over efforts to put time limits on rental subsidies, charge fees for shelter stays for those in shelter who have income, and eject families from shelter if they fail to hold up their ends of their “housing stabilization plans.”

The mayor describes his strategies as attempts to motivate the homeless and near-homeless into self-sufficiency, and points out that his administration has successfully transitioned more than 210,000 individuals into permanent housing. Many activists criticize the Bloomberg innovations, however, as cosmetic or unnecessarily punitive quick-fixes that direct resources away from those who need them most.

Now, with sky-high unemployment rates looking like they’re here to stay for months or years, and Bloomberg preparing for a third term in office, the number of people using the New York shelter system has hit record highs. Last month, the Coalition for the Homeless reported that over 39,000 individuals—including more than 16,000 children—were sleeping in city shelters each night. Last fiscal year, 45 percent more people slept in shelters than when Bloomberg first took office.

For this “virtual” conversation, City Limits asked a group of experts, from both the city government and the advocacy community, to respond via email to a list of questions about the current homelessness crisis, how the city got here and how New York can best move forward. Our questions and their answers are below.

The participants are:

Robert V. Hess, commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS)

Laurence Belinsky, president and CEO, HELP USA, a service provider that contracts with the city

Matthew Wing, communications director for City Councilman, Council General Welfare Committee Chairman and Public Advocate-elect Bill de Blasio

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst, Coalition for the Homeless

Rob Robinson, member, Picture the Homeless, and consumer co-chair, New York City Coalition on the Continuum of Care

Why have we seen such a dramatic spike in the city’s homelessness numbers? Does the increase represent people who have been newly hit by the recession, or are these people who have always been at risk of homelessness, and are now falling through holes in a disintegrating safety net?

ROBERT HESS: Difficult economic times have led to unprecedented demand for shelter across the nation. This spike is not unique to New York. However, in the years before the Bloomberg Administration reformed the shelter system, the kind of demand for shelter that we’re seeing today would have overwhelmed the system. Today, we have a system that is humanely and effectively meeting the needs of these families—doing what temporary, emergency shelter is supposed to do, and doing it well.

MATTHEW WING: The rising number of homeless people in the City cannot be blamed simply on the recession; the Department of Homeless Services’ failed policies over the last few years have also resulted in the unfortunate record number of homeless people we’re seeing today.

PATRICK MARKEE: For eight years, Mayor Bloomberg – like his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani – has embraced the discredited notion that homelessness is caused by behavioral problems. As a result, his approach to homelessness, particularly among families, is fundamentally based on the false notion that providing less affordable housing assistance to homeless families will somehow reduce homelessness.

In 2005, the Bloomberg Administration put an end to the city’s long-standing policy of giving homeless families priority for federal ‘Section 8’ housing vouchers. What is the ongoing impact of that policy?

ROBERT HESS: While Section 8 is a valuable resource, it is not the answer to the immediate needs issue for sheltering families and individuals during times of high demand. Section 8 can take 8-12 months to process while families languish in shelter, and even then only approximately 60 percent are found eligible. When Section 8 was the primary means for exiting shelter, a weekly average of 73 leases were signed. Under its successor program, Housing Stability Plus, that average increased to 86. Today, with Advantage [the city’s own, short-term rental subsidy program], we see our highest numbers yet, averaging 131 leases per week.

MATTHEW WING: The City appears to be stuck on ideology, specifically the idea that homeless families seek shelter as an easy way to obtain permanent housing rather than out of true need. The mayor has rightfully recognized that the cavalry is not coming from Washington, and we cannot rely entirely on federal subsidy programs to house the city’s homeless population. But the City’s refusal to open up public housing and federal Section 8 vouchers to the homeless is an irrational approach to federal programs that would be incredibly effective as part of a multi-faceted approach to preventing and addressing homelessness.

ROB ROBINSON: We are already seeing the effects: increasing numbers of homeless people in NYC shelters. Rent subsidies are the only way poor people in this city can afford to live. When the average for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,500, people with low-wage jobs become dependent on those subsidies.

In 2007, the city launched Work Advantage, a program that provides short-term rent subsidies to homeless and near-homeless families. The first wave of those subsidies expired this year. Does the record high shelter population reflect the impact of putting a time limit on housing subsidies?

ROBERT HESS: The shelter census in no way reflects the timeline of Advantage. In the two years since the inception of Advantage New York, more than 14,000 households have successfully exited shelter and moved into their own homes. In the case that there may be clients who run into bumps in the road as the program comes to a close, we have developed an Aftercare program through Homebase community-based prevention, to assist them and possibly transfer them to a Section 8 voucher or offer them other assistance as needed. So far, early results are favorable and clients are doing well on their own.

ROB ROBINSON: The city-funded, two-year subsidy could work if it was attached to a job training program. Example: A person with very little or no skills would need help after a two-year subsidy runs out. The city could work with unions and create a job training program that would have incentives attached: We will pay your rent for two years but you must complete a job training program. At the end of the program the person has a marketable skill and should have no trouble acquiring a sustainable wage job. That person will no longer need the benefit of a city shelter or a rent subsidy.

What have been the successes of Bloomberg’s housing policies? What should the Administration capitalize on as it moves into its third term?

ROBERT HESS: New York City successfully meets demand every day. We have reduced the street homeless population by nearly 50 percent. New York has created citywide prevention that has assisted 16,000 households by providing services and support before homelessness occurs. The families system has been transformed. No longer are families forced to wait overnight for 20 hours over multiple days to be processed. Today, families find shelter in one business day. And we have put in place a rental assistance program that has moved 14,000 families to date into homes of their own.

LAURENCE BELINSKY: A major success has been the creation of permanent supportive housing for long-term users of the shelter system. These “chronically homeless” individuals consume significant amounts of municipal resources, and fare best in permanent housing with on-site services.

MATTHEW WING: Bill deBlasio has always commended the City’s commitment to homeless prevention. The City should be working toward avoiding expensive temporary shelter stays through anti-eviction services, short-term rental subsidies that will keep people stably housed and other prevention strategies. It is, however, troubling that we continue to see a rise in homelessness despite the focus on prevention, which suggests that more research should be done on which prevention strategies are proving most effective.

ROB ROBINSON: I can’t name any successes. Mayor Bloomberg has steadfastly refused to bring those directly affected to the table. It you make decisions about a problem you don’t fully understand, then your policies are ineffective. His housing policies seem to target wealthy individuals [who] can choose to live anywhere in the city or U.S. We need housing in NYC targeted to homeless, low-income and fixed-income New Yorkers. I think a third term of Bloomberg can be disastrous. He just doesn’t seem to care about the city’s poor.

What housing or other policies should be changed? Are there lessons the city can take from the successes and failures of the past two terms?

MATTHEW WING: Several troubling policies suggest that the administration may have tried to reach the goal of reducing homelessness by two-thirds by 2009 through punitive and counterproductive means. In 2007, DHS said that homeless families who reapplied for shelter after having been deemed ineligible would no longer be given emergency overnight housing while their applications were pending. As a result, we saw families with children sleeping in McDonald’s and in church basements. And since 2006, the [City Council General Welfare] Committee has heard of growing numbers of single adults who were referred from shelter into illegal, unsafe private dwellings, many of which were subsequently shut down by the City—Bill introduced legislation which would end this practice. Bill also has serious concerns about the recently implemented Client Code of Conduct, which could be interpreted liberally to allow evictions of families with children, which is dangerous.

How does New York’s homelessness problem—and its attempts at solutions—compare to other major cities in the country? Are there models in place that the city should look to as it moves forward?

LAURENCE BELINSKY: The City has been successful in building close collaborations with the Veterans Administration to reduce street homelessness for veterans. The Obama administration’s increasing focus on the problem of homelessness among veterans gives [the city] an opportunity to build on its prior success in this area.

PATRICK MARKEE: A proven solution developed in New York City and replicated nationwide is the “housing first” approach to street homelessness, which builds on the proven success of permanent supportive housing. The “housing first” approach involves moving long-term street homeless individuals—the majority of whom are living with mental illness, addiction disorders, and other serious health problems—directly into subsidized housing and then linking them to support services, either on-site or in the community. Research studies have found that the majority of long-term street homeless people moved into “housing first” apartments remain stably housed and experience significant improvements in their health problems. And like permanent supportive housing, the ‘housing first” approach is far less costly than emergency and institutional care like shelters, hospitals, and correctional facilities.

The fact that in fiscal year 2009, nearly 44,000 different homeless children spent nights in shelter is particularly worrisome. How do you recommend helping these children in particular deal with the trauma of homelessness?

LAURENCE BELINSKY: HELP USA agrees that homelessness can be traumatic for children—and may be especially so for adolescents. Our focus on rapid re-housing is designed to keep shelter stays short; we believe that families belong in the community and not in shelter. Close coordination between DHS and the Department of Education is essential to maintain continuity and minimize the changes a child experiences due to homelessness. Additional and expanded after-school programs funded through the Department of Youth and Community Development and other sources can help provide essential recreation and educational support programs for homeless and other high-need children. Finally, programs that work with parents of homeless children and help them understand the potential effects of homelessness on children—and what they can do to ameliorate them—are important.

ROBERT HESS: DHS does everything in its power to keep things as normal and uninterrupted as possible for children in our system. Families are placed using the youngest child’s school district as an anchor whenever possible (81 percent of the time.) Department of Education counselors and Administration for Children’s Services case managers are involved with our shelters, and families are housed in apartment-style living to provide as typical a home-style setting as possible. We assure the well-being and optimal development of all children by carrying out workshops on both cognitive and social development of infants and children, including the importance of safe sleeping. In addition, DHS offers recreation and cultural activities through various partners, allowing children to experience an array of activities such as art projects, museums, sports, and more.

How can New York City move from managing homelessness to ending it?

LAURENCE BELINSKY: The creation of more permanent supportive housing will help end homelessness among select high-need populations. New York City and our state elected officials must work with the federal government to ensure that Washington accepts the fact that it must play the major role in funding affordable housing for families.

MATTHEW WING: The City needs a major reprogramming of the way we approach homelessness in New York City. The efforts made toward combating homelessness over the past four years have been largely ineffective, and the City needs to bolster proven, cost-effective prevention methods, correct punitive city policies that disadvantage homeless New Yorkers and, most importantly, treat our city’s homeless crisis like what it really is: a housing problem. The only way we can truly make progress toward ending homelessness is to simultaneously dedicate real resources to helping families avoid the costly and disruptive need for shelter, and provide real solutions for families exiting shelter for stable, long-term housing. If we are going to keep New Yorkers from being priced out of the city, and from cycling through the shelter system, we must complement the mayor’s homelessness reduction goals with an ambitious housing plan that ends giveaways for developers, requires on-site affordable housing wherever practicable, and establishes tiered rental and homeownership opportunities that meet the real needs of an economically diverse New York.

PATRICK MARKEE: Here are three ways New York City can successfully reduce homelessness: One, studies consistently show that federal housing vouchers are highly successful at reducing family homelessness as well as reducing return visits to shelter. Two, permanent supportive housing combines affordable housing assistance with vital support services for individuals living with mental illness, HIV/AIDS, or other serious health problems, and thus enhances housing stability for individuals and families with special needs. And three, the fundamental cause of homelessness is the widening housing affordability gap. In New York City that gap has widened significantly over the past two decades, which have seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable rental housing. At the same time that housing affordability has worsened, government at every level has cut back on already inadequate housing assistance for low-income people, and has reduced investments in building and preserving affordable housing. Finally, the weakening of rent regulation laws-which help keep half of all rental apartments in New York City affordable-has accelerated the loss of low-cost housing.