Perhaps the earliest chronicles of homeless New Yorkers can be attributed to Jacob Riis. A journalist and precursor in the art of documentary photography, Riis emigrated from Denmark in the mid 19th century and quickly focused his attention on the homeless. In How the Other Half Lives, Riis presented his photographs of the Bowery, the city’s most impoverished neighborhood and birthplace of our modern shelters’ ancestor, the Bowery Mission.
The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the development of homeless settlements in the country’s major cities—or “Hoovervilles,” an allusion to the then U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Living in tents and shacks, these communities rapidly developed In New York City, especially in Central Park’s then empty reservoir and Riverside Park, but disappeared along with the crisis.
During the next half century the homeless population encompassed a narrow band of society, its numbers fluctuating as the economy cycled. Various studies across the country painted a similar portrait of the homeless. Out-of-work white males, often plagued by ill health, alcohol or drug addictions, made up for the greatest part of this socially quarantined community. A large majority was still confined to “skid rows” and the Bowery remained New York’s homeless hub, where men would be found sleeping in the streets, the subway or tiny, windowless, 90-cents-a-night hotel rooms. Until the decriminalization of public drunkenness in 1966, police stations also became the shelter for hundreds of homeless people on any given night.
Explaining a shift
Many New Yorkers would say that the 1980s, despite acute racial tensions, were a decade of overall prosperity. And they wouldn’t be wrong; while most of the country saw its unemployment figures soar, the city enjoyed a pleasant boom in its economy. But it’s also during those years that contemporary homelessness emerged.
“Prior to the 1980s they [the homeless] were the stereotypical middle aged, white men, who had similar alcohol problems, living in skid row areas like the Bowery in New York,” explains Eric Hirsch, a historian of homelessness and professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. “We then saw new groups emerge: younger people and families—a much more economically-driven homeless.”
There are different theories as to why homelessness first soared in the 1980s. Among the most popular ones are the release of mentally ill patients from large state facilities, and trends in substance abuse. But neither captures the full scope of what occurred.
The long and chaotic process of deinstitutionalization in the United States consisted in handing over severely mentally ill patients from state clinics to local and community-based facilities. While it is true that the shift was a failure on many aspects, with patients losing health care, most of it was over by 1975. And those who wound up in the streets were often reinstitutionalized—one way or another, the lucky ones in nursing homes, others in jails.
Another scenario, that of a rising homeless population still mostly consisting of alcoholics and drug users, isn’t consistent with history either. The emergence of crack, which flooded the streets of New York City in the mid-1980s, certainly led more than one of its victims to end up in the shelter system. But most of the people affected by “rock” were single adults, not families, and the end of the epidemic a few years later did not bring the expected relief to the shelter system.
Brendan O’Flaherty, a professor at Columbia University and economist who has done research for the Department of Homeless Services in the past, has put forward another argument. According to his research, the rise in income inequality and the impact of this widening gap on the housing market is at the origin of modern homelessness.
“An increase in inequality and a smaller middle class, made it more difficult for poor people to acquire housing that had been formerly used by the middle class,” explains O’Flaherty.
Eric Hirsch, one of O’Flaherty’s former colleagues at Columbia University, illustrates this phenomena with housing constructions in the city. “The idea is that when you increase income inequality, you are concentrating a lot of buying power at the top end of the system,” says Hirsch. “The only unsubsidized housing construction is at the luxury end of the market and you’re not building any affordable housing at all unless it’s government subsidized.” A trend that might have been emphasized by the financial turmoil but that, O’Flaherty argues, always existed.
Three mayors react
In the 1980s, homelessness became a much more visible problem, with countless of people sleeping in the streets, on church steps and in public squares. In the midst of this explosion, state courts compelled New York City to provide shelter for the homeless, as the landmark 1981 case Callahan vs. Carey established in—and only in—New York City a right to shelter. The Callahan case has been a major force shaping homeless policy in New York City for 30 years.
Over that same period, New York City mayors have tried to tackle this unprecedented and growing problem.
Sometimes their policies focused only on the more dire symptoms or most visible signs of homelessness. In a 1985 decision, the late Edward Koch ordered that police remove by force anyone sleeping in the streets on freezing nights. Similarly, during the Rudy Giuliani administration, police conducted searches in public places, arresting homeless New Yorkers and taking them to shelters.
Other efforts had broader effects; Koch, for instance, created the modern shelter system in response to the Callahan decision.
But when it came to actually solving homelessness—moving people beyond shelters —Koch, David Dinkins and Giuliani all, to a certain extent, were guided by the belief that providing permanent housing to shelter residents would only serve to draw more people to the shelter system.
Koch did set aside 10 percent of the units created under his ten-year, $5 billion affordable housing plan for shelter residents. But he recalibrated the shelter system to use barracks-style dormitories rather than more comfortable hotel placements in part to make the wait for permanent housing less comfortable—and therefore, the logic went, weed out people who had other housing options and were gaming the system for a free place.
When Dinkins was running against Koch in the 1989 Democratic mayoral primary, he faulted the mayor for the inadequacy of his policies for permanently housing the homeless. On taking office, Dinkins did increase access to long-term housing through the shelter system, but then his approach changed. In 1991, the New York Times reported that within six weeks of taking office, Dinkins had shelved some of his ambitious homeless policy plans. A rise in the shelter population during Dinkins’ term known to policy wonks as the “Dinkins Deluge” is attributed by some to the initial generosity of Dinkins’ permanent housing policy—which may have attracted people to the system—and by others to the stinginess of that same policy, which some believe did not respond to rising need during the 1990-91 recession.
Giuliani’s time in office was marked by a series of get-tough policies, or at least attempts to impose them. Time limits on shelter stays, work requirements and narrowed eligibility rules were hallmarks of the mayor’s approach.
But while these controversies got headline ink, subtler but significant changes did not. One of these was the dwindling number of single room occupancies—small individual rooms in hotel-like buildings also known as SROs. The city had for several administrations tried to reduce the number of SROs, which were associated with seedy behavior but played a vital role in low-income housing. The Supportive Housing Network of New York City estimates that between 1955 and 1995, the city went from having 200,000 SRO units, to less than 40,000.
An unexpected agenda
Soon after Bloomberg’s first election in 2002, city surveys showed that the number of homeless families was on the rise again. For months the media covered the fate of homeless families reduced to sleeping on the floor of the Emergency Assistance Unit, waiting to be placed in a shelter. Early on, Bloomberg, guided by a small circle of close advisers led by his counselor on social matters, Linda Gibbs, came up with the idea of housing homeless families in an unused jail in the Bronx. The move, which provoked the fury of advocates, instantaneously made headlines but was also quickly stopped by a judge.
So the mayor’s plan to significantly reduce the shelter population two years later came as a surprise to many, even those who had long been engaged with politics and the homeless. Thomas Main, an associate professor at CUNY’s Baruch College who focuses on welfare and social policy, says he had assumed that on these issues Bloomberg would follow the more conservative approach of his predecessors.
“We usually think of mayors or politicians in general only being motivated by cynical and short term interests,” says Main. “Here’s a guy who took a longer term vision and put himself out on a limb.”
The proposal had been years in the making.
PART THREE: Bloomberg’s Homeless Plan Was Incredibly Ambitious
Produced in close concert with advocates, the mayor’s 2004 initiative aimed for a paradigm shift in how the city approached homelessness. And it aimed to achieve it in record time.