Poverty was barely mentioned in last year’s presidential campaign, and homelessness never came up in the debates at all. Too often homelessness is accepted as a fact of life, like the weather. But last month a day-long conference sponsored by Care for the Homeless and Long Island University-Brooklyn, attended by over 300 leading community activists, asked not how to manage homelessness, but how to prevent and end homelessness as we know it in New York City. The conference even included campaign style buttons promising “We Can End Homelessness, in Years, Not Decades.”
The New York City administration and City Council deserve real credit for enormous policy strides in fighting homelessness over the last three-and-a-half years. They’ve created robust rental assistance programs, invented a strong and novel street homeless outreach program, and effectively focused much more on prevention including this year’s commitment to establish a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction in New York City Housing Courts that, in a pilot program, resulted in a 24 percent reduction in eviction filings. Social Services Commissioner Banks has lead a very difficult but promising effort to improve the physical quality of city shelters and their operations, including a commitment to close often inferior quality but higher cost cluster site shelters.
Still, the census in city Department of Homeless Services shelters, as well as in Domestic Violence Shelters, Unaccompanied Youth Shelters, and other transitional shelter programs are all higher. And while point-in-time counts say street homelessness is declining in New York City, many experts and most New Yorkers don’t believe that.
Even if national candidates can ignore it, New York City candidates must face up to homelessness as a major issue. The question can’t be how to manage it; it must be how to end it. Most advocates for better policies to end chronic homelessness in New York City believe that poor policy choices created the modern day homelessness crisis, and that better policies can end it. So city candidates should talk about their plans for those better policies and answer questions like these:
· New York City has a robust rental assistance voucher system, but only about 15 percent of authorized vouchers get used to provide housing. People experiencing homelessness say it’s easy to get a voucher, but it’s often impossible to get an apartment. How will you make more apartments available for very low income households (not over 15 years; over the next 5 years)?
· As NYCHA public housing waiting lists balloon and families languish in shelters awaiting stable housing, how will you make more NYCHA units available to people in shelter, including bringing unavailable units in need of repair promptly back on line?
· How can we provide all the appropriate services needed to assist people in shelter in transitioning to stable housing, including medical and mental health services; education and job training; day-care, after school and other services for children in shelters; and other vital programs?
· Because assistance with stable housing (if it were available) is far less expensive than providing shelter, what is the plan to provide “housing first”, or at least very quickly, rather than lengthy and far more expensive shelter stays?
· We often hear about our City’s commitment to undocumented immigrants, but there are very few housing or rental assistance resources actually available to undocumented homeless people in New York City. What is your plan for assisting unstably housed undocumented New Yorkers to transition from homelessness to housing?
· People experiencing homelessness in New York City who obtain city LINC rental assistance vouchers, or other government vouchers, often report difficulty in finding landlords who will accept the vouchers, even though it is illegal to discriminate against a prospective tenant on the basis of a legal source of rent. What will you do to enforce the law against discrimination based on a legal source of rent?
· As homelessness in New York City declines, city shelters can be turned into permanent stable housing. What is your plan to do that?
· Ultimately, what is your plan to end the New York City homelessness crisis in years, not decades?