‘Stigmatizing and criminalizing homeless people is just another tool the real estate industry uses to maintain status quo and maximize their bottom lines. The stigmatization must stop — we need to end this prejudice and get honest about who is homeless and why.’

Adi Talwar

The city’s current rental assistance voucher payments are too low, making it hard for participants to find apartments that will accept them, the author writes.

Last Wednesday night, my family and I huddled around our hotel TV in anticipation of an exclusive report on NY1 featuring my son and myself on the 7 o’clock news. 

The four of us have shared a two room placement for the past year after we became homeless and entered the city’s shelter system. We received a CityFHEPS voucher for $1,580, barely enough for a one bedroom, and a year long search for housing has turned into nothing but frustration and disappointment. 

CityFHEPS rental assistance vouchers don’t work because the payment standard is not competitive with the housing market, and the NY1 report validated these claims with data from the city’s Human Resource Administration. In 10 months, 4,118 families received CityFHEPS vouchers but on average, only 178 households were able to move out of shelter each month.  My family’s situation is not an isolated incident; 96 percent of households are not able to use their CityFHEPS voucher for housing.

We have spent years organizing around legislation that would make the voucher more effective, specifically Intro 146, a City Council bill that would increase CityFHEPS to reflect Section 8 payment standards. If the bill passes, hundreds of additional housing options would become available and it would give us access to safer neighborhoods with good opportunities for school and jobs.

Intro 146 will make a remarkable difference in a person’s ability to use their CityFHEPS voucher and we must pass it immediately. However, there is another barrier to housing we must address that the NY1 report highlighted — the real estate lobby’s damaging anti-homeless bias, which is deeply rooted in racism. 

When the Rent Stabilization Association’s President, Joe Strasburg, claimed that most people enter shelter because “they were either thrown out by their family, or there were drug problems, or there were mental issues,” I was appalled, albeit not surprised. His lazy conflation that all homeless people have drug use disorders or mental health disorders was dishonest and ableist. I am homeless and I work for the Department of Education. I pay taxes. And so do people who use drugs and/or live with mental health complexities. Regardless, people with substance use disorders and mental health disorders are equally deserving of housing and would benefit from the stability a home provides. People who need additional supportive services qualify for supportive housing, a resource the city desperately needs more of. That being said, thousands of homeless people like myself and my family are in shelter because we faced evictions, domestic violence or economic crises and we are stuck only because landlords like Strasburg are unwilling to accept our vouchers. 

His attempt to blame homeless people for their current situation exposes something much more sinister about NYC’s real estate industry. Centuries of institutional racism targeting Black people and people of color in education, employment and housing, along with rampant displacement and gentrification in communities of color, have led to a lopsided homeless population which is disproportionately Black and Brown. While Black people make up only 24 percent of NYC’s population, we are 57 percent of the city’s shelter population. A full 89 percent of shelter residents identify as Black or Latinx. Joe Strasburg’s comments exemplify the real estate industry’s vilification of low income people of color — a bias that has kept us locked out of homes for decades. While 2020’s reckoning with racial inequality was long overdue for individuals and industries alike, it is abundantly clear that real estate in New York continues to perpetuate white supremacy in how it treats homeless New Yorkers, and it is hurting us all. 

I am tired of being stereotyped and being told that I am unworthy of housing. As long as real estate perpetuates these false narratives around homelessness, we will not be able to address the crisis properly. Homelessness is not any one individual’s fault. The systemic failure of our government has allowed real estate to drive up housing costs unchecked and profit handsomely at the expense of low-income New Yorkers who can no longer afford their rent and are pushed into homelessness. Stigmatizing and criminalizing homeless people is just another tool the real estate industry uses to maintain status quo and maximize their bottom lines. The stigmatization must stop — we need to end this prejudice and get honest about who is homeless and why.  

Rebeka Bryan was featured in a recent NY1 Investigation: Housing Vouchers for Homeless People Routinely Denied By Landlords. She is currently homeless and resides in the Department of Homeless Services shelter system with her husband and two children. She is a Member Leader at Neighbors Together.