– By John Spina
For a Mayor who won office based on his vision to combat inequality, De Blasio’s campaign against homelessness has been a failure due to the limited scope of his programs. With few political allies in Albany the prospects for progress appear dim.
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, since de Blasio’s inauguration in January 2014 the shelter population has grown from 53,615 to 58,707, 40 percent of who are children, with an estimated 3,000 additional homeless people who live on the streets.
Furthermore, according to the Department of Homeless Services, the average length of stay at a homeless shelter has increased as well as the rate in which families re-enter shelters within a year of leaving.
The administration continues to defend its record by asserting that the problem was created by the poor policy making of past mayors, and that under de Blasio’s leadership the problem has been curtailed.
These numbers “would have gotten a lot higher,” de Blasio said during an interview on WNYC, “but for the efforts of a lot of people in this administration and beyond who worked feverishly, rightly, to get people services.”
Thus far the de Blasio administration has invested $10 million in a revamped rental assistance program that was dismantled by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $12 million to create a legal fund to help pay for the representation of those in rent court and another $22 million to help provide mental health services for the most vulnerable segments of the homeless population.
The administration also points to efforts with affordable housing, rent regulations, universal pre-k and an increased minimum wage as less, homeless specific solutions to fighting the problem.
Despite the fact that de Blasio blames much of the crisis on former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pro-business agenda, the rate of homelessness has actually increased under de Blasio’s progressive plan.
While many applaud the homelessness initiatives put in place, everyone can see they are not fully equipped to dismantle the problem.
“These are really necessary, tremendous programs,” said Jeff Foreman the policy director for Care for the homeless, a New York City based homeless advocate group. “But it’s important they be sized to the scale of the problem. Moving people without providing a long-term housing solution only stigmatizes these people and adds to the problem.”
Stephan Eide, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York City think tank, agreed that de Blasio’s programs are not scaled to size but took his criticism a step further saying that the administration’s programs do not represent a fully developed plan.
“De Blasio’s programs lack vision,” said Eide. “It’s triage mode. They’re piecemeal.”
Until early September 2015, de Blasio continually referred to the rise in homelessness as merely a “perception problem.” Eide believes the administration hastily pieced together their homelessness programs when they finally realized the true scope of the problem.
“Probably when de Blasio came in he thought his affordable housing plan would cover this,” said Eide. “For instance, the rental assistance program was reinstituted more than a year into his administration.”
Many homeless advocates, including Foreman and Eide, believe the most effective way of combating homelessness is not through a patchwork of programs but instead by heavily investing in supportive housing.
By creating affordable housing units with internal support services for the mentally ill and chronically homeless, supportive housing allows the most vulnerable segment of the homeless community a chance to stabilize their lives.
“The treatment is the relationship,” said Cynthia Stuart, the Chief Operating Officer at the Supportive Housing Network of New York. “These are individuals who, for one reason or another, basically lost all of the ties to friends and family that we rely on to keep us going. Supportive housing artificially and professionally replicates this.”
“If you need anything, they’ll direct you on the right path,” said Philip Harris, 53, an army veteran who was placed in supportive housing after suffering from severe depression and chronic homelessness.
Once placed, Harris said, “Wow, somebody’s actually concerned for my well-being. That gave me inspiration.”
After being homeless for more than three years, Harris now works as a chef and home improvement freelancer. He also attends the New York Film School where he studies film editing in hope of becoming a videographer for the Barclays Center. He rarely experiences bouts of depression anymore and is currently looking to move out of supportive housing and into his own apartment.
However, with a 10 percent turnover rate, of the 20,000 qualified applicants in New York City last year, just one in six were placed in supportive housing units. “More,” said Stuart. “We need more.”
Advocates are calling for a new joint city and state funding agreement to create 35,000 additional units. While de Blasio committed to funding the creation of 12,500 supportive housing units in his capital budget, Governor Cuomo will only commit to 5,000 units.
In a letter to Cuomo, 17 of New York’s top homeless advocates wrote, “As New York, New York III comes to a close it is time to raise production up to a level that begins to responsibly meet the staggering need, not to reduce production by half. The lives and well being of tens of thousands of fragile New Yorkers depend on bringing this proven solution to homelessness to scale in New York.”
Nevertheless, Cuomo appears happy to watch his political rival twist in the winds. Without support from Albany, de Blasio doesn’t have the resources to effectively address the homelessness problem in New York City. The city is a creature of the state, Cuomo to cut $67 million to the rental assistance program 2011, without reinvestment the homelessness crisis will continue to get worse.
Furthermore, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, another of de Blasio’s political rivals, recently blocked homeless shelters contracts. Citing a lack of proper maintenance, Stringer withheld city and state funding to homeless shelters in New York City until the mandated improvements were completed – improvements that couldn’t be afforded without city and state funding.
Without his colleagues on the same page, de Blasio’s strategies to combat homelessness are doomed to fail. While no one questions his progressive desires, his out spoken criticisms of his more conservative colleagues has politically marooned him when he most needs their support.