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How One Conservative Plutocrat Helped Make 20,000 Kids Homeless

Homelessness in New York has skyrocketed, thanks in part to years of conservative policy predicated on right-wing ideology.
 
 
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A series of ads placed in New York's subways by Coalition for the Homeless highlights skyrocketing rates of child and family homelessness in the city.

 

There are   20,000 kids sleeping in homeless shelters in New York City, according to the city's latest estimate, a number that does not include homeless kids who are  not sleeping in shelters because their families have been turned away. Up to 65 percent of families who apply for  shelter don't get in, and their options can be grim.

"Some end up sleeping in subway trains," Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, tells AlterNet. "Some go to hospital emergency rooms or laundromats. Women are going back to their batterers or staying in unsafe apartments." 

Families that make it into shelters are taking longer to leave and move into stable, permanent housing. Asked by reporters why families were staying  30% longer than even last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "... it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before."   

“Is it great?"  He elaborated a day later in response to outcry over his comments. "No. It’s not the Plaza Hotel ... but that’s not what shelter is supposed to be and that’s not what the public can afford or the public wants.” 

That deep-seated empathy for the poor also runs through the mayor's policies, which have helped create a crisis that the  New York Times  has called "an emergency." Since the mayor took office, promising to slash the rate of total homelessness by two thirds in five years, the homeless rate in New York City has ballooned to 46,000 people sleeping in shelters, an increase of almost 40 percent. The administration blames the financial crisis, but as it turns out, there are ways to make the lives of the very poor tougher in the middle of a recession: you just need to subscribe to a governing philosophy that assumes the poor are both too lazy to get on their feet  and working hard day and night to cheat the system. 

Here is a guide to how the Bloomberg administration managed to increase family homelessness while using up a lot of public money.  

1. Cut access to federal aid.

For decades, Republican and Democratic mayors kept family homelessness down by giving homeless parents and their kids priority access to federal housing subsidies and rental vouchers. But in 2004, as part of the mayor's five-year plan to combat homelessness, the administration knocked homeless families from the top of the massive waiting list for federal rent subsidies. Administration officials, offering no empirical proof, claimed that poor people were scamming the system by moving into shelters in order to get Section 8 vouchers. (Like many conservative fantasies involving scheming minorities, it's no doubt true that someone, somewhere, cheated  -- but studies show this was not a  widespread problem straining the system.)

The rate of homeless families who used federal subsidies fell to the low single digits. According to Giselle Routhier, policy analyst for  Coalition for the Homeless, "In fiscal year 2010, at a time of then record homelessness, home less families received only 2 percent of the 5,500 available public housing apartments and only 3 percent of 7,500 Section 8 vouchers." 

In place of programs that gave them access to permanent housing, homeless families got the gift of personal responsibility! First the administration introduced Housing Stability Plus, a subsidy that fell by  20 percent each year. HSP was mired in controversy following revelations that families were being exposed to hazardous conditions in their new digs: "[M]any formerly homeless families and their children have suffered from lead poisoning, lack of heat and hot water, vermin infestation," according to a Coalition for the Homeless report. 

The Advantage program, introduced in 2007, helped with a percent of families' rents (requiring they work or take job training) but cut aid after either one or two years. When their subsidies ran out, families were supposed to find their own way into permanent housing. Instead, many found their way back to the shelter, because, as homelessness advocates point out, rents did not magically go down in New York. One out of three families whose Advantage assistance expired applied for shelter in 2011, according to city numbers crunched by Coalition for the Homeless.   

 
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