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Is New York City Trying to Hide Its Homeless?

The city works hard to get chronically homeless people off the streets, but ignores those in shelters who still need permanent housing.

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And things seem to be getting worse. Last year, due to a withdrawal of federal and state funding, the city terminated the Advantage program, a housing assistance effort for formerly homeless working families launched in 2007, though it originally said it would continue to provide rent support for the families already in the program. Recently, the city announced that it would stop paying rent support altogether.

The cuts in assistance housing programs for those in the shelter system have led to a dramatic increase in the municipal shelter population, which exceeded 41,000 per night last year for the first time in three decades, said Markee.

Making things worse, DHS recently proposed a new set of rules that would require single homeless individuals to provide documentation of previous residences or evictions to prove that they do not have alternative options for temporary housing. However, being homeless makes securing personal belongings a day-to-day challenge, especially for those who are chronically homeless or who suffer from mental illness. To some of them, providing these documents will be almost impossible. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that as many as 16 percent of individuals could be turned away from shelters if the rules are implemented.

Commissioner Diamond assured that "the rules...were directed at people who have other alternatives" -- such as "doubling up" with another family or sleeping on a friend's couch -- and would not affect individuals on the streets. Of course, such "alternatives" can only work temporarily. Homeless activists worry that the rules could unwittingly create a hidden homeless population unqualified to receive services that can help them get out of homelessness.

Nationwide, the numbers of people living on the edge of homelessness are already alarming. A recent report shows that more than 6 million Americans spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent in 2010, and the number of multiple families living together increased 53 percent from 2005 to 2011.

As the city prioritizes the elimination of street homelessness while ignoring other critical initiatives, some homeless activists have begun questioning whether the city cares more about putting homelessness out of sight than truly helping homeless individuals secure permanent residences.

The conflict is certainly not unique to New York. Over the past few years the city of Atlanta has pushed all but one of its homeless shelters out of the downtown business district in the name of economic revival. In alliance with the Atlanta business community, the city has also tried to shut down the one remaining shelter, which houses 500 to 1,000 homeless individuals. Clearing homeless people from downtown by shutting inner cities shelters is only one of the discriminatory measures Atlanta has taken to superficially address the vexing problem of homelessness. Inadequate shelter beds and hostile ordinances against the homeless have also made Atlanta the fourth worst city to be homeless in the country, according the National Coalition on Homelessness and Poverty.

Another form of discrimination against the homeless is criminalization. In Los Angeles, which has the largest homeless population in the country, the Sacred Cities Initiative launched in 2007 and ended up increasing the number of police officers dramatically in downtown while ignoring other more effective measures to make affordable housing available to the homeless. The first year of the operation yielded a staggering 12,000 citations for minor items like crosswalk violations and loitering. The violations were issued 50 times more often than in any other area of the city, according to Greg Spiegel of the L.A. Inner City Law Center.

Unfortunately, L.A. is not alone in this either. In a report released by the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty last November, of the 234 cities surveyed, 40 percent prohibit sleeping in public places, 33 percent prohibit sitting/lying in public places, and 56 percent prohibit loitering in public places. Among the 188 cities surveyed in 2009 and 2011, there was a 7 percent increase in prohibitions on sleeping and a 10 percent increase in prohibitions on loitering.

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