Is New York City Trying to Hide Its Homeless?

News & Politics

For a winter night in New York, January 30 was unusually warm. That was a good thing for the over 41,000 New Yorkers who don't have a roof over their heads as well as the 3,000 volunteers who participated in the 2012 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, a survey of the city's homeless population conducted annually by the NYC Department of Homeless Services. The HOPE survey is meant to provide a point-in-time snapshot of street homelessness in New York, but many homeless activists wonder: What do those estimates really tell us about New Yorkers struggling with housing security? And how effectively do they reflect the city's commitment, or lack thereof, to end homelessness?

On HOPE night, volunteers set out shortly after midnight from dozens of training sites scattered across all five boroughs. They would canvas New York's streets, alleys, parks, and subway stations, counting the number of people who did not have a private place to stay overnight.

I followed a group of students whose designated study area included a few midtown Manhattan blocks. They were led by Joe Hallmark of the Goddard Riverside Community Center in Manhattan and accompanied by Commissioner Seth Diamond and five or six DHS staff members. As we marched along the well-lit streets, team members stopped to interview every homeless individual they saw in their study area, unless the person was asleep.

For Hallmark and his team at the community center, this was a familiar task. "Twenty-four hours a day we have teams out in the field, basically just canvasing the streets looking for homeless individuals" and offering them housing services, he said.

The community center is one of a few non-profits contracted by the city to reach out to New York's homeless population. Offering housing support and employment and health services, the group's mission is to place chronically homeless individuals in permanent housing. According to Hallmark, the group boasts an up to 90 percent success rate for individuals transitioning successfully to permanent housing.

Common Ground, another outreach non-profit that serves Queens, Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan, has reported that its program reduced street homelessness by 87 percent in the 20-block Times Square neighborhood and by 43 percent in the surrounding 230 blocks of west Midtown. On the whole, the city has reported a 40 percent decline in street homelessness since 2005, which puts New York in a list of cities with the lowest rates of street homelessness in the U.S.

Still, there is reason to wonder whether New York officials are committed to ending homelessness, or just sweeping it under the rug.

Programs that tackle homelessness effectively by offering affordable housing, like the ones mentioned above, are often not available to individuals who are already in the shelter system. In other words, the city prioritizes getting chronically homeless people off of the streets, but readily ignores those who are living in a shelter and still need permanent housing. According to Patrick Markee, a senior analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, right now there is virtually no city-funded housing assistance available for homeless families in the shelter system.

Despite the city proudly announcing last year a 40-percent reduction in street homeless population since 2005, more families are stuck in the shelter system than ever. The placement of homeless families in shelters to permanent housing in 2011 dropped a staggering 25 percent from the previous year as the total number of homeless families receiving shelter service in New York only dropped 5 percent, according to DHS. Meanwhile, the placement rate for families with children dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 28 percent in 2011.

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 Atlantathe 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.

Some other cities simply deprive the homeless basic conditions for survival. The city of Sacramento, for instance, once shut a nearby fountain off and removed public restroom facilities to discourage homeless people taking shelter in a growing tent city.

This makes homelessness not just a socioeconomic issue, but a human rights issue.

It is the same dehumanization of the homeless in our culture that breeds hatred and violence against these already extremely vulnerable members of our society. The recent serial murders of homeless individuals in Orange County, California, were a chilling wakeup call to our society's apathy toward those who have fallen out of the system. As a social worker who knew one of the victims told an AP reporter, "It almost sounds like hunting."

Between 1999 and 2010, the National Coalition for the Homeless documented 1,184 acts of violence against homeless individuals by housed perpetrators. More than one in five of these attacks ended in death.

Being without a shelter and constantly on the move, homeless people are already vulnerable to violence. But what makes them even more vulnerable is society's "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. In Spiegel's words, "As a society, we said, 'These people don't count.' It's not particularly surprising that these people looking for targets [are] going to target people society...regards the least."

Back in Manhattan, Hallmark's team found six homeless people in their study area by the end of the night. Their counts will be added to a pool with other teams, and the results will be available in about six weeks, according to DHS. Regardless of whether this year's estimate will allow the city to announce another "victory" over street homelessness, the effort seems to be missing the point. Only when we look beyond HOPE, may we begin to see the promise of ending homelessness. 

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