Column | The etiology of a perfect storm: the homelessness and housing crises

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The surrounding area on Blondell Avenue where a 200-bed men’s shelter will be constructed is filled with vacant properties.
Photo Adrian Childress

Homelessness

As of January 2022, approximately 48,413 city residents were homeless, including 15,057 children; which is down from approximately 60,000 during the Bloomberg years. These are still crisis proportions. How did we get here?

Consider this: “…[the state Legislature] under George E. Pataki, spearheaded the passage of landmark legislation that was intended to revolutionize care for the mentally ill and reduce the number of sick, disoriented people living on the streets. The new law required the state to begin closing its expensive and largely anachronistic psychiatric hospitals and to use the savings to expand a broad range of community mental health programs. For three decades, the state had been emptying its psychiatric hospitals, then using the savings to help balance its budget, leaving thousands of former patients homeless and without treatment. Now, just as the first dollars have started to flow to day treatment programs in Brooklyn and group homes in Buffalo, Governor Pataki has proposed repealing vital parts of the law and making large cuts in the very community programs that he wanted to enact. At the same time, he would continue to shrink the number of state hospital beds by 10 percent, a move that advocates for the mentally ill say is a prescription for more homelessness.” New York Times, 1995.

And that is exactly what happened. The psychiatric hospitals were emptied and the “community-based programs” were either cut or never materialized. This left thousands of people with mental health issues and drug issues to fend for themselves on the streets. The city has never recovered from this.

Also consider this: 1975 Callahan v. Carey: a consent decree. The city and state agreed to provide shelter and board to all homeless men who met the need standard for welfare or who were homeless “by reason of physical, mental, or social dysfunction or suffer legal consequences.”

Thus the decree established a right to shelter for all homeless men in New York City, giving New York City a right to shelter mandate; one of only 3 states to have such a mandate. Homeless people who show up at an intake center must be housed within 24 hours or the city is liable for legal fines. This has created the city’s multi-billion-dollar shelter system. However, it has also been easy pickings for corruption: “Eyes are on the shelter system in light of recent investigations from the New York Times and the New York Post into CORE Services Group, which revealed that its CEO was earning a $1 million salary while also putting his family on the payroll and contracting companies he has a stake in.” NYN Media.

And let us not forget the scuttling of the Advantage rent subsidy program and Section 8 program during the Bloomberg administration years, which threw thousands of working poor families into the shelter system as well. 

The city is now desperate to find any possible location no matter how inappropriate (such as a contamination site) to build shelters to technically get the numbers down while spending millions (in one case on Blondell Ave $433 million; this is a huge boondoggle) of tax dollars on what amounts to warehouses for the homeless. 

Housing

For decades, especially under the Bloomberg administration the developers built only one type of housing (and got very good tax breaks for it): luxury housing at top prices. This type of building was unsustainable in the long run. Now the housing crisis is upon us, as thousands have been displaced to lack of affordable housing. 

In both these cases the city has reacted with a hysterical demand that every vacant square foot in our communities become either a homeless shelter or a huge affordable housing apartment complex. These sites have included low-density zoned areas such as Bruckner, a 200-year-old Quaker Cemetery (temporarily put on hold), and a contaminated Brownfield site (again, Blondell), all inappropriate sites.

And so, the city has failed with its destructive policies for decades, and communities like ours are being asked to pay the price, which will be the loss of our quality of life and our communities as we know them. We truly are being asked to reap the whirlwind the city’s failed policies have sown.

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