(CITY&STATE NY) Ben Adler, August 21, 2018 — On a rainy morning in May, around 30 homeless people and a handful of activists gathered on the steps of New York City Hall to call on local government to protect homeless New Yorkers trying to find permanent housing. Specifically, they opposed a proposed cut to the city’s Commission on Human Rights budget, fearing it would hamstring the already weak enforcement of laws to prevent landlords from discriminating against New Yorkers who use city vouchers to pay their rent.
What the group lacked in numbers they made up for in energy, loudly cheering each speaker and chanting with gusto. They held a banner that read, “End income discrimination now,” and waved signs that declared, “We can pay rent but landlords are keeping us homeless.” One handwritten sign demanded, “DeBlasio what about the other city?”
“Sixty-three thousand people are living in homeless shelters. Is that because they want to?” asked Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, through a megaphone. “No!” The crowd cried in unison. And yet many of them said they have been in shelters for a year or more.
There are currently about 59,000 New Yorkers staying in homeless shelters and several thousand more sleeping on the streets, figures that fluctuate seasonally. This year’s street homeless winter population count was 3,675 people. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which uses a different methodology, pegged the total (street and shelter) homeless population at more than 75,000 in a report released in December.
Then there are the New Yorkers who lack a home of their own but are crashing on a friend or family member’s couch. “There’s people who aren’t even counted because they’re doubled or tripled up (in a bedroom), or they’re three-quarter housed – that’s extremely low-income adults who are paying the shelter allowance to rent a bunk bed in private housing,” said Paulette Soltani, housing campaign coordinator with VOCAL-NY, a statewide grass-roots advocacy organization for low-income New Yorkers.
Add it all up, and New York City’s homeless rate is the highest it has been since the Great Depression, even as the national economy verges on full employment. (In between, it dipped dramatically: There were 28,083 New Yorkers in shelters in March 1988, 20,597 in June 1998 and 39,125 in September 2009, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.) Housing is so expensive and inequality so severe that many working families cannot afford a place to live.
Homelessness is mainly a housing problem, and it can only be reduced through comprehensive housing policy solutions.