New York City doesn’t have a homelessness problem. Well, at least not the kind you think it does.
By now, you’ve probably heard the Dasani story. Last month, Andrea Elliott’s powerful five-part New York Times series about a homeless girl’s invisible struggle for survival in America’s biggest city has rightfully captivated both policy and popular audiences across the country.
Her story is a heartbreaking one, and it highlights the painful inequalities that so many American children must endure through no fault of their own.
It’s the type of journalism that catalyzes change. A narrative can cut through policy paralysis in ways reports and statistics never will. One girl’s suffering may be enough to inspire compassionate solutions.
But to formulate a solution, one needs to understand the problem. In NYC, homelessness is not that problem.
When people think of homelessness, they tend to picture bench-dwelling alcoholics or smelly subway pandhandlers. But in New York, that stereotype is just plain wrong. Nearly three-quarters of NYC’s record 51,000 homeless are families with children, many of them headed by young single moms.
Family homelessness is a different issue altogether. So different, in fact, that labeling it “homelessness” misrepresents the issue—and complicates the policy response.
Unlike chronically homeless adults, homeless families typically do not suffer from severe mental illness or substance abuse.
Most families who enter the shelter system stay for a short time, leave, and never return. Mostly, they’re indistinguishable from other poor—but housed—families. Indeed, more than a quarter of homeless families are headed by an employed adult.
Indeed, predicting which poor families will become homeless and which will not is virtually impossible. Largely, it’s a matter of luck.
Like all families, the poor experience unforeseen crises—be it sickness, job loss, or relationship struggles. Their income fluctuates. But unlike wealthier households, the poor do not have the resources to withstand such shocks. If a few things break the wrong way, they’re out on the street.
If this seems unfair, it is. It’s also costly. New York typically spends more than $100 a day to house each family in a shelter.
In other words, the housing costs of poor families can double or triple overnight, thanks to nothing more than a bout of bad luck.
Could resources be deployed more efficiently? Sure. But in NYC, there’s a bunch of structural barriers that prevent this from happening.
First, thanks to a legacy of lawsuits, New Yorkers have a court-ordered right to shelter that exists nowhere else in America.
Second, New York has an acute shortage of affordable housing. During the last four decades, median rents have doubled while incomes have remained flat. About half of NYC households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Third, the city lacks a rental subsidy program. Section 8 vouchers have been insufficiently funded by the federal government for years. Waiting lists are endless.
In 2011, state lawmakers approved budget language prohibiting the city from using federal or state funds to operate its own subsidy program, resulting in an abrupt end to Advantage, the city’s primary ticket out of shelters for poor families.
Fourth, bringing on new capacity is a tough proposition. Without the funds for a subsidy program to bring families out of shelters, it is hardly surprising that the family shelter population has grown rapidly in the last few years.
Building new affordable housing is a long-term solution that offers little consolidation to a family struggling today. So the city must fulfill its housing mandate by building more shelters.
Finding a place to site shelters is difficult, often due to neighborhood opposition. While people decry homelessness in general, few want a “homeless shelter” next door.
At the same time, operating shelters has become big business, with some wealthy landlords making hefty profits off the marginally housed.
The strategy is simple: evict poor families from regular apartments, then flip these buildings into “shelters,” where the city—due to its housing mandate—will willingly pay three or four times the rent to house the same family in the same apartment.
It’s basic economics. When demand for housing exceeds supply, its price will go up. Restricting the supply even further and imposing a purchase mandate on the buyer makes the costs spiral ever upwards.
So what do we do about it?
Urban poverty and inequality are big, multidimensional issues. Breaking the cycle of poverty is a long-term endeavor—one that offers little solace to families struggling today. But breaking the cycle of housing churn is well within our reach.
State lawmakers must realize that both smart budgeting and basic human compassion call for the state to partner with NYC in funding a rental subsidy program for poor families.
But regular New Yorkers have an important part to play, too. Rather than pushing the already marginalized further to the margins, we must welcome poor families into our hearts and our communities.
We are not creating “homeless shelters,” but providing affordable apartments to young moms and their children—among the most harmless, and most vulnerable, of all demographic groups. Labels do matter.
The sooner we break the cycle of eviction, landlord monopoly, and exorbitant city-funded rents, the sooner housing will become more accessible and stable for poor families.
Providing kids with safe, secure places to live will boost their growth and development, laying the groundwork for more prosperous futures, while injecting vitality and vigor into communities in the meantime.
New York doesn’t have a homeless problem. It has a neighbor problem.
And that’s a problem we all have a role in fixing. In 2014, one way to begin is by truly considering what “loving thy neighbor” really means.