Homelessness: Solving a (Not) Unsolvable Problem

Homelessness: Solving a (Not) Unsolvable Problem

Homelessness: Solving a (Not) Unsolvable Problem
February 4, 2015

Homelessness is on the rise. We all know it because we see it every day, on our streets and in the often-controversial effort to build more shelters in our neighborhoods. The belief that homelessness is an inevitable part of city life that is beyond our control is wrong. We just need to accept the scope of the problem and apply a more thoughtful response.

The reason it feels like homelessness is rampant in New York is because it is. There are currently just over 60,000 individuals—including over 25,000 children—in the New York City shelter system. Those numbers are the highest they have been since the Great Depression. Add to that a projected shelter census growth rate of approximately 20 percent per year and you have a pending disaster.

To address homelessness, New York City spends $1 billion for its Department of Homeless Services each year, with millions of additional taxpayer dollars spent by other city agencies, the state and the federal government. For the families in the homeless shelter system, the costs are far higher. Homelessness makes physical and mental health issues exponentially worse, increases family separation, child abuse and human trafficking, and stunts childhood development. 

In short, we are spending a lot, but the problem is getting worse and families are suffering tremendously. It’s time to spend smarter and, when we do it right, it will cost less and give us better outcomes. 

Our first step is to fix inadequate housing allowances for families and individuals at risk of homelessness. Almost all of these subsidies—including those targeted for homeless veterans, domestic violence survivors, youth, people with disabilities, and others—haven’t been adjusted in years, sometimes decades. They are completely disconnected from the realities of the current housing market.

Smart public policy is to increase these subsidies so they add up to the fair market rent as calculated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 2013, HUD’s fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New York City was $17,688.  It cost $37,603 to shelter a homeless family that same year.

By increasing subsidies to reflect the current housing market we will significantly reduce the amount taxpayers are spending, facilitate families leaving shelters and also prevent many from entering the system in the first place. Keeping families in their homes is not only morally right, it also turns out to be far more cost effective than allowing them to fall into homelessness.

However, increasing subsidies isn’t the whole solution. Current policies that guide our homeless prevention and recovery efforts have significant gaps. Too often they stop people who clearly need assistance from getting it and leave the homeless trying to navigate a web of disconnected programs.

Right now, survivors of domestic violence, people living with HIV/AIDS, and runaway and homeless youth all face perverse policies or impossible paradigms that deny them access to services. Successful prevention requires that our programs are available to those who need assistance before they are in crisis and on the verge of homelessness.   

Our homeless recovery efforts share a single overarching policy problem. Many programs have been created without realistic consideration of what happens to the individuals and families once they leave that program. Often, a person will be forced out after an established timeframe without a place to go, perpetuating the revolving door of the shelter system. We must create streamlined and flexible pathways out of homelessness by adjusting our current programs to account for reasonable next steps.

The causes of homelessness are complex, but the solutions are achievable. Rather than giving up or falling back on failed policies that leave us treading water in a sea of lost hope and broken families, we must use the awareness and pressure from our rising rates of homelessness to create the momentum we need to finally craft long-term solutions.

Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi represents the 28th Assembly District in Queens and serves as chairman of the Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee.         

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Andrew Hevesi