Opinion: There’s a pressing issue on our city's streets, and it’s not topless women

Opinion: There’s a pressing issue on our city's streets, and it’s not topless women

Opinion: There’s a pressing issue on our city's streets, and it’s not topless women
August 24, 2015

As is his wont, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently taken a keen interest in muscling his way into New York City issues. 

Cuomo demonstrated his crisis-management acumen by elbowing Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city Department of Health to take control of a Legionnaire’s outbreak in the south Bronx. He then felt the need to weigh in on the “desnudas” – the topless, painted women who take selfies with Times Square tourists for money, saying this bare-chested menace “needs to be stopped” and warning of a return to the Times Square of yesteryear, replete with porn and prostitutes.

With due respect to the governor’s courageous stance on protecting tourists from bare nipples, there is a far more pressing issue to which the state would do well to lend a hand – a supportive housing plan for the tens of thousands of homeless people living in New York City. The number living in city shelters has reached 58,761, according to the most recent census by the Coalition for the Homeless, but it is most certainly higher than that, considering the homeless men, women and children squeezed out of the shelter system and forced to live on the streets. 

Building supportive housing would not require a Herculean legislative effort between the city and Albany, nor would it necessitate a supplemental proposal to de Blasio’s robust affordable housing plan: A comprehensive agreement between the city and the state has already been in place for 25 years, thanks to the NY/NY initiative, which has created 50,000 units of supportive housing statewide since its inception in 1990. Yet the program is set to expire in June 2016.   

“[NY/NY] is a big piece of the puzzle,” says City Council member Steve Levin, the chair of the Committee on General Welfare. “It all adds up to a bigger picture, this happens to be a big piece of that. Historically, this has been part of our system now for 25 years, and this is our shot at it for this decade.”

Indeed, the NY/NY program is the rare city and state collaboration that has endured through both Democratic and Republican administrations and leadership upheaval in the Assembly and Senate.

The program contains traces of both Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s political lineages, and was crafted in response to the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s that swelled shelter populations beyond capacity and led to a wave of mentally ill people living in destitute conditions on the street.

It wasn’t until the winter of 1989, when the shelter rolls grew to frighteningly high numbers, that Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and former Mayor David Dinkins, with whom de Blasio began his political career as a mayoral aide, hammered out a jointly-funded agreement to get 5,225 mentally ill and homeless individuals off the streets by creating 3,314 units of licensed housing and a voluntary support services system to help them stay there.

The initial plan was largely successful, hitting its housing benchmarks and then some: 3,615 statewide units were created, which in turn reduced the financial burdens incurred by the city and state from soaring incarceration, hospitalization and other health care costs associated with buttressing the homeless population. After the first year of the program, 73 percent of the formerly homeless NY/NY residents remained in their placements, and 60 percent remained after two years.

Despite being the brainchild of a Democratic mayor and governor, the program’s success was so pronounced that it would be twice renewed by Republican city and state administrations – once by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki in 1997, and a third time by Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2005. The latter agreement reduced homelessness by 47 percent in the first five years.

But in the wake of a crippling economic crisis, Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo discontinued the Advantage program in 2011, which provided rental subsidies for homeless families seeking to transition to supportive housing. The homeless population has since skyrocketed.

De Blasio is fond of using the loss of the Advantage program as a crutch to explain away the dramatic increase of homeless families living in the city since he took office 18 months ago. In a recent interview on the Brian Lehrer Show, the mayor said the city and state “made a huge mistake” in canceling the program, and attributed the rise in homelessness over the past four years to that decision.

Yet that same passing of the buck is what girds the current debate between the city and state on renewing the NY/NY initiative, underscoring the fact that de Blasio’s and Cuomo’s own initiatives (including $1 billion in the state budget for homeless prevention programs) have been ineffective at reducing the actual numbers on the ground. While admirable, they are reminiscent of the city and state’s piecemeal efforts to stem the homeless boom of the 1980s, prior to the first NY/NY agreement.  

“The bottom line is that we have a steady presence of people with serious mental illnesses and other serious disabilities, who are unable to live independently in the housing market,” says Shelly Nortz, deputy director of policy at the Coalition for the Homeless. “And we're just not producing enough of that to meet the demand.”

Of course, the well-documented tensions between Cuomo and de Blasio loom over any and every negotiation between the city and state, but NY/NY seems to be the rare wedge issue where the stalemate is a matter of dollars and cents rather than petty politics.

Previous iterations of the NY/NY agreement saw the state picking up 80 percent of the tab, and 100 percent of the cost to house mentally ill and homeless individuals, with the city splitting the cost of housing other target populations, such as young adults who have recently left the foster care system.

But the Cuomo administration intends to tighten the state’s purse strings, pushing the de Blasio administration for closer to a 50/50 split for any units built in New York City, which, they contend, the city has the fiscal capacity to finance.

When asked, city officials dismiss the idea that the city is running a surplus. They argue that the city already picks up the tab for many of the state’s homeless prevention initiatives, including the majority of the rent cap program for HIV/AIDS patients, and homeless rental subsidy programs.

Cuomo is also wary of repeating Pataki’s mistake: The erstwhile governor committed to building 9,000 supportive housing units in the third NY/NY agreement, without the necessary capital to bankroll the program.

State officials tell me this is partly why Cuomo put forth such a tepid supportive housing proposal during the most recent budget negotiations – 5,000 units statewide over seven years – a figure that was scoffed at by city officials and homeless advocates, who point to a waiting list of over 20,000 individuals for housing placement.

To be sure, the de Blasio administration’s counterproposal, 12,000 units statewide, also falls far short of the 35,000 units called for by the Campaign 4 NY/NY Housing, a coalition of advocacy organizations and city and state elected officials.

But there are already rumblings in the advocacy community that the de Blasio administration will soon double down on its commitment to supportive housing by coming out with a proposal that inches closer to the 35,000 unit number – a plan that would at least give the appearance of a mayor doing more than finger pointing and lending lip service when it comes to dealing with the homeless problem wholesale.

The question is whether Cuomo will cede to the mayor and advocates’ demands in the name of tangible reductions to the homeless population. After all, it’s easy to swoop down from Albany in a chariot to “rescue” the city from hyper-local hiccups, but it’s all the more impressive to show you can play nice with the mayor in solving a major crisis. 


Nick Powell is City & State’s opinion editor. Email him at NPowell@cityandstateny.com or find him on Twitter: @nickpowellbkny 

Nick Powell