New York City’s homelessness conundrum

Arguably no public officials today are more qualified to address New York City's homeless problem than Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and city Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.

Why, then, do we still have so many homeless New Yorkers? Despite aggressive new programs and policies and more funding, the number of men, women and children swelling our shelter system is not dropping.

Homelessness is a tough nut to crack in a city where 1) it’s not getting any cheaper to live; 2) nobody wants a homeless hotel, shelter or subsidized housing in their neighborhood; and 3) affordable housing plans are being scuttled over arguments about what level of rent is considered “affordable.”

The homeless population didn’t reach 60,000 overnight, either. It’s been growing steadily since 2011, when funding that helped people either avoid eviction or find subsidized housing came to a screeching halt. Unfortunately, it may take just as long for the number to shrink as it did to surge.

While the vast majority of the city’s shelter residents are homeless because they are jobless or underemployed, some are also struggling with domestic violence, mental illness and drug abuse – problems that can’t be solved with a bigger paycheck or lower rent.

Critics often complain that either one or all three of Cuomo, de Blasio and Banks don’t know what they are doing, but that’s wrong. The people in charge have the street cred to do the job.

Cuomo and de Blasio both worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that develops policies to combat homelessness. In 1986, Cuomo started HELP, the first homeless initiative that focused on the causes of homelessness. That program won Harvard's prestigious Kennedy School of Government Innovations Award during Cuomo’s tenure at the federal agency.

As HUD representative for the northeast region, de Blasio worked with cities, helping them implement the HELP model. Not long after his election as mayor, he increased homeless funding, hired more lawyers to prevent illegal tenant evictions, put into place important policy changes, focused on services for homeless who are mentally ill and/or drug addicted and, most importantly, appointed Banks – a highly respected homeless advocate – to oversee all of these efforts.

Banks has dedicated his entire professional life to helping the homeless through his work with the Legal Aid Society. The New York Times described him as “the most relentless and determined advocate for homeless people that the city had ever faced.”

So what gives? Well, New Yorkers’ impatience, for one.

When I worked at City Hall, people often demanded I tell the mayor “get the homeless off the street!” Fair enough – he’s the mayor, and that’s his job. But, New Yorkers are a smart crowd. Many are masters of their own special universe. We also should be asking each other, “What are our big ideas? How can we be part of the solution?” Here are mine.

* Say no to NIMBYism. Speak up about resolving differences when the NIMBYists show up to protest with “all or nothing” arguments.

* Say yes to Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan. Even if you think his definition of affordable isn’t affordable enough, building apartments with lower rents opens up other low-income housing. Unfortunately, gentrification is an inevitability, and I prefer a little good government oversight with my brownstone and latte bar.

* Urge the governor and mayor to work together more closely. Heck, they don’t even have to like each other. Regular people work with people they don’t like every day. There’s a 421-a affordable housing program that needs fixing, and a promised $20 billion in state funds for supportive and affordable housing that needs to be put to good use.

* Understand that “chasing the homeless away” or throwing them into Rikers Island prison – as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has recommended – is not a solution. Most of our homeless shelters are filled with women and children. On the street are people who are largely mentally ill, drug addicted or both, and it’s against the law to imprison or hospitalize them unless they are harming themselves or others or breaking a law. So even if the mayor suddenly lost his mind and shooed them all away, he would be sued in a New York minute. Alternatively, we could shoo Giuliani instead.

* Ignore sensational media coverage and call 311 or 911 to help the street homeless. They may not agree to come off the street the first time they are approached, but they might the third, fourth or fifth time.

* Hire the breadwinner from a homeless family in your company. Train the breadwinner in a skill. Contribute a nice chunk of change to a homeless shelter provider.

* And, if you don’t like my ideas, take yours to the next public housing hearing or send them to City Hall or Albany or even a City & State reporter. Crowdsourcing innovative ideas can be the bedrock of good government.

We all have to own this problem, not just the three men in charge.

Karen Hinton is a communications consultant and the former press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio.