Opinion: Lessons for Adams on homelessness from his mayoral predecessors

Here’s what past mayors did to help the homeless and implement supportive housing policies, some more successfully than others.

A homeless NYC resident packs up their belongings while the NYPD clear out a homeless encampment on April 6.

A homeless NYC resident packs up their belongings while the NYPD clear out a homeless encampment on April 6. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

I have advocated for the homeless in New York City for the last 40  years – first as a lawyer providing direct services, now as the executive director of the Urban Justice Center. During that time, I have spent thousands of hours in soup kitchens, shelters, tunnels, subways, burned-out buildings, and other places of refuge for those living on the streets. I have also witnessed how six different mayors approached the suffering and injustice of our most marginalized. As Mayor Eric Adams begins his tenure, I believe this history has critical lessons for him.

Though early, Mayor Adams is looking dangerously like Mayor Ed Koch, who callously ignored the needs of the homeless for the better part of a decade in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Mayor Adams recently declared, "No more smoking, no more doing drugs, no more sleeping, no more doing barbecues on the subway system. No more doing whatever you want. No. Those days are over." In late March, Mayor Adams declared – with no plan or implementation details – that the homeless would be run off our streets in the next two weeks. I could not help but hear echoes of Mayor Koch’s famous, callous quip about the homeless: “If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ve!!”

The homeless make a great punching bag for any politician looking to sound tough, as they are ignored, despised, and generally without the power to punch back. However, if all it took were bluster and fiat, Mayor Koch would have solved the problem long ago.  

Koch's response to the exploding homeless population in the 1980’s was to build massive, dangerous, and forbidding shelters in armories, while distracting the public's attention with irrelevant civil liberties battles. Packing as many as 1,000 single adults into congregate rooms with little to no supportive services, these armory shelters were breeding grounds for disease, violence, and civil injustice. They were never designed to help the homeless, but simply to hide them from view in the cheapest way possible (which seems to be the intention behind Mayor Adams’ recent subway sweeps as well). Many homeless people preferred the streets to these human warehouses,which I know from personal experience, as I spent many nights listening to the woes of those packed into these snake-pits when I was a young attorney. In 1992, I (along with David Singleton) successfully sued the city to shut down these armory shelters, because everyone deserves some modicum of dignity and safety. And in another sign of the value of learning from our history, the Urban Justice Center has spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic fighting attempts to force the homeless into dangerous, disease-spreading congregate housing once again.

Koch's shenanigans did not solve the problem of homelessness, and while they might have gained him some short term political points – as I'm sure Mayor Adams' recent pronouncement did – in the long run, his antics hurt the homeless, the city, and his own political career. “Between 1982 and 1987, New York City’s average daily shelter population [of single adults] increased by more than 250%,” according to the Supportive Housing Network of New York. At the last minute, seeing the writing on the wall, Mayor Koch reversed his policies and announced a multi-billion-dollar investment in housing – but it was far too late, and he lost his last election in 1989. Had he taken the problem seriously, he might have gotten that last term he so badly wanted, and tens of thousands of New Yorkers might have gotten the care they desperately needed.

On the other hand, Koch’s successor, Mayor David Dinkins, took the plight of the homeless seriously. He listened to experts and designed a model program with Governor Mario Cuomo (the first in the country) to build over 3,500 supportive housing beds for homeless people suffering from mental illness. This initial agreement was supplemented by two further city/state partnerships that created more than 15,000 supportive housing units for all kinds of special needs populations in our city, from teenagers aging out of foster care to homeless veterans. Today, there are nearly 50,000 supportive housing beds statewide. And while Mayor Koch saw an explosion in the single adult homeless population, Mayor Dinkin’s strategies resulted in a 30% decrease over the course of his tenure – an impressive feat, given that single homeless adults are one of the hardest populations to assist.

After years of study and experience we know that supportive housing is the most cost-effective solution to getting proper care and housing for the mentally ill. Supportive housing has been extraordinarily successful as it is cheaper than prisons, hospitals, and even shelters. . In one recent study, more than 80% of people given supportive housing were still stably housed two years later – compared to just 1% of those who had not been placed in supportive housing. Critically, those in supportive housing also had fewer preventable emergency room visits, better adherence to medical treatment for conditions like HIV/AIDS, and reduced anxiety. Surprising many critics, supportive housing units also provided long-term benefits to the neighborhoods they were in, with studies from NYU showing that real estate prices for homes near supportive housing grew faster than comparable units in other areas.

When we help the most hurt among us, we help the city as a whole. Kindness is not merely good morals, it turns out, it is good policy.

Mayor Adams now has to decide who he wants to be. Making the city a safer place and providing secure and decent alternatives for the homeless are two sides of the same coin.  You can't have one without the other. Bluster does not solve anything and ultimately reflects poorly on those who use it. Adams strikes me as an intelligent, charismatic, and entertaining person (and he meditates daily, as do I). I hope he proves himself to be a man of wisdom and character, and opts for policy over propaganda.

– With Hugh Ryan, development assistant at Urban Justice Center.