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Jarrett Murphy Headshot

Mayor Mike's Homeless Hurdle

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In the fabulous city depicted by Mike Bloomberg's television ads and mailers, where smiling children walk through freshly-painted school hallways, smiling cops protect us from terrorism and the mayor looks at blueprints with his sleeves rolled up, all the numbers are headed in the right direction. Crime is down, test scores are up, the graduation rate is increasing, fewer people are on welfare, there's more affordable housing, it's less filling but still tastes great, the mayor can hit for both power and average and all citizens are getting better looking but still have nice personalities.

A statistics professor of mine once joked that there were three things in the world: "Lies, damn lies and statistics." (Trust me, in the context of a graduate stats class, that line qualified as downright hilarious. Oh, how we chortled!) His point was that numbers sometimes tell us only what their purveyors want us to hear. It's not that numbers lie, exactly. It's that they often say less than we think they do. Bloomberg obviously wants his mayoralty to be judged on the numbers he picks. But there are other numbers out there—like the number of homeless New Yorkers seeking beds in city shelters despite the mayor's plan to dramatically reduce that population.

In 2003, Bloomberg convened a panel of experts to come up with innovative ways to deal with homelessness. This panel produced a report called "Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter" that called for new efforts to prevent homelessness, better coordination among city services for the homeless and changes to the shelter system that would lead to shorter stays and better outcomes.

At the time, Bloomberg pledged to reduce the street homeless population by two-thirds and the shelter population by two-thirds in five years, or by June of 2009.

The mayor deserved credit for setting ambitious goals in such a complex policy area. And he got that credit, especially during the 2005 re-election campaign. In its endorsement editorial, the New York Times credited the mayor for his "generally humane solutions for the homeless."

But it wasn't like Bloomberg picked homelessness out of a box of challenging, socially important policy problems. The issue landed on his doorstep, as the number of people seeking shelter soared during the first two years of his mayoralty to levels higher than ever before recorded.

Last fall, when the Department of Homeless Services reviewed its progress under the 2004 plan, it conceded that the city had not come anywhere near its goals. Street homelessness was down by 25 percent, as measured by the annual HOPE survey (which, predictably, has its detractors). But that reduction was short of the target. Even more disappointing was the progress toward reducing the shelter population: While the number of single adults in shelter had dropped 22 percent, the number of adult families slipped only 3 percent and the number of families with children had decreased a mere 2 percent.

Since last fall, the numbers have changed for better and worse. The 2009 HOPE survey in January found street homelessness was down an encouraging 47 percent since 2005. In June, DHS reported that the number of single adults in shelters was 16 percent lower than in fiscal year 2005. But the number of adult families was up 7 percent. And the number of families with kids in shelters was 20 percent higher, at more than 8,000.

The Bloomberg administration points with pride to the 170,000 people it has moved from shelters to permanent housing under the 2003 plan. It can also boast that it freed the city from two decades of judicial control of its homeless policy, and devoted thousands of new housing units to supportive housing for the formerly homeless. The administration said last fall that some 86 percent of the homeless policies it planned in 2004 had been implemented.

But among the policy successes it lists, the administration does not talk much about Housing Stability Plus, a key policy innovation under the 2004 plan. A rental subsidy for homeless families, it was deeply flawed: It required recipients to have open welfare cases and the subsidy decreased 20 percent per year over five years—imposing a punishing annual rent increase on formerly homeless people poor enough to be on welfare. Advocates complained about the program from day one, but the city for years resisted calls for change until it finally dropped the program in 2007. Other aspects of the city's homeless policies have come under criticism, too, from how families are screened for emergency aid, to the process for relocating intake centers, to how DHS has managed its contracts with private landlords, to a recent move to obey a 12-year-old state law and start charging rent at shelters.

Obviously, many of the factors that determine the size of the homeless population are beyond the mayor's control. Rising unemployment in the city is doubtless swelling the ranks of the homeless this year. And the homelessness problem has to be seen in the broader context of the city's increasingly tight housing market. There are complex reasons for why individual people and families lose their homes, but it's safe to say that many hit the streets simply because they cannot afford a place to live.

The pressure on low-income families has only increased over the past eight years. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median contract rent in New York increased from $706 in 2002 to $950 in 2008, an increase of 12 percent after inflation is figured in. The number of rent controlled apartments has decreased by a third. There are 20,000 fewer rent stabilized apartments. The median share of a person's income devoted to rent in New York has since 2002 risen from 28.6 percent to 31.5 percent. The rising rents reflect the fact that people with money to spend want to move to New York, something that certainly wasn't true 30 years ago. That's a good thing, but people waiting in line for the bus to a shelter are unlikely to be cheered by the city's booming population.

To its credit, the Bloomberg administration has pursued an ambitious plan to build and preserve affordable housing. But it has also championed in some parts of the city private market development that creates housing that is not affordable, while pursuing in other neighborhoods locally popular downzonings that restrict housing creation. These policies—affordable housing, zoning, development, homelessness—are usually compartmentalized and discussed separately. In a city that now has more shelter residents than police officers, it might be time to put all the numbers on the same table.