06/10/2010 05:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Understanding Homelessness in New York City

Since 1999 I have been on the Board of Directors of an amazing organization called Homes for the Homeless. "Homes" was founded in 1986 by Hartz Group Chairman Leonard N. Stern. A year later Stern recruited my good friend and Columbia colleague Dr. Ralph Nunez to run the organization. Each year "Homes" provides shelter, meals and an array of vital services for about 1,000 families and 2,500 children. In addition to working to help homeless families survive, Stern, Nunez and their colleagues have worked to understand the persistent problem of homelessness. In order to do so they began a small think-tank called the Institute for Children and Poverty in 1990. In January 2010 this Institute worked with the Baruch College School of Public Affairs to conduct a phone survey of over 1,000 city residents on a variety of issues related to homelessness.

New York City is suffering from the national recession, and the poorest among us are suffering the most. On the evening of June 4th, the City's shelter system housed 35,469 people, including 14,578 children. Homelessness is not simply a result of the bad economy; it is also caused by the shrinking number of affordable housing options available to poor and working people in New York City. The Institute for Children and Poverty/ Baruch survey indicates that homelessness is never far from the consciousness of New Yorkers. The survey reports that 55% of those interviewed thought about homelessness at least once a week and 35% thought about it almost every day. Only 18% never thought about the issue at all.

Nearly a quarter of this representative statistical sample of New York City (23%) responded that they were worried that they or their family "might be at risk of becoming homeless." About 20% of these survey respondents knew someone who had become homeless in the past six months. Most of the public (62%) reported seeing an increase in homelessness over the past six months. Over 30 years ago, New York State's courts ruled that all New Yorkers have a legal right to shelter. This right enjoys massive (77%) public support. Only 15% of those surveyed oppose such a right.

I often get the feeling that in other parts of the United States people blame poverty and homelessness on poor people. The arcane 19th century idea that poor people become poor because of their own deficiencies still exists. This argument typically excludes children, who are considered blameless, but it is hard to help children without helping their parents. While I believe that it is important for people to take responsibility for their own lives, it is also important that in a nation as wealthy as this one for society to take responsibility as well. In some parts of the country, poverty and homelessness are relatively invisible. Poor people live on the "other side of the tracks." The homeless sleep under highway overpasses, and people drive by them high atop their SUVs.

People in New York City experience homelessness and poverty in more personal and direct ways. It is not an invisible problem. It is a five year old girl on the subway sitting next to her baby brother and mother carrying all of their belongings in a shopping cart. The more than eight million people who live here includes many wealthy people, some of whom may live in fabulous penthouses. Nevertheless, at some point during the day, they walk with the rest of us on the very same streets. This city has its rich neighborhoods and its poor ones, but is too big and complicated to have an "other side of the tracks" where poverty is completely hidden from view. This city is also fortunate to have wealthy people like Leonard Stern who are willing to translate their understanding and awareness of homelessness into action. Stern wedded his business savvy with Ralph Nunez's understanding of New York City's politics and social service bureaucracy to create Homes for the Homeless. If you need to a bit of inspiration, check out this video entitled "HFH Overview" in their video archive that tells the story of this remarkable organization.

The survey demonstrated that the average New Yorker's awareness of poverty and homelessness has created a remarkably sophisticated understanding of poverty and its causes. This survey provides hard evidence that New Yorkers understand homelessness. The nearly quarter century history of Homes for the Homeless provides tangible proof of the impact that those views have had on New York's homeless families. I know I am biased, but I believe that Homes for the Homeless has made a difference in dialing back some of the harshest impacts of what can sometimes be a tough, unforgiving place to live. It is an organization that deserves the thanks of all New Yorkers.