“I didn’t know finding an apartment would be impossible" – Data and Experience Refute the Homeless 'Magnet Theory' in New York City and Nationwide

Gayla Francis, who has experienced homelessness since she moved to New York City, searches for affordable housing
Gayla Francis, who has experienced homelessness since she moved to New York City, searches for affordable housing

Armed with a Section 8 housing voucher and a monthly income through Social Security Disability Insurance, Gayla Francis left her Connecticut home and moved to New York City, confident that she would secure steady housing and pursue the city’s vast opportunities.

Things didn’t go as planned.

“I came here to have better health care, to be closer to my doctors, to have a better life, to go back to school and to go back to work. I didn’t come here to die and that’s what it feels like,” Francis said as she sat inside a dim community room at Metropolitan Hospital where she received treatment for lupus.. “I didn’t know finding an apartment would be impossible.”

After briefly residing in a Brooklyn SRO, Francis – who said she suffers from lupus, epilepsy and degenerative joint disease – underwent several hospitalizations and subacute rehab stays across New York City, Westchester County and New Jersey before a hospital social worker referred her to the Franklin Women’s Intake Shelter in the Bronx, an entry point into the New York City Department of Homeless Services shelter system.

Unbeknownst to her, Francis had become a bogeyman among opponents of New York’s right-to-shelter mandate, a consent decree established in 1981 after a class action lawsuit against the City and State on behalf of homeless New Yorkers resulted in the recognition of shelter as a constitutional right. The decision in the case – named Callahan v. Carey after lead plaintiff Robert Callahan, a homeless man living in the Bowery, and then-Gov. Hugh Carey – has fueled opposition for decades, especially among conservative lawmakers and community groups who depict the city shelter system as an all-expense-paid vacation and complain that out-of-towners exploit their access to shelter.

“You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system, and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter,” former Mayor Michael Bloomberg groused in an infamous 2013 speech blasting the right to shelter and adhering to the debunked “magnet theory,” which posits that municipalities with relatively generous social services attract homeless individuals from other regions.

Over the years, various articles and op-ed pieces have told that story. Last month, the Daily Beast ran a column labeling the right-to-shelter mandate as a potential disincentive for finding permanent housing.

Yet, according to the most recent DHS data, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, fewer than 5% of individuals – 2,853 of 59,908 people – who utilized DHS shelters on February 28, 2017 provided a most recent address outside New York City or did not provide a prior address, often because of safety concerns such as domestic violence or because they had lived on the street and could not provide a verifiable address.

“The numbers show that the vast majority of individuals in shelter are from New York or have ties here,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier. “The real issue is that there are an unprecedented number of homeless individuals and families in New York City as a result of the widening gap between incomes and rents. We should be focusing on permanent housing solutions to address this crisis.”

Francis’ experience at the city shelters reflects the unpleasantries of shelter life where residents share common areas, enjoy little privacy, comply with curfews and often confront hazardous conditions.

“You show up and there are guards and DHS police and they search everything and there’s a metal detector and they throw out anything that could be turned into a weapon,” Francis said. “The most traumatic part for me was when you lose your name and become a bed number.”

After a few days at the intake shelter, DHS reassigned her to a longer-term shelter in Brooklyn, where she stopped being bed number 2015 and became M2, she said. One woman in the room she shared with nine others screamed and moved around the room hallucinating that some unseen force was trying to attack her for much of the night, she said.

Francis said she gave up on the municipal shelter system the next morning and began to stay at drop-in centers and privately run shelters while she searched for housing. She said she currently resides at a private shelter in Lower Manhattan and spends much of her time seated on the second floor of Whole Foods overlooking Union Square.

Francis said she did not know about the right-to-shelter mandate until an interview for this story in early-January and considered the notion that people purposefully move to New York City to secure a cot in a barracks-style city shelter “a cruel myth.”

“If people believe that, then they have no idea what people who really live in the shelter system actually go through,” Francis said. “It wears you out mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It wears you out on every level of your being.”

The persistent myth

Uproar over the magnet theory tends to flare up after tragedies involving homeless individuals depicted as out-of-towners, like when two young girls who had previously lived in Maine died in a steampipe explosion late last year.

A post excerpting a Daily News op-ed about the right-to-shelter mandate and the deadly explosion on the popular blog Queens Crap provoked gruesome responses among commenters.

“The taxpayers of NYC should NOT have to foot the bill for every lazy deadbeat who whistles into town for the libtard high water level of bennies for freeloaders,” wrote an anonymous commenter. “Every single city which has such an asinine "required to provide housing for all who want it" program is overrun with these undesirable one-way cash flow sponges on our resources. What do they give us in return? Increased crime and debt.”

“When I hear these stories, I always ask myself, "Why am I working, when these lazy MFers are getting shelter for free?"”asked commenter Julie B. We bust our asses every single day for 40+ years because our fear of living on the street is too great. What if we all just stopped working and asked DHS for a place to live--then they'd have to stop this crap. After all, many of these people don't deserve free housing more than we do, do they?

In mid-December, the Juniper Park Civic Association, an organization representing Maspeth and Middle Village with a penchant for NIMBYism, invited Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi to a meeting – reported by the local Times News Weekly – where the lawmaker and JPCA members discussed homeless policy.

Hevesi, an advocate for increased rental subsidies and other policies to alleviate homelessness, debated a JPCA member on the number of out-of-state families using the shelter system during an open forum and cited information he obtained from the Human Resources Administration through a FOIL request that revealed that only 54 out-of-state families – or one half of one percent of families in the DHS shelter system – resided in city shelters during the 2015 Fiscal Year. The JPCA member countered that 2014 information she obtained from HRA placed the number of out-of-state homeless people in 2014 at 17 percent of the shelter population.

JPCA Vice President Lorraine Sciulli said her organization wants the city to dissolve the right to shelter in order to discourage poor out-of-towners from coming to New York City.

“We hate it,” said Sciulli by phone. “We don’t want them coming here and they come to New York because they instantly get shelter. It’s there when they come to New York. The irony of that is why aren’t their states doing something about it?”

“‘We’re generous. We’re broad-minded. We’ll take in anybody.’ That’s the attitude.” she continued. “Let them stay in their own state and have their state take care of them. A lot of people who are homeless are homeless because they don’t plan their lives. They need help. No question about it.”

From July to December 2015, the first half of the 2016 Fiscal Year, 11 percent of families with children – 761 of 6,639 – and 16 percent of families without children – 116 of 707 – provided addresses outside New York City when they moved into city shelters, according to the most recent data available on the DHS website.

Yet many families categorized as “out of town” in DHS reports actually hail from New York but moved to nearby communities, like New Jersey or Long Island, and returned to their hometown when they lost jobs or housing, the Coalition for the Homeless states in a summary of myths about homelessness. Indeed, an individual could step over the border from Yonkers into the Bronx or cross Jamaica Avenue from Floral Park into Queens and be considered “out of town” homeless.

“Very few people are looking to ‘break into’ shelter,” said Jeff Foreman, public policy director at Care For the Homeless. “Almost everyone in shelter is trying to get out of shelter and into stable housing.”

Foreman said that a lack of affordable housing, rampant evictions, unemployment and domestic violence are the main drivers of homelessness.

“Actually only a very, very small percentage of people in shelter in New York have come here specifically to get shelter or other benefits and have no previous or significant connection,” he said.

A nationwide scapegoat

Since at least the 19th Century, the United States has grappled with the concept of the tramp – a homeless single man who travels from town to town in search of food or shelter, burdening and exploiting the goodwill of hard-working residents. During the Great Depression, a drastic increase in homelessness and unemployment motivated individuals and families to seek opportunities in new regions and further cemented the stereotype of the tramp or hobo.

Eighty years later, the magnet theory of homelessness persists nationwide, said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director at Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco. Friedenbach explained that she once attended a national conference on homelessness where a speaker asked the crowd – representing at least 70 cities – how many of their fellow residents considered their cities “magnets for the homeless.” Everyone in the audience raised their hand, she said.

“It is a political strategy to ‘other’ people. The easiest way to dehumanize people is to say they come from some other place,” Friedenbach said. “It lets leaders off the hook because they don’t have to do anything since the homeless people are from somewhere else and because they can say, ‘If we do anything, people will just flock to our city.’”

In Illinois, residents of Chicago suburbs often complain that homeless Chicagoans stream out of the city to seek housing in their communities, said Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Julie Dworkin.

Dworkin said the notion distracts from the systemic realities of low wages, high rents and a dire affordable housing deficit – the same problems that exist in New York City and other major cities.

“People often have a perception that they don’t have people who are homeless in their communities, but every neighborhood has people experiencing homelessness,” Dworkin said. “If you don’t build the shelter it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have people who are homeless, they just won’t be getting help.”

In Massachusetts a right-to-shelter provision only applies to families with children under 21 who can prove they became homeless due to domestic violence, fire, flood, natural disaster, no-fault eviction or unsafe conditions and can also demonstrate that they spent at least one night in a place not fit for human habitation, such as a car, a laundromat or an emergency room.

Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless Associate Director Kelly Turley said misconceptions about the state’s narrow right to shelter fuel complaints about homeless people coming to Boston and other cities from neighboring states like New Hampshire and Maine.

“It’s not an open door where everyone can get into shelter,” Turley said. “Families have to hit rock bottom and expose their children to additional trauma before they can access their ‘right to shelter.’”

Meanwhile, Francis, hindered by poor health and delayed by various hospitalizations, said she has continued looking for an apartment but could not find a landlord willing to take Section 8. She said she paid about $100 to a broker who promotes his relationships with landlords who take housing vouchers, but the broker never responded to her after receiving the money.

“If I had permanent housing, I wouldn’t get sick and have to go to the ER. I wouldn’t get two hours of sleep at night and eat one meal a day,” she said. “What does a homeless person do when they get sick? It’s not like you can just take cold medicine and lay down. Where do they go?”

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