Can Bloomberg Find a Fix for NYC's Homeless?

Commissioners change, but the problem seems as intractable as ever

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Apr 19, 2010  |  Updated 6:45 PM EDT
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Can Bloomberg Find a Fix for NYC's Homeless?

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A homeless man looks through trash.

New York City is getting a new homeless services commissioner, but the outlook is not promising for making a dent in the homeless crisis -- or making any progress toward a solution.

Robert Hess has announced that he is leaving the homeless services agency after four years to take a job with the Doe Fund, a non-profit group that helps homeless people find jobs and housing.

Hess’s departure should focus attention on whether our homeless policies are working or need drastic changes. Again and again, Mayor Bloomberg and his deputy mayor, Linda Gibbs, have promised to reduce the homeless population, put people to work, find permanent housing for people now in city shelters.

Ms. Gibbs praised the work that Hess has done but she admitted, in an interview with the Times, that the growth in homeless families has been "a frustration."  The homeless population has gone from 31,000 to more than 39,000 in five years.

"We, as a collective team, have been disappointed that we haven’t seen the reduction in homeless families," Gibbs told the Times. "Nobody predicted the double whammy of the burst of the housing bubble and the recession and the job loss all combined. So that’s a huge strain on the homeless family system in particular."

Double whammy indeed. Or maybe a triple whammy, if you add to the economic uncertainty the inconsistencies, the twists and turns of city policy.

The Mayor, in announcing Hess’s replacement by Seth Diamond, an executive deputy commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, said: "We all know the bursting of the housing bubble and the downturn in the national economy was like a one-two punch on our shelter system.

"We are here to satisfy the demands for services, whatever that is. When it gets to be much greater, it’s obviously much more difficult."

Whether you call it a double whammy or a one-two punch, the bottom line is the same. The city has not solved the homeless crisis. In officers training school in the Navy in World War II, we were taught when we didn’t have the answer to why we’d failed to do something, to shout out: "There’s no excuse, sir!"

While it is true that the economy has wreaked havoc with the city’s finances, it is also true that the approaches we’ve taken toward solving the homeless crisis have been ineffective, to say the least. The Daily News pointed out that, under the administration’s "work advantage" program, designed through a rent subsidy to move homeless families from shelters into permanent housing, great injustices have been done. Thus, homeless people have been placed into foreclosed homes and illegally converted apartments. Some homes were rat-infested.

Sadly, the work advantage program has not proven to be of great advantage to many homeless families. The rent subsidies are only temporary. When the subsidies end after two years, thousands of families -- the Coalition for the Homeless estimates 7,000 -- will lose their apartments and have to go back to the shelter system.

Mary Brosnahan, director of the Coalition for the Homeless, told me: "The homeless situation is critical and it’s about to get worse without a fundamental change in policy. Within a year or two thousands of families will be returning to the shelter system, compounding the crisis.

"The system is becoming a revolving door. We should get back to what works. Permanent, long-term housing -- not shallow, short term subsidy programs."

The image of a revolving door is an apt one. It can’t go on this way. New York was the birthplace in the 1980s of policies that worked -- under Mayor Dinkins and, through the work of non-profit agencies like Andrew Cuomo’s HELP. The numbers went down dramatically as permanent housing was built for both families and single adults.

Mayor Giuliani pulled the plug on such initiatives and, so far, Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t seem to want to give such an approach a chance. Though Hess is gone, an old Giuliani hand, Diamond, is taking his place. Fundamental change doesn’t seem likely with the same people in place.

Would that Linda Gibbs or Mayor Bloomberg had the courage to say to the taxpayers the equivalent of what we learned to say at Midshipmen’s School:

"There’s no excuse, sir!"

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