Seven out of ten New Yorkers believe that the city government isn’t doing enough to reduce homelessness. One in three New Yorkers thinks about homelessness almost every day. These are among the findings in a new poll by the Institute for Children and Poverty.
The statistics are sad -- for they show how little progress we’re making as a society in addressing this issue. I have been covering homelessness since the early 1980s. It’s astonishing that, in three decades, we seem to have accomplished so little.
No matter how much Mayor Bloomberg and his deputy, Linda Gibbs, talk about progress, there’s little forward motion. We have accomplished far too little since the days when homelessness burst on the scene as a terrible problem. Not under Mayors Koch, Giuliani or Bloomberg.
Back in 1978 there was a young lawyer named Robert Hayes who found a homeless man sleeping on a bench in the park. He persuaded that man, whose name was Robert Callahan, to bring a lawsuit against the city -- and a court ruled that every person had a constitutional right to shelter.
I met Callahan at his bench. He told me: “All I want is a place to sleep.” The court’s decision on Callahan was considered a landmark and some advocates thought, optimistically, that it might be the beginning of the end of homelessness. It wasn’t. If anything, the situation has become progressively worse..
Over the years, it’s become clear that the problem of family homelessness is perhaps more acute than the crisis of single adults sleeping out in the streets, although both problems should concern us deeply. The plight of homeless children is an indictment of us all.
“We seem to be going back to the eighties,". There is a huge number of homeless families -- breaking all records -- and it’s sad that we don’t seem to have learned much. Among the findings of our survey are that 20 percent of New Yorkers have known someone at risk of homelessness in the past six months. One out of five New Yorkers, the survey finds, believes they are at risk of homelessness.”
City Hall has promised a 2/3 reduction in homelessness but it hasn’t happened. City officials have pushed for a policy of “tough love” toward the homeless, Nunez notes, but that isn’t working.
“The most important factor,” Nunez says, “is education. Half the population doesn’t have a high school diploma. We need educational programs that will teach people skills. The typical head of a homeless household is a woman in her early twenties with two or three children. Half of these women are victims of domestic violence.
“It’s not a housing issue. We’ve got to try to stop recycling families in and out of shelters. There is no simple solution.”
This survey is a challenge to City Hall. Will we keep re-cycling plans that don’t work or listen to some other voices? If the survey is accurate, the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers cares -- and wants a change in the tired old approaches.