Still Two Cities

Mayor de Blasio & the Homeless

Early one morning last August, television host Joe Scarborough livened up his show with a rant against the homeless people he could see on his way to and from the MSNBC studio in New York’s Rockefeller Center. “Have we noticed what’s happening to the city?” he asked. “The homeless are all over, increasingly so. All through Central Park. They’re all on the Upper West Side.... This is what it looked like in the ’80s and the ’70s.”

The former congressman, who is reported to make more than $5 million a year, insisted that he only wanted to help homeless people, but he seemed much more concerned about having to look at them. Blaming their presence on the city’s mayor, he said: “I have no idea why Bill de Blasio—and I don’t know if the police commissioner has anything to do with this—but why they are allowing a homeless epidemic to start spreading across New York again? I’ve had a lot of friends saying they’re going to move out if this continues.”

It is such an inconvenience to have to lay eyes on the poor begging like Lazarus for the scraps from one’s table. Polls have indicated that New York’s growing and increasingly visible homeless population has become a major political problem for Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive who campaigned on the theme of ending the “tale of two cities.”

“I think he inherited a terrible problem,” said Monsignor Alfred LoPinto, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens. “It wasn’t as though homelessness just occurred with him becoming the mayor. It’s never been dealt with in an adequate way.”

New York is not alone in having to contend with an increase in homelessness. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and a number of cities in Florida are also facing spikes in the homeless population. Falling income and rapidly rising housing costs have forced an unprecedented number of the lowest-income families—seven out of ten nationally—to spend half or more of their earnings on rent, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. This puts many at risk of losing a place to live. “Housing is just ridiculously expensive,” said Megan Hustings, interim director of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s out of reach for so many people. We’re not going to see a change until we invest in affordable housing, especially for people who are lower income.”

With the federal government’s long withdrawal from subsidizing low-income housing, Hustings says that some localities are offering vouchers to prevent homelessness. Indeed, this is one of a number of approaches that de Blasio is pursuing as part of a plan that also includes a recently approved initiative to build significantly more affordable housing. LoPinto, who said that programs for addressing homelessness in New York have been largely hit-and-miss, gives the mayor credit for trying to put together a long-term strategy. But it remains to be seen whether a progressive-minded approach can work in a city where the more severe measures of the past failed to prevent a steady increase in the number of homeless people.

 

THE RISE IN homelessness that de Blasio faces resulted in part from decisions by the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Bloomberg, who held office from 2002 to 2013, had set out with high hopes for reducing homelessness and some thoughtful ideas for how to do it. He launched a huge program to build affordable housing, similar to one that de Blasio is now pursuing. He also rolled out a rent-voucher program, called Advantage. But Cuomo, pursuing a tax-cutting agenda, canceled state funding for the Advantage subsidy in 2011. It is the kind of political gamesmanship Cuomo is known for, and Bloomberg responded not only by refusing to pick up the state’s costs, but also by canceling the city’s portion of the funding. Advantage collapsed, and chaos ensued for those enrolled in it.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, at least half of the families that lost the Advantage program’s rent aid ended up in city shelters. From the summer of 2011 until de Blasio took office in January 2014, the homeless population in shelters increased by 37 percent, to more than 53,000 people. The number continued to rise under de Blasio, to more than 60,000, including 24,000 children. The mayor initially responded to the increase in homelessness by offering a much larger program of city rental subsidies. It wasn’t as effective as he hoped, though. Having seen Cuomo and Bloomberg end the Advantage subsidy, many landlords feared that de Blasio’s rent aid would also be canceled. They refused, illegally, to accept vouchers.  

But the mayor has introduced a number of other measures, including a $62-million-a-year program to provide lawyers to tenants who face eviction (a 2014 study by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that eviction left homeless 37 percent of families admitted to shelters). Under de Blasio, the city has also paid rent for tenants in arrears—53,000 households in a year. It worked out to $3,400 per family, which, city officials said, is far below the cost of providing shelter. De Blasio also came up with a plan to create 15,000 units of supportive housing that would provide substance-abuse and mental-health services, as well as job counseling. Advocates commend de Blasio for taking such steps.

“He might be the best mayor we have had in a long time for the homeless,” said Marc Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. He has praised de Blasio for his “enlightened and ambitious vision for addressing the crisis of homelessness and the affordable housing shortage.”

It’s a vision that differs from the one Rudolph Giuliani pursued as mayor of New York—one Giuliani continues to celebrate while assailing de Blasio’s. “When I was mayor,” he wrote in a New York Post op-ed last summer, “we did all we could to remove the homeless from the streets, not only for safety and sanitary reasons, but out of love and compassion for each of the homeless as persons, as children of God.”

But Giuliani’s approach was characterized much more by toughness than by love; it was compassion at the end of a night stick. Police were ordered to arrest homeless people if they refused shelter, which had the effect of “cleaning up” central business districts only because it forced homeless people to the peripheries of the city. In addition, he tried to require parents in the shelter system to work or risk having their children placed in foster care. “We all know that this strikes terror in the hearts of people who have children,” a judge said in blocking that policy. Giuliani also implemented mandatory workfare for welfare recipients, with the stated aim of instilling a work ethic in a welfare population that had grown to more than a million people. Many welfare recipients were required to leave job-training programs to go to workfare assignments. But workfare workers had none of the job protections other city workers had, and as a result thousands were kicked off welfare. Many of them became homeless, according to city Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks. Under de Blasio, one of the first requirements to go was mandatory workfare for welfare recipients.

And yet, as de Blasio’s critics note, homelessness has increased. Conditions remain dangerous in the shelters, explaining why some homeless people prefer to live in cardboard encampments or take to the streets and subways. And de Blasio faces the same daunting demographic trends Bloomberg did. With the city’s rapid gentrification, rents have risen even more sharply in New York than in other parts of the country. According to a report from the city comptroller, there was a significant increase during the Bloomberg years in the number of families living in overcrowded housing (defined by the federal government as more than one person per room)—another condition that often leads to homelessness.

As for the increase in the population now in shelters, there’s an immediate reason that hasn’t gotten as much attention: the de Blasio administration has been more likely than the Bloomberg administration to allow entry to applicants. According to the Independent Budget Office study, three out of five families applying for shelter during the later years of the Bloomberg administration were rejected. Advocates for the homeless contended the process was heartless. Bloomberg, who retained some of Giuliani’s strict social-service practices, tightened eligibility rules to discourage families from entering shelters as a way to secure permanent housing. But the stringent screening process may have ended up turning away families truly in need.

De Blasio’s campaign for office included a pledge to “reform unfair and overly punitive eligibility review rules that deny shelter to too many needy families.” The doors have hardly been thrown open; about one out of two families were turned away during the mayor’s first year in office, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Still, it was a significant change, and enough to account for the continued growth of the shelter population. But, if advocates for the homeless are correct, the change was overdue.

Another obstacle is the political feud between de Blasio and Cuomo that began almost immediately upon de Blasio’s election. While Cuomo bears much responsibility for the surge in homelessness, he remains a sharp critic of the mayor’s handling of the problem. “Many of the programs, to be successful, require the support of the state and that’s where, unfortunately, some of the difficulties are arising at this point,” Monsignor LoPinto said.

 

WILL DE BLASIO'S policies help reduce homelessness over time? It’s a great urban experiment—and one that de Blasio’s critics declared a failure from the start.

The New York Post, abetted by the police sergeants’ union, made a campaign out of exposing the increase in street homelessness while de Blasio foolishly denied for months that there were more homeless people in view. Those not familiar with New York might assume that the New York Times is the city’s most influential paper, but diminished as they are, the tabloids—the Post and the Daily News—still have the power to make life miserable for anyone targeted in their page-one crusades.

The Post’s “campaign”—its word for the steady beat of one-sided coverage—ties in with the larger political agenda of de Blasio’s foes, who assert that the city’s progressive mayor is bringing New York back to the bad old days of the 1970s and ’80s by rejecting the more sensible policies of Giuliani and Bloomberg. Their argument is really rooted in a battle over policing. The central claim of de Blasio’s opponents—that crime would go up unless police continued making thousands of legally questionable “stop-and-frisk” searches—has turned out to be wrong. Crime rates remain low. Also wrong is the prediction that de Blasio would wreck the economy: jobs are being added at record levels. The recent disclosure that federal and local prosecutors are investigating fundraising by the de Blasio campaign has given the mayor’s critics some material to work with, but before that they were working the increase in homelessness for all they could. Homeless people themselves have become collateral damage, with the Post targeting them individually: it has published photos of bedraggled people, some obviously mentally disturbed; one man was framed on the front page urinating in public. The paper has consistently referred to the homeless as “bums.”

The Sergeants Benevolent Association, the union representing police sergeants, took matters a step further. It asked its members to photograph homeless people, preferably those engaged in “quality of life offenses of every type,” and to post the images on Flickr. “Our political leaders have done nothing other than ask the people of this city to retreat from the sense of the common good,” the union’s president, Ed Mullins, wrote to members in launching the campaign—called “Peek-A-Boo, We See You Too.” Thus, supervisory officers paid to protect the public were sneaking up on the most vulnerable New Yorkers, often as they slept, to exploit their misery—just for some imagined advantage in a political battle with the mayor and the New York City Council.

That was last August. In September, Pope Francis visited the city and offered his understanding of the “common good” and of how to look at the homeless—to really see marginalized people and to recognize their human dignity. At Mass in Madison Square Garden, he spoke of how the homeless and others on the margins of urban life can be taken for granted “in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.” In big cities, he said, “so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city.”

New Yorkers cheered the pope, and de Blasio—a religious “none” who says he has been influenced by Catholic social teaching—sought to capitalize on Francis’s call for compassion. It didn’t seem to help. The next month, a Quinnipiac University poll found that New Yorkers reported they were seeing the homeless more often on the streets and subways—and that three out of five disapproved of how de Blasio was handling the issue.

 

TO FIND OUT how this looks from the perspective of people on the periphery, I decided to visit Life Experience and Faith Sharing Associates. It’s an organization that has worked with the homeless at street level since 1986, when two Sisters of Charity, Teresa Skehan and Dorothy Gallant, ventured into the shelters to gather homeless people into Bible discussion groups that emulated the Christian base communities of liberation theology. Scripture touched the participants, many of whom grew up in the black church, and awakened something vital in them. The Bible groups helped raise self-esteem and encouraged some members to get involved in political action on behalf of the homeless.

Today the program continues under the leadership of a man it saved, James Addison. From his teens to his mid-thirties, Addison was involved with drugs, spent time homeless or in jail, and was alienated from his family. He’s now a minister and is reconnected with his family, and for more than twenty-three years he has devoted himself to saving homeless persons the same way he was saved. He speaks of being “an instrument of God’s compassion and love” toward the homeless. But his understanding of how to apply these virtues is the polar opposite of Giuliani’s. “Giuliani, what he did, he just chased people away and moved them from place to place,” he said. It should be understood, he added, that “just going into a shelter can be frightening. It looks bleak. You’re in a place where everybody has loss. Everybody’s grieving.” The task of his ministry is to help the homeless recognize their inherent dignity—which is why he joined in protesting the sergeants’ union’s photo campaign against homeless people at City Hall last year.

The city bureaucracy for dealing with the homeless remains a forbidding and bewildering one, Addison and his volunteers told me. One volunteer in street ministry, Aidan White, said police had been moving the homeless out of Manhattan locations such as Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, especially when events were planned. Facing pressure, de Blasio also began dismantling homeless encampments around the city. But, said White, Mayor de Blasio was doing more for the homeless than his predecessors. “He’s taking a lot of heat for what’s happened under Bloomberg,” he said.

Addison later brought me to a men’s faith-sharing group. The members had experienced the alienation that comes with homelessness; one had spent twenty-five years on the street, and still seemed a little astonished to have found housing. After a lunch of barbequed chicken and cornbread, the men took turns speaking about what they were grateful for. “How do you be grateful when you’ve lost everything?” Addison asked them. “That’s why we’ve come here—so we can get what we need, because life isn’t fair.” 

Published in the June 3, 2016 issue: 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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