Here’s an Idea: Let’s House the Homeless

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Housing statistics of District 9– Central Harlem/ Morningside Heights

I firmly believe in housing New York City’s homeless…in homes, not shelters. Housing is a human right and the amount we pour into the shelter system as opposed to directing funds towards a homes guarantee is a dreadful shame. If elected to New York City Council I commit to establishing a pilot program to house the homeless in District 9. I am willing to do this with discretionary funds if necessary.

The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that the total number of homeless individuals in the United States is above 1 million, a staggering number for the richest country in the world, and that number is on the rise. As of January 2019, it’s reported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that New York has an estimated 92,091 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. Of that total, 15,901 are family households, 1,270 are veterans, 2,978 are unaccompanied young adults (aged 18–24), and 7,229 are individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. These are unacceptable numbers for a City that is home to over 1 million millionaires and dozens of billionaires. As of July 2019, City shelters in District 9 held approximately 862 individuals; 674 of those individuals are from the district itself.

And while the richer are getting richer, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The current economic crisis, mass housing instability and mass unemployment resulting from the pandemic, stands to exacerbate this problem in a drastic way. It is imperative that the city act now and create effective long-term solutions.

Instead, New York City is a prime example of a city spending billions and billions of dollars on shelters without actually reducing homelessness. The statistics above paint a clear picture; the “Right to Shelter” model has utterly failed. It is nothing but a band-aid that merely lessens the visibility of homelessness, with little attention paid to permanent solutions for our homeless population. The reality is that the shelter system is successful only in encouraging people in, with no effective plan to get people out. Now with homelessness on the rise, and imminent mass evictions, it is time to pivot towards a true “Right to Housing/Housing First” approach.

The Housing First philosophy seeks to get homeless individuals into permanent housing as quickly as possible without barriers including employment, time in shelter, “housing readiness” or sobriety. Consistent with my Abolitionist beliefs, this concept goes to the root cause of homelessness and recognizes that underlying issues such as economic instability, addiction, mental illness, lack of employment and physical disability cannot begin to be addressed if individuals do not have a safe home to reside. It is a fact that the biggest barrier to housing is lack of affordable housing. When individuals have a stable home, they (along with the support of service providers) are in a much better position to confront the many forces that produced their housing instability in the first place. It seems simple enough, yet our elected officials have historically failed to pay any attention to these forces. That is why our shelters have been increasingly overflowing. That is why homelessness in NYC is at a record high. That is why we must act urgently. We must change our response to homelessness now! Let’s: (1) house the homeless (2) address the forces that cause them to be homeless and (3) then abolish homelessness forever.

The most infuriating part of this crisis is that the forces that cause homelessness have been ongoing for decades and decades. These forces have ravaged communities, especially low-income and poor neighborhoods. These destructive forces have never actually been addressed at its roots. Instead, the homeless are blamed for being homeless. Before anything, we must identify and acknowledge the causes of homelessness and move towards legislating and working towards its abolition:

  • Lack of overall affordable housing and public housing (research shows it is the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families)
  • Economic crises, low wages and debilitating debt
  • Gentrification and strict zoning rules which raises the rent and pushes people out of their homes
  • Mass incarceration creating generations of people with criminal records unable to enter the job and housing markets, leading many to housing instability
  • The AIDS crisis that ravaged the LGBTQ community left many forced to flee circumstances of hate and prejudice
  • Drug epidemics and the repercussions of strict government policies that perpetuate a cycle of homelessness
  • Lack of access to medical care and mental health services and the ever-increasing drug and medical costs
  • The American war machine which has left many of our veterans homeless and suffering from mental illness
  • Domestic Violence
  • Inequalities caused by capitalism.Which is most stark in the belly of the beast, right here in NYC

Utah’s “Housing First” Program

This was a groundbreaking and renowned effort that led to a dramatic drop in chronic homelessness (91% in 2015). The chronically homeless are a subset of the homeless population who have been living on the streets for more than a year, or four times in the past three years, and who have a “disabling condition” that might include serious mental illness, an addiction or a physical disability or illness. Participants were required to pay rent of either 30 percent of their income or up to $50 a month, whichever is greater. The success was short-lived as funding dried up (because it was not prioritized by city council) and as a result, new permanent supportive housing has not been built up since 2010.

Our Neighbors in Bergen County NJ, ended chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness in 2017. “By securing safe, permanent housing for individuals who were chronically homeless, we’re providing these most vulnerable residents with the stability they need to address other challenges that have limited their ability to prosper in our communities.” said County Executive James J. Tedesco. The county established an $11 million Housing, Health and Human Services Center, which served as a one-stop shop where homeless residents could spend the night, receive help with health and behavioral issues and obtain permanent housing assistance.

Right here in NYC, we ended chronic veteran homelessness in 2015 by placing over 2,000 veterans into permanent housing. This was a joint effort by the federal government and the City (along with veteran nonprofits). As a result, veteran street homelessness has declined by more than 98% since 2011. The latest figures from the city’s most recent point-in-time count show only six homeless veterans remaining in the five boroughs. It is an outstanding and remarkable achievement for our city, truly demonstrating what is possible when ending homelessness is specifically prioritized.

My vision

I strongly believe that a major obstacle to obtaining employment, following a healthcare regimen or a drug-treatment program, is the absence of a safe and stable home to sleep each night. My overall aim is to provide safety and stability through housing, and then to provide access to the highest quality services that address health, recovery, rehabilitation and job assistance.

Each homeless individual or family will be housed in either one of the 67,300 vacant apartments in NYC or specifically designed apartment buildings; depending on the participant’s particular needs. Filing vacancies would require recruiting landlords and matching participants to appropriate housing with an aim to make it an affordable future permanent home for the participant. Contemporaneously, I aim to create a network of support and resources that will be directly available to meet participant’s immediate needs, as well as active support that addresses the root cause of his/her housing insecurity. It will be facilitated by specialized social workers and health care professionals who will provide tailored rehabilitation for drug and other addictions, health care, mental health care, access to food and nutrition, job seeking assistance, financial literacy, child care services and assistance with family and kinship strengthening. I believe housing combined with comprehensive and tailored case management will lead to the abolition of homelessness.

I understand the difficulties and costs of the task at hand. At the same time I believe that city council members and candidates seeking office, must keep the following in mind:

  1. Homelessness in NYC is a humanitarian crisis, and it must immediately be made a priority by city council
  2. We live in the richest country in the world, and NYC is the richest city in the country. We do have the money, just not the will
  3. We are un-strategically wasting billions in the shelter system which provides no solution to ending homelessness permanently. That money can be much better used to actually house the homeless permanently
  4. The NYPD budget is 6 billion. It is a budget that increases without much hesitation every single year. Budgets for social services in NYC simply pales in comparison to the NYPD budget. Keep in mind that ending homelessness benefits the NYPD and reduces their work. Department budgets need to be reconsidered so that urgent issues like homelessness can be addressed with actual solutions

My aim is to offer solutions, not band-aids here. I am talking about funneling money from departments that are generously funded. I am talking about diverting the 11 billion for building new jails into building homes for the homeless. I am talking about prioritizing human life and abolishing homelessness, in at least one district, in hope that we can then move to abolish homelessness in NYC altogether. And then, hopefully, be a beacon of what is possible for the rest of the country.

There is tremendous power in providing dignified living and affording every single precious life with the right to be housed. Examples in Utah and Bergen County, NJ speak for themselves. However, ending homelessness is only possible if ending homelessness is prioritized, resourced and conducted with an intent to abolish it forever.