On any given night in New York City, there are roughly 63,000 people in shelters, including approximately 23,000 homeless children. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of people currently sleeping in shelters is 82% higher than it was during the collapse of the housing market ten years ago. The Department of Housing and Urban Development found that more homeless people live in New York City than in any other city in the United States.
When we think of the homeless, we typically think of those commonly referred to as “street homeless”; that is, individuals sleeping on subway trains, alcoves of buildings, or anywhere else that might offer some semblance of shelter. But street homeless are only the most visible manifestation of this crisis. Recent estimates place the number of street homeless in New York City at just under 4,000; by contrast, in fiscal year 2017, nearly 130,000 men, women and children slept in the New York City shelter system. That means that for every homeless person finding some form of shelter on the street, there are thirty-three others without some form of stable housing.
The line between housing-insecure and homeless is perilously thin, especially in cities with an outsized cost of living like New York. A recent report by Bankrate found that only 39% of Americans have enough in savings to cover an emergency expense of $1,000 or more; considering the typical rent in New York City can be double (or even triple) that amount, one financial predicament can be enough to trigger the spiral into homelessness.
Homelessness is a nationwide crisis, but it is most acutely felt in New York City — particularly when we consider individuals and families without housing stability. It is remarkably easy for an individual to fall into homelessness in New York City, and the path out isn’t nearly as straightforward as we’d like to believe.
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The most common recourse for the housing-insecure or homeless is the shelter system. While shelters do protect individuals from sleeping on the streets, the unfortunate reality is that there is simply not enough space or room in these shelters. As a result, individuals or families cannot rely on the network of emergency housing that comprises the New York City shelter system.
An important segment of this network is the “day shelter.” These drop-in centers were once relatively scarce and spread across different areas of the city where individuals could access meals; however, with the passage of the Right to Shelter law in New York City, their number has increased — and so have the number of residents. For those accessing day shelters, their spots are not guaranteed, which means they are perpetually forced to scramble for a bed every evening. They do this by effectively staking their claim to a chair during the day and hoping their name is on that night’s bed roster; the alternative is to risk losing what little security they have. Engaging in this perverse form of Manifest Destiny is a full-time job in and of itself, which can make it difficult for an individual to maintain steady employment. And without steady employment, the odds of securing stable long-term housing are all but insurmountable.
There are few situations in which individuals or families can access stable long-term housing without first seeking residence in emergency housing. Day shelters, which carry their own unique set of challenges, are one option. Another is through the “intake” shelters that have been established in each borough. Both models are short-term solutions, and their goal is to transition residents to one of a variety of alternatives within thirty days.
One such alternative is “transitional housing,” designed to give members of certain groups — the working homeless, the disabled, or those in programs designed for reentry in society following incarceration or drug rehabilitation — an opportunity to get back on their feet by offering longer-term, but still temporary, occupancy in a “residential shelter.” In most cases, a residential shelter is a single-occupancy room in a hotel converted for the purpose of housing the homeless; in other instances, it is a shared room in an existing or formerly-operating hotel. Another option is one of the myriad rental assistance programs, such as the LINC (Living in Communities) Rent Program, wherein the city pays a previously-homeless individual’s rent to landlords for a set amount of time.
The strategy behind these shelters and programs is that by providing some measure of stability, the residents will be more able to focus on securing long-term housing. While these remedies seemingly address one problem (rent), they tend to ignore the underlying issues — a lack of job and/or basic life skills training chief among them — that likely contributed to an individual falling into homelessness in the first place. A person who has spent the last decade in prison is unlikely to have learned how to balance a checkbook or the importance of budgeting. And considering the state of the American carceral system, it is even less likely that they have acquired any of the basic skills like technology or internet literacy that would be valuable to a prospective employer.
To be fair, some of these programs do offer job- and life-skills training, but that’s not always the case. And even in transitional housing environments that do offer this training, it is often entirely voluntary. Even in shelters where residents are expected to attend these workshops, scheduling conflicts between resident hours and staffing constraints can often make participation impossible. It is also difficult to convince shelter residents of the role their (real or perceived) lack of skills may have played in contributing to their homelessness. Like the rest of us, many shelter residents are either unaware of the necessity of these skills or mistakenly believe they are capable of being self-sufficient outside the shelter system.
While the working homeless typically do not suffer from the same skills deficit, they still face their own set of unique challenges. First, LINC is voluntary for landlords, and despite the benefits associated with the program, the vast majority of New York City landlords decline to participate. As a result, many would-be tenants are left to fight for a relatively scant number of available apartments.
Second, although securing stable employment would seem to offer a path out of homelessness, the recent minimum wage increase has opened a hole in the safety net provided by LINC. The income standards for eligibility in the LINC program were established prior to the minimum wage hike, and they have not yet been updated to reflect increased earnings. That means that it is possible for an individual making minimum wage to technically be earning too much to participate in the LINC program, even if their income is still insufficient to cover their rent.
On paper, the city appears to be doing everything it reasonably can to prevent homelessness, but as is often the case with bureaucracies, the programs in place leave a lot to be desired. The resources available may offer theoretical protection from homelessness, and they have almost certainly helped prevent the rate of homelessness in New York City from rising even higher. Unfortunately, these systems largely exist in silos: the foundation may be there, but the connective tissue that would create an effective network of services for the homeless is not. Until the shortfalls in the system are acknowledged, the only guaranteed outcome is that people will continue to slip through the cracks. And without a cohesive strategy in place, those cracks will inevitably widen into crevasses that are too deep to climb from.