Brendan/McDermid

Mayor Bloomberg's other legacy: a homelessness crisis.

New York City has prospered during the 12-year mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, which comes to an end this year.

But the same cannot be said of all New Yorkers. In January 2013, for the first time in recorded history, the New York homeless shelter system housed an average nightly population of more than 50,000 people. That number is up 19 percent in the past year alone, up 61 percent since Bloomberg took office, and it does not include victims of Hurricane Sandy, who are housed separately.

While homelessness is increasing in other cities, the numbers from New York are astoundingly high. This January, on average, over 21,000 children slept in city shelters each night, a 22 percent increase over the same period in 2011. The average length of stay in a shelter for homeless families with children is now over a year, an increase of 10 percent from the previous year.

More than one percent of NYC children (21,034 of 1,780,000) slept in a shelter this January. 

The news has generated a heated round of the blame game in New York, where Bloomberg called out the state for cutting off funding for the Advantage rental subsidy program, and even blamed the "aggrandizement" of the Coalition for the Homeless, which published a scathing annual report two days ago.

Nevertheless, as the Coalition's "State of the Homeless 2013" shows, the increase actually dates from the creation of the Advantage program, in 2005, rather than its defunding in 2011.

Eight years ago, the Bloomberg administration reversed the policy of mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani and ended priority referrals for homeless families to public housing and to Section 8 vouchers, which provide federal rent subsidies. Critics thought that policy incentivized homelessness by sending homeless families (along with some other groups, like victims of domestic violence) to the front of long public housing waitlists.

But the Advantage program of temporary rent subsidies that replaced those benefits was, the data now shows, a poor stopgap measure from the beginning. "It essentially created a revolving door for families back into the shelter program," says Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition and the author of the report. Under previous mayors, the percentage of families entering shelters who had been previously homeless was about one in four. Under Bloomberg it's closer to two in three:

Now, with priority referrals for Section 8 vouchers a distant memory and temporary rental subsidies also cut off, the city provides very little in the way of assistance to help families move from shelters to housing. Upward mobility has crawled to a halt. And, because of the expense of providing shelter housing, New York City's spending on the homeless has actually increased 77 percent over the last decade -- from $540 million in 2002 to a projected $955 million this fiscal year.

"New York City's next mayor," the report says, "will confront a historic homelessness crisis." 

All images courtesy of the Coalition for the Homeless.

About the Author

Henry Grabar

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.   

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