A Comprehensive Look at the Homeless Epidemic in New York City,
Along With the Major Causes and Effects.
By: Rickard Jean-Noel
SWGS 6005 Contemporary Social Welfare Policy
Imagine waking up one morning to a crowded subway train, surrounded by all your belongings and a train full of strangers. You awake to find everyone staring at you with a disgusted face, silently passing judgment upon you. Imagine waking up in the middle of a thunder storm due to heavy rains, and your only shelter is a cardboard box. The heavy rains and winds have destroyed your cardboard condo and you must now make your way to the nearest bridge or overpass for shelter from the rain. Imagine waking up in a dorm room full of 9 other strangers in a homeless shelter, sleeping on a twin-size bed and all your belongings stuffed into a small locker by your bed. To some this is only a nightmare that will go away with a beat of one’s eye lashes, but for others this is their unfortunate reality that will not go away anytime soon. From those that notice that they are just dreaming they can go back to sleep comfortable in their own bed, but for those that must deal with this reality, they are left asking themselves how did this occur. This is the unfortunate story of many Americans today. Due to the raising cost of rent, mental illness, lack of education, domestic violence, substance abuse, lack of education, and financial instability many are finding themselves homeless. This seems to be a problem especially in larger cities and for that reason for will focus on one of the United States most popular city, New York City.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), homelessness is defined as: “A homeless individual is defined in section 330(h)(5)(A) as “an individual who lacks housing (without regard to whether the individual is a member of a family), including an individual whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility (e.g., shelters) that provides temporary living accommodations, and an individual who is a resident in transitional housing.” A homeless person is an individual without permanent housing who may live on the streets; stay in a shelter, mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building or vehicle; or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation. [Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C., 254b)]”. However, an individual can be living with friends or family and still be considered homeless. “An individual may be considered to be homeless if that person is “doubled up,” a term that refers to a situation where individuals are unable to maintain their housing situation and are forced to stay with a series of friends and/or extended family members. In addition, previously homeless individuals who are to be released from a prison or a hospital may be considered homeless if they do not have a stable housing situation to which they can return. Recognition of the instability of an individual’s living arrangements is critical to the definition of homelessness” (HRSA/Bureau of Primary Health Care, Program Assistance Letter 99-12, Health Care for the Homeless Principles of Practice). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), also having their own definition of homelessness. According to The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act of 2009 (P.L.111-22, Section 1003), “an individual who lacks fixed, regular night time residence” can be considered homeless. “An individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or place not designed for ordinarily use for sleeping (ex. Car, park, abandoned building, bus, airport, etc.)” (P.L.111-22, Section 1003). “An individual or family living in a private or public shelter, hotels or motel paid by the federal, state, or local government, and transitional housing” (P.L.111-22, Section 1003). Individuals and families who have not lived independently for a long period of time or who have been evicted by a court order are considered to be homeless (P.L.111-22, Section 1003).
According to the article entitled “A Brief History of Homelessness in New York” (By Diane Jeantet 2013), “the earliest chronicles of homeless New York can be attributed to Jacob Riis, a journalist”. In the book “How the Other Half Lives” (Jacob Riis), Riis “presented his photographs of the Bowery, the city’s most impoverished neighborhood and birthplace of our modern shelters’ ancestor, the Bowery Mission” (By Diane Jeantet 2013). Many would say that the biggest contribution to homeless in America would be “The Great Depression”. According to the article entitled “A Brief History of Homelessness in New York” (By Diane Jeantet 2013), “The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the development of homeless settlements in the country’s major cities—or “Hoovervilles,” an allusion to the then U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Living in tents and shacks, these communities rapidly developed In New York City, especially in Central Park’s then empty reservoir and Riverside Park”. According to the article entitled “The Great Depression” by John Louis Recchiuti “The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the United States history. It began in 1929 and did not abate until the end of the 1930s. The stock market crash of October 1929 signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. By 1933, unemployment was at 25 percent and more than 5,000 banks had gone out of business. Although President Herbert Hoover attempted to spark growth in the economy through measures like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, these measures did little to solve the crisis” (John Louis Recchiuti).
Because of the Great Depression, millions of Americans were left unemployed. “By the year of 1930 there were 4.3 million unemployed people in the United States and by 1931 there was 8 million. By the year 1932, that number had now risen to about 12 million. By the year 1933, that number of unemployed people was now 13 million, which was astonishing 25 percent of the American population. Those who managed to keep their jobs often had to take a pay cut of a third or more” this is according to T.H. Watkins, The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America (New York: Henry Holt, 1999), 44-45; Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 87. With many people unemployed and unable to pay their rent and mortgage, many ended up homeless, living in public parks, empty lots, and anywhere else available. Many people were even getting arrested just so that they many have a place to stay, a practice that goes on even today.
Because of the economical struggles and the lack of government assistance, many blamed President Herbert Hoover for their misfortunes. As a result, Frank Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 and was sworn into office as president in March 1933(“The Great Depression” by John Louis Recchiuti). Soon after being sworn into office, President Roosevelt signed the New Deal which “expanded the role of the federal government in the nation’s economy in an effort to address the challenges of the Great Depression” (“The Great Depression” by John Louis Recchiuti). From FDR’s “New Deal” we received several new programs and laws that were implemented to assist in stimulating the economy. This included but not limited to; the Government Economy Act, Emergency Banking Act, Abandonment of Gold Standard, Federal Emergency Relief Act, The Social Security Trust Fund, and The United States Housing Act (New Deal Summary, Programs, Policies, and Its Success; Four Surprising Ways the New Deal Affects You Today By Kimberly Amadeo 2019).
According to “New Deal Summary, Programs, Policies, and Its Success”; Four Surprising Ways the New Deal Affects You Today by Kimberly Amadeo 2019, The United States Housing Act, that was also known as the Wagner- Steagall Act was what funded state-run public housing projects. Like many of the other legislations and policies in the “New Deal” The United States Housing Act was no different. According to Excerpt from the United States Housing Act of 1937, it stated that “It is the policy of the United States (1) to promote the general welfare of the Nation by employing the funds and credit of the Nation…(A) to assist States and political subdivisions of States to remedy the unsafe housing conditions and the acute shortage of decent and safe dwellings for low-income families; [and] (B) to assist States and political subdivisions of States to address the shortage of housing affordable to low-income families” (Kimberly Amadeo 2019).
There were many different measures put into play that came along with the Housing Act such as: for each new public housing united created, a unit of substandard quality had to be removed, operational decisions were left to local authorities and therefore they were able to determine where the housing would be located. This helped to keep housing projects racially segregated. People of affluent neighborhoods often would boycott the construction or creation of shelters in their neighborhoods. The Housing Act of 1937 also set low income requirements for the public housing so that there would be no competition for the private market and so that there was high level of poverty in the public housing projects. This created a breeding ground for crime, drugs use, prostitution, and other crime (http://www.bostonfairhousing.org/timeline/1937-Housing-Act.html, 1937: Housing Act (Wagner-Steagall Act). A direct creation of the Housing Act is the NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) housing in New York City. According to an article in the New York Post entitled “Nearly 17K NYCHA tenants are behind on their rent By Anna Sanders and Dean Balsamini 2018, “A whopping 16,983 tenants were more than three months behind on their rent at the beginning of July, stiffing the agency out of $55.3 million, according to NYCHA. That represents about 9.7 percent of the roughly 175,000 apartments making up the nation’s largest public-housing system”. The article goes on to say that “164 have been evicted for not paying rent this year through May. Last year, there were just 322 total rent-related evictions, less than half the 659 in 2013” (By Anna Sanders and Dean Balsamini 2018).
If we were to add up the numbers of evictions in the previous paragraph, we would have 659 evictions from NYCHA in 2013, 322 in 2017, and 164 in 2018 through May, we would have a total of 1,145 evictions for those years, not including the years that were not mentioned. The result of that would be thousands of homeless people, which were supposedly living in “affordable public housing”. This leads us to ponder the amount of people that were living in private housing that were also evicted during those years. According to the article “Nearly 17K NYCHA tenants are behind on their rent By Anna Sanders and Dean Balsamini 2018, “The average rent is $522 a month, according to NYCHA, though rents can go as low as $10 or as high as $3,000, depending on a tenant’s income and the size of their apartment”. However, even with the low affordable rent, many are having a difficult time paying for the rent because they live on fixed incomes or living check to check. Others refuse to pay rent due to the poor living conditions, and lack of repairs by NYCHA. Many feel that that their human rights are being violated because of their poor living conditions and on principle refuse to pay until repairs are completed. NYCHA blames the lack of repairs on the lack of funds that they are not receiving from rent and due to poor leadership throughout the years.
According to the “NYC Office of Civil Justice 2016 Annual Report 2016”, (Page 25), “more than 200,000 residential eviction petitions are filed annually in New York City”. Most of the petitions are from The Bronx and Brooklyn, with nearly 2/3 of the petitions coming from these two boroughs (NYC Office of Civil Justice 2016 Annual Report 2016, Page 25). In the year 2013, there were a total of 28,000 marshal evictions, and in the year 2015 there was 22,000 marshal evictions (NYC Office of Civil Justice 2016 Annual Report 2016, Page 25). To help combat the high levels of evictions in NYC, The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) created HomeBase. According to https://www1.nyc.gov/nyc-resources/service/6504/homebase-program-to-prevent-homelessness, which is the official website of New York City, it states “HomeBase is a homelessness prevention program administered by Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) in high-need neighborhoods. The CBOs provide casework services and also help individuals and families locate existing community-based resources such as job training, child care, and anti-eviction legal services”. Nonprofit organizations such as CAMBA, The Legal Aid Society, and BronxWorks employ caseworkers, social workers, legal assistants and lawyers to assist individuals who are facing evictions and have rental arrears. They create independent living plans (ILP) which is created to help resolve the client’s housing crisis and to assist them with financial budgeting. To find if a client is eligible for services, they must go through the intake process and conduct a Risk Assessment Questionnaire. This questionnaire helps the case worker to determine the contributing factors to the client’s housing crisis and their risk factor level of becoming homeless. Often, these services are provided to those living in severe poverty and that are living under the 200% poverty level with a high-risk assessment score. Factors such as the amount of times you moved as a child, if you were currently on public assistance or received public assistance as a child, if you were previously evicted, your level of education, recently incarcerated or hospitalized, your household composition, if you were sexually abused as a child, if you were ever arrest, all affect your risk assessment questionnaire score (Information obtained first hand by writer during his time of employment with BronxWorks).
According to the “Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration” (SAMHSA), (https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/programs_campaigns/recovery_to_practice/slides-homelessness1_20171004.pdf), the main contribution “circumstances that can lead to homelessness is conflict with family and friends, problems paying rent, incarceration, domestic violence, poverty or subsistence income”. Often times, teens are either running away from home or being kicked out of the home because of issues with parents. This creates a dangerous situation because majority of the time these individuals are forced into human trafficking.Incarceration is also often an issue because it is difficult if not impossible to pay your rent or mortgage which in jail or prison. Domestic Violence is one of the largest contributors of homelessness. “According to New York’s Voices of Women, approximately 21% of homeless families and 25% single homeless women are homeless due to domestic violence”(https://upwithwomen.org/what-causes-risk-of-homelessness/). Some people are faced with the reality of whether to stay in an abuse home, or be homeless. While the average person would believe that majority of the people that are homeless are unemployed, that assumption would be false. The truth is that majority of people do not make enough even when they are employed to pay their rent, buy food, pay utilities, and necessities. These groups of people are usually also those in the coverage gap when it comes to health insurance, where they don’t make enough to afford insurance but make too much to get Medicaid. These groups of individuals are often left homeless after one major sickness or injury. One national American survey found that domestic violence was the second most frequently stated reason for homelessness for families. There are also several “factors that can impact housing stability such as substance abuse, unemployment/underemployed, physical disability, mental illness, HIV/Aids, gambling, and legal problems” (SAMHSA). There is a high amount of physically and mentally ill people in America that are unable to pay their rent because they are on fixed incomes receiving SSI/SSD or require assistance paying for shelter. According to the national Coalitions for the Homeless, about 20- 25% of the homeless population suffer from a mental illness (https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/).
According to The Coalition for the Homeless, “homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. In February 2019, there were 63,615 homeless people, including 15,344 homeless families with 22,717 homeless children, sleeping each night in the NYC municipal shelter system” (The Coalition for the Homeless). The report then goes on to say that “over the course of the City fiscal year of 2018, 133,284 different homeless men, women, and children slept in the New York City shelter system. According to the article “Combating homelessness today: Looking beyond shelters — and making it easier to get housing “By Eric Gertler of The NY Daily News, stated that “New York City’s homeless population includes almost 16,000 homeless families, with approximately 24,000 homeless children sleeping each night in one of the City’s 287 stand-alone shelters. These families represent over 75% of those in the shelter system. In over 30% of these families, one of the family members has a job”. The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 74 percent higher than it was 10 years ago, and the number of homeless adults is 150 higher than it was ten years ago” (The Coalition for the Homeless) (https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/). It is also noted that majority of the homeless population are people of color. According to The Coalition for the Homeless, about “58 percent of New York City homeless shelter residents are African- American, 31 percent are Latino, 7 percent are white, and less than 1 percent are Asian- American” (https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/).
Many believe that the high volume of homelessness amongst African- American and Latinos stretch all the way back to slavery to present day. Because African-Americans and Latinos have been systematically, economically, and educationally oppressed and disenfranchised, this has spilled over into every other part of their lives including housing.
There have been several programs put into place by the federal government, the state of New York, and New York City to fight homelessness. Unfortunately it would seem that they are barely making a dent into the massive problem at hand. One of new programs that were put into place to assist with the homelessness problem was the ‘Free Legal Representation to Prevent Eviction” program. According to Homelessness Prevention website of NYC, “HRA (Human Resource Administration) funds Anti-Eviction Legal Services in the housing courts and in community offices across the City, provide comprehensive, flexible and individualized legal and related services to help ensure that low-income households avoid becoming homeless. Services may include: Representation in housing court, Negotiations with landlords and/or other advocacy assistance, Inquiries into whether a tenant’s rent level is correct, whether there are conditions that require repair and whether these constitute defenses to a proceeding, and Preparation and filing of required agency and court papers” (https://www1.nyc.gov/site/hra/help/homelessness-prevention.page). There are also many housing subsidies that were put into action by HRA/DHS NYC such as Family Eviction Prevention Services (FEPS and CityFEPS), they are “FEPS is a housing supplement to help prevent evictions and provides rental support to families for up to five years. A household must be in housing court, be receiving public assistance, and have one child under the age of 18 to apply. Special Exit and Prevention Supplement (SEPS) is a subsidy that is meant to aid individuals and adult families who are in need of stable housing. It provides rent assistance for one year with the possibility of renewals. Individuals, who have experienced domestic violence, have served in the military, have been evicted or are staying in a shelter, are welcome to apply. Applicants must receive public assistance to qualify”.
(https://www1.nyc.gov/site/mopd/resources/homeless-prevention-shelters.page). According to the NYC website, there is also a ‘Homeless Prevention Fund” which “provides emergency financial assistance to households Citywide, who are unable to secure sufficient assistance through available programs and are at imminent risk of homelessness due to rent arrears. The Fund offers emergency financial assistance to low-income households who meet all of the following criteria: Household income range between $15,000 and $30,000 annually, an eviction petition has been filed, and the household has the ability to pay rent in the future”
(https://www1.nyc.gov/site/dhs/prevention/rent-issues.page). There is also supportive housing being built and created for those with severe mental illness to receive caseworker services in the home. Nonprofit organizations such as CAMBA, BronxWorks, Jewish Board, and other are usually the ones that staff and manage the facilities under the direction of DHS (Department of Homeless Services).
From the research completed in this essay, it would be easily determined that the efforts to prevent homeless are more so to slow down the process and not to eliminate it entirely. If homelessness was entirely removed then there would no longer be HomeBase, RAU (Rental Assistance Unit), Department of Homeless Services (DHS), Housing Court, a need for a Marshal, a need for a housing attorney, and etc. To be blunt, it is a business created on the suffering of others. If the government cared, they would be more involved in the stabilization of the price of rent, even with private homeowners so that rent would be more affordable. If there was a cap on property tax, mortgage rates, and homes, then the landlords would be able to charge less for rent. Instead, the government waits until you are in housing court or homeless to provide you with a housing subsidy which also gives the landlord incentives to rent the home to you. According to the article “Combating homelessness today: Looking beyond shelters — and making it easier to get housing “By Eric Gertler of The NY Daily News, “median rent in New York City has increased about 20%, while household income fell about 6.5%”. This causes the price of rent to increase either to recover additional money from the government or to increase it about the subsidized amount so that the voucher will not cover that apart. Most of the subsidies, affordable housing, NYCHA, is mostly for individuals already on public assistance or have very low fixed income, which keeps that individual relying on the assistance of the government. Often this creates a cycle and the individual continues to rely on the system over and over and will continue to fall behind in rent or return homeless because they are so reliant upon the system. Meanwhile, an individual that is not on public assistance and does not meet the eligibility guidelines is still unable to afford their rent, but it not able to obtain assistance. This causes a large problem. A simple alternative would be to come up with assistance that everyone is able to qualify for, something based on the need and not the income. The government should build more affordable housing or provide tax breaks to landlords and developers that are creating affordable housing. The many band aid programs are quick fixes and the problem is much deeper.
One thing that we can not overlook is the individual. Homelessness is the effect but we must also look at the many different causes that brought us to this place. The individual is going through many motion and emotions that are constantly changing and some do not know what to do in regards to them. Many of those that suffer from mental illness lack treatment. Therefore, they must receive treatment in order to be more stable and to maintain housing. Education plays in big role in the income that a household may receive. We must invest in the education of the masses so that they are better equipped and trained for better paying jobs. There must also be racial and economic diversity in every neighborhood including the public housing buildings. With diversity, people will see the way they live and will see life differently. Those that are suffering from addiction should be referred to care and rehabilitation, so that they can obtain sobriety so that they can better function in society. The rich should also assist the poor in order to make this world a better place as simple as it may sound. This is an issue that requires the help of everyone in order for a change to be obtained. There might be many that might oppose this because they are more focused on political or financial gain but the majority is believed to have compassion and are requesting change. As stated in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, but majority of the people who are homeless are not living their life to the fullest, have very few liberties, and even less security (https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/). According to the “Sustainable Development Goals” set by the United Nations General Assembly, they want to eliminate poverty and hunger, promote good health and well-being, increase the quality of education, have decent work and economic growth, and have better sustainable Cities and Communities (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld). With the changes by the U.N., this would limit, if not eliminate homelessness if they are able to achieve such a task. Something that must be addressed right away is the inadequate services received at homeless shelters in New York City. Because the shelters are inadequate, many would rather be street homeless. Muzzy Rosenblatt, the CEO of nonprofit shelter provider Bowery Residents’ Committee contended that “by creating permanent housing, the demand for shelter shrinks, which allows the city to spend less on emergency housing and avoid spending on low-quality shelters simply to meet demand” (“Being Homeless In Winter Can Be a Death Sentence” (Business Insider- Harrison Jacobs 2018). The mayor of New York City is now planning to “revamp the shelter system by closing more than 360 sites and building 90 new facilities as part of its “Turning the Tide” program” (Harrison Jacobs 2018). However, the federal government questions this plan and “ federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development and a vast cross-section of researchers say the best solution to homelessness is skipping shelters altogether and placing homeless people directly in affordable housing and providing support services, a strategy known as Housing First” (Harrison Jacobs 2018).
In conclusion, the homelessness epidemic is a huge one and will not get better without a collective effort. The federal government, the state, the city, the courts, the landlords, and the tenant/individual show all take responsibility and work together to overcome this massive issue. With a kind heart, proper management, laws, government programs, and personal development programs, many of the issues can be fixed. For the individual, we suggest that they obtain the proper social services needed including mental health treatment, health treatment and benefits, personal development courses, as well as the increase of education when possible. We cannot change the world, unless we change ourselves and our negative habits into positive ones. Those that are able to assist should help those without so that we can all live a higher quality of life.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), section 330(h) (5) (A) Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C., 254b)]
- HRSA/Bureau of Primary Health Care, Program Assistance Letter 99-12, Health Care for the Homeless Principles of Practice
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
- “The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act of 2009 (P.L.111-22, Section 1003)
- “A Brief History of Homelessness in New York” (By Diane Jeantet 2013),
- “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis
- “The Great Depression” by John Louis Recchiuti
- H. Watkins, The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America (New York: Henry Holt, 1999), 44-45; Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 87
- New Deal Summary, Programs, Policies, and Its Success; Four Surprising Ways the New Deal Affects You Today By Kimberly Amadeo 2019
- “New Deal Summary, Programs, Policies, and Its Success”; Four Surprising Ways the New Deal Affects You Today by Kimberly Amadeo 2019
- http://www.bostonfairhousing.org/timeline/1937-Housing-Act.html, 1937: Housing Act (Wagner-Steagall Act)
- “Nearly 17K NYCHA tenants are behind on their rent By Anna Sanders and Dean Balsamini
- “NYC Office of Civil Justice 2016 Annual Report 2016”, (Page 25)
- “Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration” (SAMHSA), https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/programs_campaigns/recovery_to_practice/slides-homelessness1_20171004.pdf
- The Coalition for the Homeless https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/
- Combating homelessness today: Looking beyond shelters — and making it easier to get housing “By Eric Gertler of The NY Daily News
- “Being Homeless In Winter Can Be a Death Sentence” (Business Insider- Harrison Jacobs 2018)