Mike Bloomberg may well be, as consensus opinion has it, a strikingly effective problem-solving technocrat, but there’s at least one area in which his administration has plainly, if quietly, failed: homelessness. The mayor walked into City Hall in 2002 vowing to end homelessness as we know it, and eventually promised to reduce the shelter rolls by two-thirds or more. Yet the numbers not only haven’t fallen, they’ve gone up. The most current estimates place 34,776 people in the shelter system, almost 4,000 more than there were at the start of his first term, with another 3,000 or more on the streets. During the last big homeless crisis of the eighties, by comparison, the shelter population topped out at 28,737. “If these were Ray Kelly’s numbers,” says Mary Brosnahan, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, “the city would be in an uproar.”
Yes, the real-estate boom raised rents beyond the reach of many people, and Albany was slow to help the city build new low-income housing. But it was Bloomberg, homeless advocates say, who tried to radically reinvent the way the city engages with homeless people. Only in this case, his ambitious attempt at reform just didn’t work.
The roots of the mayor’s failure can be traced back to the early eighties, when judges in several major lawsuits effectively guaranteed the right to shelter here, making New York the only big city in the nation where no one who needs a bed can be refused one. From Ed Koch on down, every mayor has faced the seemingly impossible task of complying with the courts without bankrupting the city, only inevitably to fail. Bloomberg sought to break the cycle. In December 2004, he launched a radical new program called Housing Stability Plus, or HSP. Under this plan, qualified homeless families still got free apartments, only now they were paid for by the city, not the state or federal government, and the subsidy would disappear over five years. The idea was to take control of the problem and add an incentive to motivate people out of homelessness, and off the dole forever.
The HSP program quickly backfired. The city funded 10,000 new leases for homeless families, but as many as 60 percent of those leases eventually had problems—often because the tenants couldn’t afford the rent when their subsidy was interrupted. Critics say that many HSP families became homeless again, cycling back into the shelter system (though the city disputes this); Bloomberg, they say, was blind to how hard it would be for families to start improving their lives. By mid-2006, the number of homeless families was creeping upward again.
Last spring, the city scrapped HSP and replaced it with a hodgepodge of new housing programs. The new goal is to offer a menu of options tailored to an individual’s needs. One only gives apartments to homeless people who have jobs; another is for homeless people with fixed incomes from Social Security; a third offers short-term help for the recently evicted. It’s too soon to tell if these initiatives are working, but it’s clear that Bloomberg still intends to radically overhaul homeless assistance. “We’re not going to assume everyone needs a long-term subsidy,” says Robert Hess, the present homeless commissioner. “There are an awful lot of families that, given hope and a hand up, and an opportunity, will be just fine on their own and much happier for it.”
Perhaps the administration’s boldest experiment to date involves people outside the shelter system. Bloomberg has put particular pressure on Hess to get the numbers of street people down before the end of his term, and last fall, the homeless commissioner debuted a closely watched plan for people who sleep on subway grates or on stoops or in encampments. Where once the city would have offered a bed to street people only if they agreed to stop doing drugs or enter a mental-health program, now it’s offering them their own apartments first—a shabby but safe single-room unit, say—with no strings attached. The hope is that getting people their own home, however basic, will act as a gateway for them to accept additional help.
The city is claiming at least short-term results; the street-homeless numbers have dropped dramatically, and Hess argues that reducing street homelessness is a better measure of success than reducing the shelter population. But, of course, there are critics. Conservatives say the program is a handout that does nothing to discourage the root causes of homelessness. And although many homeless advocates support the program, some see problems in how it’s being applied. “In many places, they’re relocating vulnerable adults to substandard housing,” says Legal Aid chief attorney Steven Banks. “We’ve seen repeated instances of people having to return to the shelter system.”
From February 4 at 3 p.m. to February 5 at 6 a.m., photographer Jeff Riedel and I combed Manhattan and the Bronx to meet homeless New Yorkers. They weren’t hard to find. Here is a sampling.