The Coalition for the Homeless reports the number of people living in New York City homeless shelters has reached an all-time high of 43,000. Critics attribute the spike in homelessness to the Bloomberg administration’s alleged failure to help move homeless families into permanent affordable housing. Housing advocates say the problem was exacerbated by the city’s cancellation of the "Advantage" apartment rental subsidy, with as many as 8,000 former aid recipients now facing eviction. We get a report from Democracy Now!’s Chantal Berman, who interviewed several aid recipients who could soon lose their homes, and speak to Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless in New York City. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a look at homelessness here in New York City. The number of people living in city shelters has reached an all-time high according to a new report issued Monday by the Coalition for the Homeless. This spring, more than 43,000 people, including a record 17,000 children, slept each night in municipal shelters. The Coalition’s analysis also showed the average length of a family’s stay in city shelters has increased to nearly a year.
Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, the homeless shelter population has increased by 39 percent. The Coalition for the Homeless attributes the spike in homelessness to the Bloomberg administration’s alleged failure to help move homeless families into permanent affordable housing. Housing advocates say the problem was exacerbated by city’s cancellation of the "Advantage" apartment rental subsidy. Since then, the city has lacked a program to help shelter residents attain permanent housing. Now as many as 8,000 former aid recipients are facing eviction.
For more, we turn to a report by Democracy Now! fellow Chantal Berman. She spoke with several recipients of the program’s housing subsidies who could lose their homes.
KATRICE BRYSON: Basically, I’ve been in this apartment for almost two years. I’m hoping and praying I can stay here a little bit longer, pending on the outcome of what’s going to happen, I guess, when I receive housing court papers.
CHANTAL BERMAN: Katrice Bryson is a medical receptionist and a single mother living in West Harlem. Her daughter Hadenliz was born into a New York City shelter, but grew up in this one-bedroom apartment thanks to the city’s Advantage program, a rent subsidy system that helped homeless people move out of shelters. Despite an all-time high in homelessness, the Bloomberg administration defunded the program three months ago, leaving 8,000 people like Katrice stranded in apartments they can’t afford. With city help, Katrice payed $50 per month on her apartment. Now she’s responsible for more than $1,000 per month—money she doesn’t have.
KATRICE BRYSON: I’ve been trying to look for another job, maybe on top of the job that I have, to try to see if I can work two jobs. It’s been very stressful, because, you know, trying to figure out what’s more important, like making sure that I have food in the refrigerator, making sure that I have lights on, you know. And then I do see homeless people out here in the streets, and I think to myself, I wonder, you know, I hope that’s not going to be me and my daughter in the next month or so, you know, being out on the streets, because of the fact, you know, I tried my best. I work. You know, it’s not like I don’t work. And I try to do what I have to do for me and my daughter, but it’s not enough.
CHANTAL BERMAN: Despite the prospect of sending thousands back to shelter and the streets, Bloomberg officials claim the city can no longer afford to spend $140 million per year on rent subsidies. But critics note that the city spent more than four times that amount last year on commercial and industrial subsidies. Advocates like Patrick Markee at Coalition for the Homeless say that when it comes to fighting homelessness in New York City, fiscal responsibility isn’t the real issue.
PATRICK MARKEE: Mayor Bloomberg and top Bloomberg administration officials continue to view the problem of homelessness as a behavioral problem. They keep thinking that if you try and implement punitive policies against homeless children and families, against homeless individuals, that you’re somehow going to address the problem of homelessness.
CHANTAL BERMAN: The end of the Advantage program is the story of a budget squabble between New York City and New York state. The state canceled its share of Advantage funding in March 2011, and the Bloomberg administration countered by closing off the program to new families. Then, in February this year, a state court ruled that New York City could legally stop payment to all Advantage recipients.
PATRICK MARKEE: For the first time since modern homelessness began in New York City more than 30 years ago, we have a situation where homeless kids and families in New York City shelters have no housing assistance to help them move out of shelter. More than 3,100 families who were in the Advantage program have already ended up back in the shelter system. More than 5,000 families who were in the Advantage program have already come back to apply for shelter. We now have essentially a revolving door back into shelter for thousands of children and families.
CHANTAL BERMAN: For decades, New York has used a combination of city, state and federal housing resources to help homeless people transition out from shelter. But since 2005, when Mayor Bloomberg won his second term, city policies have moved away from the idea that housing assistance is the solution to homelessness. This is Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond speaking at the New School.
SETH DIAMOND: We must reject the misconception that a rental subsidy is the only ticket out of shelter. The evidence is clear. Most families can work and want to work.
CHANTAL BERMAN: Many recipients of the Advantage subsidy were working families. But another section of the program also served fixed-income, disabled people, whose unique medical needs prevent them from working. Michelle Martin and her friends Sharon, Rosemary and Anita met in a shelter two years ago. Thanks to the Advantage program, they moved to this accessible housing complex in Far Rockaway, Queens. These women all appeared in housing court last week, where a judge gave them 30 days to come up with all of the rent that they owe since the Advantage subsidy ended. If not, they will be locked out of their apartments.
MICHELLE MARTIN: Then, next thing I know, I get a—like everybody else, a three-day notice, 30-day notice, then eviction notice. I open up, and when I see where it said "civil court," my whole body shook. I got nervous, and I have a weak stomach. So I—it’s like I had pains all in my stomach. I dropped the paper on the floor, and I sat there, and I’m going in tears. I said, "Oh, God! Oh, God! I’m going to be evicted. I’m going to be evicted. What are they going to say?" "You have to be out, such-and-such a time. We’re going to come and put your things out." So I’m worried about that.
CHANTAL BERMAN: Moving women like Michelle to shelters often means jeopardizing their access to medicine and doctors. Michelle’s close friend and neighbor, Catherine Mobley, is already suffering adverse health effects.
CATHERINE MOBLEY: I have some serious problems. I sleep with machines at night in order for me to get a good night’s rest. I have so much medication I have to take. And this, what are we going through, not knowing if we’re going to have a place to live by the end of the month, I’m getting sick. My sugars have gone up, my blood pressure has gone up, and it’s getting me very emotionally crazy. Everybody says, "Calm down. Don’t worry about it. Let God handle it." You can’t do that when you don’t know where you’re going to go.
CHANTAL BERMAN: Catherine will probably end up back in the shelter, because her monthly check from disabilities services won’t cover the cost of an apartment in New York, where the disparity between wage levels and housing costs is one of the worst in the country. This is Patrick Markee at Coalition for the Homeless.
PATRICK MARKEE: Fundamentally, homelessness is a problem of housing affordability. And what we’ve seen in New York City and what we’ve seen across the United States for the past decade has been a widening of the affordability gap, a widening of the gap between the incomes of low-income and working-class people and the housing costs and rents. In New York City, you see that, again, more starkly than in most other places.
CHANTAL BERMAN: Right now, a higher court is reconsidering whether the city acted illegally by defunding the Advantage program, so there’s a small chance that the city will be forced to resume sending out rent checks. But by the time the court reaches a decision, Michelle, Catherine and Katrice will almost certainly be back in the shelter system where they started—this time with no way out. For Democracy Now!, this is Chantal Berman.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, and we are joined by Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.
Patrick, welcome to Democracy Now! The figures are astounding. The largest number of homeless people in the city since the Depression? And then, our top headline today, new figures show the recession brought on by the financial crisis has wiped out two decades of wealth for the average U.S. household, and this is largely due to housing issues.
PATRICK MARKEE: Absolutely. I mean, in New York City now, we’ve got more than 43,000 people a night in shelter, including an all-time record 17,000 children. It’s a 10 percent increase from last year. It’s a 40 percent increase from when Mayor Bloomberg took office 10 years ago. And across the country, we’re seeing rising family homelessness. The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in the United States is families with kids. And it’s very much against the stereotype that I think many Americans still have. They still picture a homeless person being an older man who’s panhandling on a street corner. Well, in New York City, it’s much more likely to be a mom and her kids.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have a situation where, in this particular program, the Advantage program, when they’re put back into shelters, the amount of money that is spent on sheltering them in shelters is more than if they had subsidies for their apartments.
PATRICK MARKEE: Absolutely. I mean, we have a situation where it costs $36,000 a year to shelter a homeless family in New York City. In comparison, a rental voucher would be $10,000 a year. And this has really been the fundamental kind of lunacy of New York City homeless policy, and even homeless policy around the rest of the country, for many years. Here you have a situation where it costs more to do the wrong thing. We are now facing a situation where Mayor Bloomberg has refused, for years now, to utilize federal housing programs, which we know work to reduce homelessness, which worked under previous New York City mayors. Even Rudy Giuliani himself utilized federal housing programs to help families get up and out of shelter and secure permanent housing. And here you’ve got Mayor Bloomberg refusing to do something—
AMY GOODMAN: And here you have a mayor who himself is a billionaire, one of the wealthiest men in this country.
PATRICK MARKEE: Yeah, and it just—I just think it comes from a mindset that we’ve seen in this administration. They refuse to see that this is not a problem of behavior, of people making bad choices, all of these things. It’s a problem of a widening gap between rents and incomes, where working-class and low-income people are simply being priced out of the housing market, and a situation where we know government has solutions to this problem. If you provide affordable housing assistance to help homeless kids and families escape shelter, they will stay out of shelter. And it’s something that has worked in New York City under previous mayors. It’s worked around the country. And certainly, we see it in western European countries, in Canada, in other, you know, democracies and other industrialized countries where they have a stronger affordable housing system for low-income people.
AMY GOODMAN: Which states are hardest hit by homelessness in this country?
PATRICK MARKEE: Well, certainly New York has—New York City has an enormous homeless shelter population and street homeless population. California and Florida, other states that were hard hit by the mortgage foreclosure crisis, have also been very hard hit by homelessness. In some of the Southern states, I think we’ve seen increases that are, if anything, even more startling, because there you’ve got local and state governments that don’t step in to help.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have 20 seconds. We almost never hear the word "poverty" mentioned by the presidential candidates. What is the single most important way we could deal with homelessness in this country?
PATRICK MARKEE: Clearly, we need to do more to provide affordable housing assistance to low-income people and to shore up the programs that are there. It’s very dangerous, the proposals that Governor Romney has made to block grant federal housing programs, which would essentially decimate them. But we certainly need to see more leadership from the president and Congress, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Patrick Markee, for joining us, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless here in New York City. We’ll link to their report that came out today.