Gov. Cuomo Plays Politics with Homeless New Yorkers

New Year, same Andrew Cuomo. In an effort to – once again – upstage NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Cuomo moves the fight into the streets.

Photo by Zach Seward

Photo by Zach Seward

This street fight has to do with the tragic plight of the NYC homeless, whose numbers have soared to nearly 60,000 in recent years.

Mr. Cuomo has painted the crisis as a failure of the de Blasio administration, casting the Mayor as a bumbling progressive who leads with ideology rather than pragmatism and effectiveness.

Calling the de Blasio-run shelter system “more dangerous than being on the street,” Cuomo enacted an executive order at the beginning of the year that was light on the state aid and heavy on the political grandstanding. Indeed, in his State of the State address in January, Cuomo threatened to take over the homeless shelters, implying that the de Blasio administration was in over its head.

“New York City is experiencing a significant homeless problem, there’s no doubt about it,” Cuomo said recently. “We had a terrible homeless problem. We resolved it. Now we’re going back and we have a homeless problem spreading again.”

Unfortunately for Cuomo, and more importantly homeless New Yorkers, the facts show that not only was the problem never resolved, it has been exacerbated by his own cost-cutting actions as Governor. The problem lies not in Gracie Mansion, Mr. Cuomo, but in Albany.

In 2011, during a budget shortfall in Albany, Cuomo slashed billions in state funding that cut $65 million from a rental assistance program known as Advantage. Further, as the homeless crisis has continued to intensify, Albany has further curtailed spending, falling 47 percent since 2007 (while city contributions has risen 8 percent). Since 2010, the year before Cuomo assumed office, the state’s share on homelessness has dropped from 29 percent to 15 percent. Cuts like these make supportive housing options for the homeless next to impossible.

Cuomo is right that NYC is in the midst of a crisis.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, levels of homelessness in NYC have reached its highest point since the Great Depression. Disturbingly, the rate of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in municipal shelters has risen 91 percent in the last 10 years.

Sobering numbers like these ought to cause political leaders to take notice; homeless New Yorkers are lucky to have a Governor who – at least in words – is sympathetic to their situation.

For his part, de Blasio could do more to leave no room for Cuomo’s criticism. Only 6% of the 40,000 affordable units created by de Blasio’s housing plan have been earmarked for homeless New Yorkers, advocates call for at least 10%, including a larger number of public housing apartments for homeless families.

Mr. Cuomo, however, should know better: he has built much of his career on serving the homeless. As founder of Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP), Cuomo fought for a supportive housing model that integrated social services. As Mayor Dinkins’ Chairman of the NYC Homeless Commission, Cuomo commissioned a report that recommended the expansion of investments in permanent supportive housing for the homeless, among other state-spending recommendations.

In these roles Cuomo advocated for the types of programs and social policies that he has now cut as Governor.

The night before then-Chairman Andrew Cuomo’s first public hearing as Chairman of Mayor Dinkins’ Commission on Homelessness in 1991, he threatened to quit if the board didn’t agree with his “radical change” that included helping the homeless find permanent housing.

If some of that passion for the homeless still remains in Governor Cuomo, the city – now, more than ever – sure could use it.