Homelessness in New York City

During the first debate of the 2017 election, Mayor de Blasio said his ambitious plan for developing 400,000 affordable housing units would solve the crisis. Unfortunately, solving the problem is far more complicated than adding more affordable housing.

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio begins his campaign for reelection this year, he is hounded by one issue in particular: homelessness. It is no secret that there are more homeless New Yorkers now than ever before, with 60,350 individuals and families currently in shelter (in October of 2008 there were 38,000 active shelter cases). During the first Mayoral debate of the 2017 election, Mayor de Blasio said his ambitious plan for developing 400,000 affordable housing units would solve the crisis. Unfortunately, solving the problem is far more complicated than adding more affordable housing.


The 1979 landmark ruling in the in the New York State Supreme Court case Callahan v. Carey paved the way for a “right to shelter” for all homeless men in New York City. Subsequent lawsuits extended that right to women and children, and included provisions requiring basic health and safety standards for shelters. Intake centers around the city are required to accept everyone and assign them to a shelter bed regardless of where they are from or what resources they have available. As the number of people in shelter continues to rise, the city must build new shelters to meet growing demand.

But building new shelters is incredibly costly in both money and political capital. A new shelter costs the city millions of dollars in purchasing or leasing land, construction, and funding a non-profit to take over day-to-day operations. The process of choosing a location for a new shelter is filled with obstacles as well. Once a location has been identified, the city must go through a lengthy process of convincing the local Community Board (a body made up of 50-200 residents who vote on measures affecting their district) and the Borough President (who has veto power over any private or public development project). And despite the fact that building new homeless shelters is a popular idea among voters, no Community Board wants new shelters in their jurisdiction. And if enough voters express displeasure at a proposed project, a Borough President will veto it.

Since expanding physical shelters is a lengthy and daunting process, the city has relied on other measures to reduce the homeless census. Taking a multi-pronged approach, the de Blasio administration has drastically expanded other government functions focusing on three vital functions: homelessness prevention, rapidly rehousing citizens once homeless, and ensuring that those who are rehoused develop financial stability.

At the direction of the Mayor’s Office and under the leadership of the Human Resources Administration (HRA) and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the city has fielded new teams dedicated to reaching out to those at risk of eviction to offer free legal services from the city, securing new apartments through a broker and landlord call-center, and following up with those who are newly housed to ensure that they won’t become homeless again. In addition to prevention, rapid rehousing, and financial stability, the administration worked to develop new strategies for directly reducing the homeless census by implementing pilot programs and new initiatives.

Testing New Strategies for Combatting Homelessness

Upon taking office, Mayor de Blasio directed the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to initiate a campaign to end veteran homelessness in New York City. That initiative served as a pilot program for several strategies that, if proven effective, could be expanded to the rest of the homeless population. The administration chose veterans for this initiative for two reasons: first, at the time of the announcement there were around 1,400 homeless veterans, which was an ideal sample size for testing new strategies; and second, homeless veterans represented a broad cross-section of age, race, gender, and family composition in the city.

Knowing that there will always be New Yorkers who become homeless, the administration had to establish a metric to measure success that could be applied to the entire system. In conjunction with the Veterans Administration (VA), the city established a framework known as “Functional Zero” for veteran homelessness. Eventually, this framework would be applied to other vulnerable populations in the city such as homeless families with children and runaway homeless youth.

As a definition, Functional Zero means that the number of homeless citizens entering the shelter system is equal to the number who are leaving the system. Using the homeless veterans initiative as an example for determining the benchmark, the city compiled data from intake centers and concluded that on average 100 veterans entered the system every month and remained in shelter for about 90 days. This meant that in order to achieve Functional Zero, there should be no more than 300 homeless veterans in shelter at any given time. The benchmark would be altered for other homeless groups depending on how long they stay in shelters and how many enter the system every month.

In conjunction with using Functional Zero as a metric, de Blasio directed the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) to hire full-time staff to work directly with homeless veterans in shelter as a pilot program that could be expanded to other groups. The goal of the Veteran Peer Coordinator Program was to reach out to landlords to secure housing opportunities, assist veterans in navigating the housing process, and ensure long-term stability by following up with veterans after they exit the shelter system.

In addition to making strides in reducing veteran homelessness, the Peer Coordinator program also provided valuable information on systemic and economic obstacles to housing for both short-term homelessness and long-term homelessness.

Short-Term Homelessness

Many New Yorkers become homeless for a short period of time, usually due to the loss of a job, divorce, or from having to vacate their current residence. Those who have a fixed income, the elderly, and those with disabilities are left at the mercy of an unforgiving housing market that is much more expensive than they can afford. This is particularly difficult for residents who are forced to leave behind rent-controlled apartments.

When New Yorkers who have hit a stumbling block enter the intake center and are assigned to a shelter bed, they meet with an assigned case worker on site who helps them develop a plan to achieve housing stability. The case worker will interview the client and determine what their needs are for stability. This can include anything from financial resources to help with debt, legal assistance for criminal justice or child support cases, and substance abuse or mental health support. It is the dual responsibility of both the case worker and the client to determine what is needed to achieve the primary goal of long-term housing.

One of the most effective tools at a caseworker’s disposal is the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 Housing Voucher. For homeless clients who qualify by earning no more than $30,363 annually for a single person in New York City, the Section 8 voucher subsidizes rent by calculating the “rental contribution” of the individual or family ensuring that they pay no more than 30% of their income in rent. A combination of funding from the city, state and Federal government covers the rest. Based on household size, the voucher will denote the size of the apartment and what the maximum rental amount allowed is. For instance, a single person would likely receive a voucher for a studio apartment with a maximum rent of $1,213 per month in New York City.

Long-Term Homelessness

There are some New Yorkers who have significant mental health and substance abuse issues that create an almost insurmountable roadblock to stability. In the 1980’s, the Federal government under President Ronald Reagan pursued a path of “deinstitutionalization” for mental health patients. This meant that those with significant mental health complications were left at the mercy of state, city, and philanthropic funding for treatment. This proved disastrous as the amount of visits to the emergency room, incidents of incarceration, and homelessness cases spiked.

Those with significant mental health and substance abuse backgrounds become homeless again after being permanently housed because they either fail to pay their rent on time or the landlord decides not to renew their lease. A new type of housing solution was created to provide the services needed for these cases called Supportive Housing. Supportive Housing is a permanent housing solution that provides on-site social workers and mental health services for tenants. However, the intricate eligibility requirements for tenants and a lack of vacancies means there is not nearly enough to meet the growing demand.

Policy Limitations and the Way Forward

If the system is a transitional process, then more homeless people need to be exiting shelter than entering it to reduce the census. Over the past several years, more and more people have been unable to locate housing in the city even with a Section 8 voucher because average median rent has exceeded the limits set by the program. Currently, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in the five boroughs is $2,500 per month and Section 8 will only cover a maximum of $1,533 per month for a one bedroom apartment. To make matters worse, only 3.8% of New York City’s apartments are vacant (as opposed to a national average of 4.4%), which drives up demand for a shrinking supply of affordable apartments. Many landlords choose to increase the marketed rent just above the Section 8 limit to avoid renting to those enrolled in the program. There is currently no count of how many people are enrolled in Section 8 and unable to find an apartment, but 80% of enrollees in a city-funded alternative called Living in Communities (LINC) still remain homeless after 3 months of having the voucher.

The way in which Section 8 funding is distributed makes matters worse, since municipalities have little recourse in obtaining more funds to meet demand. The Federal government issues block grants to states, and states issue block grants to cities and counties to provide vouchers. It is at the discretion of municipal and county housing authorities to determine how many vouchers should be issued and at what value. Agencies are caught in a catch-22: if they issue too many vouchers, they must lower the rental limits to remain in budget, which makes housing unattainable for homeless families. If they issue too few vouchers, then homeless applicants must wait even longer before receiving a voucher. In New York City, there are 146,808 applicants on the waiting list for Section 8 through the New York City Public Housing Authority.

This is the heart of New York City’s homelessness dilemma. There simply is not enough funding through Section 8 to keep up with demand. Worse still, President Donald J. Trump’s projected budget includes $136,656,658 in cuts annually to the Section 8 program in New York City.

Finally, there are significant bureaucratic barriers to moving, or “porting,” a Section 8 voucher out of a particular jurisdiction if a person or family cannot locate suitable housing. In order to move to another jurisdiction, the enrollee must apply for a transfer and wait for approval before they can begin their housing search. This adds days and weeks to the process, which in turn adds days and weeks to the length of stay in shelter.

Reforming the way in which Section 8 is funded and how individuals are enrolled could provide significant cost savings and shorten the length of time homeless New Yorkers reside in shelter. Funding Section 8 through block grants creates obstacles to finding affordable housing in neighboring communities and increases the cost of the program nationwide. For example, if a New Yorker found a cheaper apartment in Yonkers or New Jersey, and they were able to avoid the bureaucratic process of porting the voucher, then the Federal government would spend less annually on the total cost of rent, and the City of New York would spend less on temporarily housing that person.