New York City Sees Record Homeless Population

A record-breaking total of more than 60,000 homeless individuals are seeking refuge in New York City’s homeless shelters this fall, a deluge that is drawing attention to the city’s handling of its homeless citizens.

The city’s affordable housing crisis is the primary cause of the increase, according to policy analyst for New York City’s Coalition for the Homeless Jacquelyn Simone.

The median annual housing cost in New York City in 2014 was $15,780, according to U.S. Census data. High housing prices lead almost half of the city’s residents to spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing.

“There isn’t really any affordable neighborhood in New York City anymore,” Simone said. “When you have a crisis like that, an affordable housing crisis, it’s just a matter of time until somebody falls behind on their rent and ends up in the shelter system. It can happen to anyone.”

The city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) offers a suite of programs designed to help individuals in shelters relocate to permanent housing. The six Living in Communities (LINC) rental assistance programs subsidize rent for individuals or families in a number of situations.

LINC I, which provides support for families who are working full-time, requires that families pay 30 percent of their income in rent. A family of four could receive a $1,119 monthly subsidy.

While New York City prohibits landlords from discriminating against applicants based on source of income, Simone said that people in the LINC program have been turned away nonetheless. The coalition is calling for greater enforcement of the anti-discriminatory law.

LINC has also promised landlords a $1,000 signing bonus since October 2014 and offers landlords financial protections if the tenant fails to pay rent or causes damage to the unit.

But even these steps do not ensure that all LINC beneficiaries can find housing, given the city’s housing shortage.

“Even if you have a landlord who is completely on board with the voucher program, if you have dozens of applicants there’s still one apartment,” Simone said. “We can’t just voucher our way out of the homelessness crisis—we simultaneously need to be building our way out of it and increasing the housing supply with real affordability levels.”

DHS also offers services to prevent homelessness, many of which are part of the Homebase program. With 23 locations, Homebase is designed to keep New Yorkers out of the shelter system—a move that, Simone notes, saves individuals from experiencing trauma and saves taxpayer money.

Homebase presents an array of services, including eviction prevention, job search assistance and financial counseling.

The city has recently dedicated extra funding to legal services that help prevent evictions, Simone explained. However, she also said that the coalition would like to see the initiative expanded to a legal right to counsel in housing court for people at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.

Despite the high number of homeless individuals in the city’s shelter system, the DHS said in a statement that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s programs made that number about 7,000 fewer than projected.

“We said five months ago … that it would take time to reverse 20 years of policies and that the number of people in shelter might continue to grow,” Commissioner of the Department of Social Services Steven Banks said in the statement. “Our current programs have substantially slowed the rate of growth of homelessness. And we will keep working to strengthen our efforts to prevent homelessness.”

Simone said that the city has plans to expand Homebase. DHS did not provide comment.

“We know how to help [homeless individuals], but we just don’t have the resources to help them,” Simone said. “We really need both the city and the state to do as much as they possibly can to tackle this crisis, because we know what works to solve homelessness, and we just need our elected leaders to embrace these proven solutions by focusing on housing.”

Reena Karasin is a freelance reporter for Spare Change News.

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