The Root of the Homeless Problem

Modern homelessness in New York City is a social condition that can be traced back to the economic changes made during the Great Depression. In particular, the city’s housing stock and mental health policies had the greatest influence on homelessness and affordable housing in the 1950s. During the postwar period, single-room occupancy (SRO) units and residential hotels, provided cheap, affordable housing for low-income single adults, couples, and families. In 1960, there were approximately 129,000 SRO units throughout the city (1).


Increasing Homeless Population in the 20th Century 

In the 1950s, deinstitutionalization, in which a long term inmate is discharged from a mental institution or prison, affected thousands of patients who were discharged from psychiatric centers and hospitals in New York. The State adopted this policy because of the development of new medications and new mental health care treatments within the local communities as opposed to the institutions. As a result, the number of patients in the State psychiatric centers fell from 85,000 to 27,000 patients between 1965 and 1979 (1). Because the local governments did not invest in housing for these discharged patients, they had no choice but to occupy SROs.

The number of SROs eventually hit its maximum capacity, and this housing stock began to decline. In 1978 alone, the number of SROs fell from approximately 129,000 in 1960 to 25,000 in 1978 (1). This was largely due to changes in property tax policies and gentrification. SROs, abandoned and dilapidated buildings, and warehouses, were renovated and converted into higher-cost rental housing and condominiums. Consequently, the SRO housing units continued to fall throughout the 1980s and 1990s.


Efforts to Protect the Rights of the Homeless

Homelessness began to emerge in the late 1970s, when the presence of homeless men sleeping in the streets at night became more common. Many of them congregated around the Bowery and other “skid row” districts. The emergency shelters were usually inadequate in providing shelter for the homeless. In order to reduce the number of people on the street, the Vera Institute of Justice enacted the Manhattan Bowery Project in 1961. The city handed out around 1,000 vouchers every day for people to receive voluntary shelter and treatment in the cubicles in the Bowery; however, the conditions within the shelter were horrendous, and many people contracted tuberculosis, amongst other contagious diseases. In addition, as the number of homeless people continued to increase, the number of available rooms decreased.

In 1979, the founders of Coalition for the Homeless, including Robert Hayes, a private attorney, brought a lawsuit called Callahan v. Carey in order to argue for the right to shelter. This initiated the Hayes agreement, which provided additional beds and improved conditions in the Bowery.

One of the leading causes of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. In the 1970s, the gap between rents and incomes of the poorest households increased, pushing many low income families and individuals out of the housing market.


Shelter System Reforms

During the Koch Administration in 1986, the mayor implemented a housing initiative called “Housing New York,” which created 150,000 affordable apartments citywide, with at least 15,000 apartments targeted to homeless households (1). The number of homeless families dropped from 5,100 to 3,600 families, a 29 percent decline, from 1988 through 1990.

When David Dinkins became the mayor in 1990, he adopted a liberal approach in treating homelessness. He called for creating transitional apartments and permanent housing, as well as specialized services for the homeless people living with disabilities and special needs.


Giuliani’s Punitive Approach on Homeless Rights

Under Republican Rudolph Giuliani, the homeless shelter population increased from 23,000 to 30,000 people. He adopted a punitive approach by restricting shelter access to 90 days, and proposed that the homeless be ejected for a minimum of 30 days if they failed to comply with administrative rules and social service plans; the administrative rules required the residents to complete workfare assignments in exchange for shelter (1). He even threatened to separate children from their families, and place them into foster care if the obligations were not met.


Here is a video on homelessness…


Final Thoughts

On the one hand, I believe Dinkins’ plan for vocational services run by nonprofit organizations is an excellent plan of action in order to rehabilitate the large fraction of the homeless population that suffers from severe mental illnesses. In these cases, Giuliani’s plan to restrict shelter access does not benefit the people who must receive extensive treatment before becoming self-sustaining and working stable jobs. On the other hand, for the individuals who are capable of working, they should be given the priority when applying for minimum wage jobs and affordable housing. I do not believe they should be restricted shelter access until they are able to provide for themselves and maintain their bills. Although homelessness is an extremely nuanced and complicated issue, it could be lessened through greater government economic investment and community support.  I only hope that by volunteering and becoming more active in my community, we can all become more educated and compassionate towards those who are less fortunate.