A Glance at Homelessness Policy, Then and Now

Most New Yorker’s can’t imagine a time when homelessness was not a city-wide crisis. However, prior to the economic decline of the 1970’s, homelessness was a very confined problem, with altogether different affected demographic and geographic spheres. How and why has homelessness and the complex policy surrounding it changed so drastically within the last thirty to forty years, culminating with the progressive outlook yet underwhelming policies of the De Blasio administration?

The narrative begins with the advent of the Koch administration in 1978. The Encyclopedia of Homelessness,  authored by Beth Weitzman and Sean Fischer, tells us that the city was just recovering from a major economic crisis, and affordable housing was painfully scarce. Combined with wage stagnation, the state deinstitutionalization of mental patients, and massive drug epidemics, the result was a housing crisis the likes of which the city had never seen before. Homelessness spread beyond the limitations of the Bowery and included numerous women, children, and families. This was the state of the issue Koch was dealing with. As such, the approach taken by the Koch administration can generally be described as a “band-aid” solution to a massively overwhelming problem. To explain this apparent near-sighted tactic, context is essential. According to Thomas J. Main’s bookHomelessness in New York City Policymaking from Koch to De Blasio, which most of this essay is based on, in the late 1970’s, the homelessness issue began attracting attention in New York City communities. An advocacy group, named the Coalition for the Homeless or the CFTH, formed in order to represent the growing ranks of vagrants. Robert Hayes, an accomplished advocacy lawyer, spear-headed the group’s famed litigation against the city that would determine the direction of homelessness policy for the next three decades. The court case Callahan vs. Carey would ultimately force the city to acknowledge a basic right to shelter, putting the responsibility of housing the homeless squarely in the city’s lap. Not only did the city have to provide emergency shelter upon request, but three more decades of litigation would determine of what quality this shelter had to be, how quickly it must be provided, and who was to be sheltered. In the way, the courts became the ultimate “micromanager” of city homelessness policy. This still impacts action taken by the De Blasio administration, as we shall see.

This forced not only the Koch administration into haphazardly slapping together shelters in order to comply with court mandates but haunted his successor Dinkins as well. Both administrations focused mainly on managing a problem that was spiraling out of control. Koch had struggled to keep conditions in shelters slightly better than a hellish nightmare in order to please the never-ending stream of lawsuits against the city. The reputation of the EAU, or the Emergency Assistance Unit, is not a pleasant one. Families slept in offices while they waited for emergency housing, and huge shelters teemed with filth and rats. The Dinkins administration had the same problem; however, Dinkins did take an important step towards a solution. The Dinkins policy gave homeless families priority to affordable housing, which decreased the reliance on infamous welfare hotels and SRO (single room occupancy) hotels, which had many health and safety violations. While this was a step towards housing families, it did little to end the structural causes of homelessness.

Because of this, the numbers kept increasing, which led Dinkins to believe that his entitlement style approach to housing had sparked an influx of families entering the shelter system in order to acquire affordable housing faster. This would be disproven by a few notable studies; however, the political impact was not lessened by the efforts of academia. Dinkins had run for mayor touting his document “A Shelter is Not a Home” and using it to outline his attempt at homeless policy. His apparent failure and disregard for the findings of the Andrew Cuomo committee on homelessness, which would be adopted by Giuliani administration, would cost him the ensuing election. To put this into perspective, the Koch and Dinkins approaches to homelessness can best be described as entitlement style policy. There was little allowance by the court system for determining eligibility for shelter, and under what conditions. That resulted in piece-meal attempts at solving the crisis. This is evident today in the albeit improved but disgraceful condition of many shelters that exist under the current administration.

However, there would be a pivotal move in the 1990’s towards a new approach, and again at the turn of the century. The Giuliani administration and the Bloomberg administration, being allowed more room by the courts after landmark cases, would pave the way in homeless policy. Giuliani took the advice of the Andrew Cuomo committee, and instituted what would become known as a paternalistic approach to homeless policy. Many shelters became not-for-profitized, which increased the quality of the care given in shelters. Because the shelters were private, they could add certain stipulations to receiving shelter, such as sobriety or job training programs. While this was politically popular and an undeniable improvement, many street-dwellers refused to be forced into sobriety programs or stay in deplorable public shelters, and thus remained on the street. Worse yet, many families still waited twenty-four hours or more in EAU offices while the city processed their application and looked for shelter. Therefore, despite progress, the numbers still remained at record-breaking highs.

It wouldn’t be until the Bloomberg administration that housing first policies would be implemented. Housing First policies allow the chronically homeless, who are most likely mentally or physically impaired in some way, to have access to assisted supportive housing without being forced to be in a treatment program. Housing First policies have been shown to positively affect housing retention rates, and sobriety and treatment are essentially the same compared to those who received treatment first. It was a counterintuitive but effective method of helping the chronically homeless. The Bloomberg administration would also focus on preventing homelessness, increasing the resources available to families in order to find housing and receive subsidies. Although homelessness is still a large issue, and one that the city is nowhere near solving, there have been leaps and bounds in policy.

This bring us to the current regime, the De Blasio administration. To begin with, Housing First is an accepted and widely acknowledged strategy which is being used today and is having a positive impact on homelessness. However, the De Blasio administration is repeating some of the mistakes of the Bloomberg administration. The only real solution to homelessness is to create more affordable housing, which the city has been slow to do. The city has also been abysmal in following through with its ambitious shelter promises. There has been negotiation with the state, but so far, little has materialized. That being said, the De Blasio administration has been careful to take the good away from the Bloomberg policy and carry it over. Numbers have since slightly decreased since their all-time high, however despite all of the improvements, the city is still as far away from a solution as it was when Koch started. In that respect, homeless policy is still near-sighted, as De Blasio plans to build shelters, not housing. Nor can we really chalk the improvement up to De Blasio, as he has had plenty of breakthrough policy to study from. Really, it’s just more bureaucratic promises followed by underwhelming results; more of the same upward battle. However, I would like to conclude that the biggest difference between now and then is this: there is now a small, tiny glimmer of hope for the homeless.