Homelessness Crisis & NYC’s Quality of Life

Time and time again, New York City’s “quality of life” is called to question, and whenever it is, it mostly worsens. The rather embarrassing quality of life this city provides to the homeless raises empathy to the people and criticism to our government and our mayors. We live in a city that openly takes pride for being “exceptional” and does not fail to boast about its exceptionalism, but fails to recognize its greatest disappointment, being unable to effectively approach the issues of homelessness. The homelessness reality makes the vision of New York City as a remarkable city seem completely untrue and largely fictitious. Living in New York City translates to sacrificing one’s quality of life. And no one else is to blame, but the city itself. Let’s take a look at our past mayor’s actions on the homelessness crisis.

Mayor Edward I Koch (1978 – 1989)

The Koch administration’s involvement with and efforts to remedy the homelessness issue was admirable, but at the same time questionable. While Koch planted the seeds for gentrification, and was blinded by his efforts to “revitalize” the city and bring it to greater heights, he blurred himself from seeing that people and families were getting hurt in the process as they were forcibly displaced from their homes. His gentrification efforts resulted in a rise of the homeless population, which was why his attempts to aid the homeless were largely based on the guilt he carried for contributing to the issue.

Mayor Ed Koch’s push for a legislation that would allow the police to “collect homeless people in vans and hold them without their consent for seventy-two hours to give them food, a bath, and medical attention” was deemed unconstitutional.[1] Koch’s extreme efforts to “aid” the homeless involved force, and the police, which aren’t the friendliest faces for anyone, let alone the homeless. The issue with this policy is that it is extremely demoralizing and dehumanizes the homeless. To forcibly remove the homeless from the streets acts as infringement on their basic rights, and no one has the power to do that. The even more debasing aspect of this matter is that in the New York Times, Alex Vitale reports that the court argued that the city has other priorities to focus on.[2] To argue that this legislation should not be implemented because the police have better things to deal with besides homelessness really reveals the city’s priorities.

Mayor David N. Dinkins (1990 – 1993)

Dinkins disapproved of Koch’s administration in handling the homeless crisis. Dinkins rejected Koch’s plan on building new homeless shelters and condemned Koch for not providing permanent houses for the homeless individuals. Dinkins focus on the homeless issue was to provide permanent living space to house the homeless. However, a few months after taking office, Dinkins’s administration had great difficulty in making that happen because the homeless crisis had grown unmanageably that instead of taking their plan forward on issuing permanent housing, they had to gear their focus on providing shelters for an average of 23,000 homeless people every night.The homeless crisis had worsened to the point that hundreds of homeless families and individuals were sleeping in overcrowded city offices, subways, and sidewalks waiting for shelters.

Dinkins’s administration struggled in managing the homelessness problem largely because of Koch’s administration approaches on the homeless issue. With the shelters Dinkins’s administration implemented, it only provided for those homeless with welfare eligibility. This requirement was established to prevent people from taking advantage of the system and getting better housing. Dinkins approach was to solve the homeless issue by making sure that only the actual homeless are being served and supported.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (1994 – 2001)

Mayor Giuliani was one who was quick to blame the plight of the homeless on their lack of work ethic, denouncing them with stereotypical and unfair labels like lazy, drug addict, or welfare-queen. Giuliani did not want to spoon feed the homeless. He did not want to provide them with permanent housing because it would just increase their dependency on the city rather than creating a new beginning for themselves. As mayor, he proposed to restrain the city from allowing the homeless to live in the shelter for more than 90 days. He even claimed that homeless do not have the right to sleep on the city’s street, and if they are seen on the streets his police commissioner can arrest them if they refuse to go to the shelters. Giuliani referred several times in the news “Get the violent crazies off our streets” he wants to clean the city streets from the homeless issue and move on to other important issues that the city should focus on.

Giuliani has also stopped the city from providing permanent housing and reduced the number of single room occupancy (SRO) in the city. SRO’s have acted as a significant role in low-income housing that most people in New York City at max can afford. It is an absolute shame that the homelessness issue is not taken seriously as the matter truly is. Besides this, it seems as if all the mayors only address the homelessness issue as a means to decline its visibility in the city and improve their mayoral reputations since no permanently lasting solutions were postulated to remedy this “social disorder.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (2002 – 2013)

In a city where we have a shortage of housing, Mayor Bloomberg rehabilitates the mayoral residence. Instead of fixing the conditions, he created a plan that would make it harder for people to be eligible for shelters, and created a redevelopment plan for Forte Green that transformed to it to a place of luxury buildings created for the educated elite. Bloomberg’s plan has broken the city’s record of the homelessness population; it has worsened the homelessness crisis. Bloomberg believed that his strict regulations will help make the homeless more independent and will reduce the number of homeless in the shelters, however, that was not the case. As the house rents in the city rose, more and more families were seen in the homeless shelters.

The mayor’s actions only indicate that he simply wanted to make NYC look better at the expense of the homeless. The visibility aspect of the homeless is taken care of by the mayor by sweeping them inside far from pleasurable shelters. The mayor is responsible for the “quality of life” for all city residents. By sheltering the homeless the city is hiding the visible issue of homelessness, but neglecting the underlying issues inside the shelters.

Here’s what homeless individuals have to say about the shelters…

From here, the pattern only continues. The next mayor, and every mayor after that will simply sweep up a small portion of the issue, and leave the remnants for the next. This pattern is precisely what led to the explosion of the number of homeless people. The story of the invisible child, Dasani lived in the shadow of the city her whole life along with many other homeless people.

Here’s a look at Dasani’s (homeless child) story:

To read more on homeless children, follow up with Michelle Markman’s article, THE PLIGHT OF HOMELESS CHILDREN IN NEW YORK CITY

Chanel, Dasani’s mother, believes that New York has no place for the poor. Homelessness may be considered an “eye sore”, but it should also be remembered as the desensitizing narcotic. We are quick to forget our responsibilities and quick to forget that the homeless are real people that need our support. Homelessness should not be simply viewed as a social disorder; it is beyond that. Homelessness acts more as a disorder for those that face it than for those that are attempting to resolve it. Dasani gave up on the mayor in her trip to Gracie Mansion, and it looks like we all have given up on all mayors who give precedence to improving their image and reputation but not to providing pure humanitarian gestures. The promise for an exceptional quality of life in New York City is a myth and the quality of life for the homeless is the prime example of this. We truly have a long way to go before we talk so fondly of the great quality of life our city provides. Will our current mayor, Mayor Bill De Blasio be able to fix the homeless crisis and improve the cities quality of life or will his actions mirror the mayoral predecessors?

  1. Jonathan Soffer, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 282.
  2. Alex S Vitale, City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics (New York: NYU Press, 2008), 75.