Homeless for the Holidays: Record Number of Adults, Children Without Homes in NYC

The number of homeless people in New York City is the highest in history, according to a new report published Wednesday by the Coalition for the Homeless, with the report coming just in time to highlight the fate of the City's many families ahead of the holiday season.

There are now more than 41,000 homeless adults and children sleeping in New York City shelters every night, the report says. It is the first time ever that the shelter population has exceeded 40,000. Homeless children and families are also staying longer in the expensive shelter system, the organization found.

Among the report's most disturbing findings is the fact that nearly 17,000 children are currently sleeping in municipal shelters. Since May alone that number has increased by 10 percent, the researchers said. Given that the holiday season is fast approaching, many families are likely to spend nights surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas on the street.

The Coalition for the Homeless, which is the nation's oldest advocacy group aimed at helping the homeless, blames the situation on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his policies which, the group claims, lead to terminating city subsidized housing programs and to an increase in homelessness.

"As detailed in our State of the Homeless 2011 report, Mayor Bloomberg's experiments with flawed time-limited subsidy programs like the Advantage program have forced thousands of formerly-homeless children and families back into the shelter system and homelessness," Patrick Markee, the coalition's Senior Policy Analyst said in a statement published Wednesday.

Also in the statement, the organization called on the City to return to "the successful policies of previous New York City mayors of targeting 'one in three' Federal housing resources to homeless New Yorkers" and "the successful policy of targeting a significant share of City-assisted housing units to homeless families and individuals."

Advantage was a program providing government-subsidized, low-rent housing solutions to people struggling financially, in order to keep them from the streets (it is not a fully funded federal program). The program, designed by the Bloomberg administration and implemented in 2007, was terminated by court order on Sept. 13, due to state government cuts in funding.

"With the recent elimination of the City's only rental subsidy for shelter clients, DHS (Department of Homeless Services) remains focused on upholding prevention services as a cornerstone of agency ideals," Seth Diamond, commissioner of the city's Department of Homeless Services (DHS) said at the time. "Shelter should only be utilized as a last resort, and we want everyone to know that the termination of Advantage is not an automatic termination of their lease."

A note on the DHS website currently states: "The final State Budget withdraws all federal and state support for the program which terminates the City’s authority and fiscal ability to run the Advantage program. The City strongly disagrees with the State’s decision."

But the Coalition for the Homeless complains that the mayor's administration did not offer a proper alternative solution to the program. The group advocates "proven Federal housing programs" as the best solution, and is skeptical of Bloomberg's ideas.

In addition, the City declared on Nov. 4 that it will no longer allow single adults into homeless shelters unless they demonstrate they have no other housing options.

The mayor's office reportedly strongly defended on Tuesday its approach to the problem of homelessness. However, it acknowledged its problematic nature, The Wall Street Journal, which contacted City Hall, reported Wendesday.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told the WSJ she believes the policy of selecting homeless adults qualifying for shelter will limit their access to those establishments.

"Rather than telling people in need of housing to stay away, to truly reduce the homeless population we need proactive solutions such as restoring priority for the homeless for federal housing subsidies," she told WSJ.

Bloomberg reportedly said earlier this year that he believes the shelter system to be "infinitely better" than it was when he took office in January 2002. But the coalition's report states something quite different.

The number of homeless children and families in New York City had continued to rise dramatically since the spring when Bloomberg "eliminated" housing assistance programs, the report states, adding that, since May, the number of homeless families in shelters has increased by more than 5 percent.

"The total homeless shelter population is 33 percent higher than when Mayor Bloomberg took office, and the number of homeless families is 45 percent higher than when the Mayor took office," Markee wrote in the statement.

In the seven years between 1999 and 2005, before the Bloomberg administration took office, the City used federal housing programs to help families move from shelters to permanent housing, Markee said. During that time, as the report indicates, an average of 25 percent of all families entering the municipal shelter system had been homeless in the past. But in 2011, an average of 49 percent of all such families had.

"Unlike previous New York City mayors from Ed Koch through Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Bloomberg refuses to use proven and cost-effective Federal housing programs to move homeless families from shelters to stable homes," Markee stated in April. "Instead, for more than six years the Bloomberg administration has replaced proven Federal programs with a series of untested, time-limited subsidies like the recently-terminated Advantage program."

Bloomberg is currently promoting a plan aiming to solve the problem of housing for low income families called The New Housing Marketplace.

The program plan's summary states: "As part of this extended plan, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) will pioneer new tools and incentives to create affordable housing. These new strategies are part of our larger goal to shift the focus of New York’s affordable housing community from preserving the properties taken into city ownership through tax foreclosure, to developing unprecedented levels of new affordable housing."

The Bloomberg administration has just announced Monday the beginning of construction of the largest, so far, housing project that is part of this plan.