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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York …

Down and Out in New York City

Despite Well-Intentioned Social Policy, New York’s Homeless Problem Is Worsening

by Mitchell Duneier, Princeton University and CUNY Graduate Center, and Patrick Markee, Coalition for the Homeless

A generation of sociological study and activism on homelessness—both in its measurement and in thinking about what to do about it—has influenced public debate and initiatives on combating homelessness in New York City over the past few years. In late 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responding to calls by advocates and service providers, announced a 10-year agreement with then-Governor George Pataki to finance and develop 9,000 new units of supportive housing—subsidized permanent housing with social services—for chronically homeless people and people living with disabilities. The key idea motivating Bloomberg was to reduce the reliance on temporary shelter and to expand the supply of cost-effective supportive housing, which is an idea that many sociologists have long advocated.

Bloomberg’s initiative to build more supportive housing was part of a larger plan announced a year earlier to reduce homelessness in New York City by twothirds over five years. At that time, the City released and posted on its website detailed implementation plans with timelines and targets. Unfortunately, despite the laudable and ambitious goals outlined in the Mayor’s plan, visitors to New York City this summer will encounter a city that is falling significantly behind on its own benchmarks for the plan’s implementation. There is an all-time record number of homeless families residing in shelters as well as thousands of individuals still literally sleeping on city streets and in the subway system.

Low Wages and High Rent

One reason for rising family homelessness may be flaws in the city’s “Housing Stability Plus” program (HSP). Launched in December 2004 to replace federal Section 8 vouchers for homeless families, HSP provided declining rent subsidies to families to move them out of shelters and into permanent housing. However, the number of homeless families moved to permanent housing fell by 11% last year to 5,950, the lowest number in four years, and HSP moved fewer families in its second year of operation than in its first (4,524 families in 2005 vs. 4,033 families in 2006).

Part of the problem with the current program seems to be a 20 percent annual reduction in the rent supplement provided to formerly homeless families, and rules excluding the working poor and disabled people from the program. Indeed, under HSP rules, families in the program are prohibited from leaving welfare for work, despite the fact that their rental assistance is reduced each year. At the same time, housing costs have been skyrocketing while wages cannot keep up.

According to data collected by the Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy Survey, between 2002 and 2005 (the most recent data available), the number of apartments available at rents of less than $1,000 (in 2005 constant dollars) fell by 156,833, while the number renting for $1,400 or more grew by 63,187, an increase of almost 25 percent. Despite this evidence of worsening affordability problems confronting renters, the Bloomberg administration recently announced it will replace the HSP program with a new rent subsidy aimed at homeless families, which is limited to only one or two years—again, raising enormous concerns among advocates, service providers, and homeless families.

Counting the Homeless

The numbers of street homeless have traditionally been hard to count, with City estimates usually ending up lower than both scholarly counts and the estimates by advocates. In recent years, Professor Kim Hopper (author of the classic Reckoning With Homelessness) from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, has worked closely with the City’s Department of Homeless Services as it conducted an annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) to evaluate how well enumerators counted visible unsheltered homeless people. In 2005, he placed live decoys (or plants) at 59 street and subway sites that were slated to be canvassed by City teams as they made their official count. That year 30.5 percent of his decoys were not counted by the City teams, leading the City, after some negotiation over what should be counted as misses, to adjust its estimate by 22 percent. Using the same technique the next year, about 3,843 people were estimated to be living on the street in 2006, 13 percent fewer than the year before. In 2007, the decoy method was taken over by Professor Julian Teitler of the Columbia University School of Social Work, who found that more decoys were missed than the previous year. The 2007 City estimate claimed a 2 percent decline in street homelessness from the previous year but a significant increase in the number of homeless people sleeping in the subway system.

The Invisible Homeless

Advocates argued that the City’s HOPE count significantly undercounts the street homelessness. They pointed to a report of findings from interviews with homeless people immediately after the 2005 count, directed by Professor Marybeth Shinn, New York University. The report indicated that two-thirds of homeless people in the outer boroughs and upwards of half in Manhattan were living in locations that were defined as outside the field of observation (i.e., not part of the frame of “visible on the street”) and therefore cannot be estimated by statistical adjustments.

Why has street homelessness in New York City remained a persistent problem? One major reason is that, despite the Bloomberg administration’s embrace of supportive housing and particularly the “housing first” model—moving the street homeless directly into subsidized apartments where they can obtain social services and treatment—investments in supportive housing for the street homeless have fallen behind the ambitions, and certainly well behind the need.

So for those who visit this summer, street homelessness will remain a fixture of the City’s life. The question that can only be answered over time is whether Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment of resources has merely co-opted the rhetoric of a generation of scholars and activists, or is in fact a true demonstration of a political will necessary to conquer chronic homelessness.

Mitchell Duneier’s new ethnographic film, Sidewalk, will premier at the ASA meetings in New York City, with commentaries by Cornel West, Kim Hopper, and Jeremy Waldron. Patrick Markee has edited three editions of the acclaimed Coalition for the Homeless Resource Guide of New York City.