Why you should care
Because well-intended laws can have unintended consequences.
This opinion piece was written by Deborah K. Padgett, a professor of social work at New York University who specializes in homelessness and mental health.
New York City has a homelessness crisis, but most of it unfolds behind closed doors.
It’s the only U.S. city with a year-round “right to shelter,” mandating that the city must find a bed for each person in need. People cannot be turned away from full shelters, and the city even rents hotel rooms to accommodate spillover.
In California, meanwhile, corporate-driven gentrification and decades of neglect have produced the perfect storm of a homelessness crisis. Unlike its East Coast counterpart, however, this epidemic isn’t as hidden. Roughly 95 percent of people experiencing homelessness in New York are sheltered compared to 25 percent in Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “point in time” (PIT) counts. Some state and local leaders in Los Angeles and Sacramento have recently called for a similar right to shelter law. But New York’s experience is a cautionary tale — not a happy ending.
New York’s experience is a cautionary tale — not a happy ending.
No locality has been more generous in funding for homeless services than New York City. The city’s Department of Homeless Services’ annual budget currently tops $3 billion, more than the gross national product of Swaziland or Laos. Where does that money go? Eighty-eight percent of the budget goes to sustain a sprawling industry of shelter providers, whether city-run or contracted to nonprofit organizations, according to the DHS. If West Coast cities follow in New York’s footsteps, the same Bureaucracy 101 outcome could ensue: “Temporary” shelters become a self-perpetuating industry with no incentive to change course.
The need for action is undeniable: Homelessness rose by 12 percent in Los Angeles County from 2018 to 2019, while New York City reached a peak of roughly 62,000 people experiencing homelessness in September 2019, according to PIT counts. City and state officials remain caught between public outcry and “not in my backyard” responses when virtually any action is taken — like having the audacity to open shelters in residential neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the existing shelter industry is thriving. Jobs are low-paid but plentiful, given the necessity for outreach workers, van drivers, cooks, security guards and janitors. Private landlords charge exorbitant rents for decrepit motel rooms the city begrudgingly pays for to keep families indoors.
What was assumed to be a temporary emergency in the 1980s has settled into a grim dystopian reality. In the late 1970s, congressional budgets authorized 500,000 additional low-income housing units annually, a commitment that perhaps could’ve prevented the crisis from exploding. But this trend was reversed by the Reagan administration after 1980.
As a result, the federal housing assistance budget fell by 59 percent between 1976 and 2002, while the Medicaid budget rose by a whopping 493 percent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Housing is easily monetized and privatized compared to other basic needs like food, clean water and sanitation, making it a target for budget-cutting and profit-making.
In this fourth decade of crisis, some compassion fatigue is understandable. But doing nothing isn’t just inhumane — it’s expensive. Repeated visits to hospitals, jails and shelters are far costlier than rental subsidies or supportive housing with needed services. One New York City shelter bed costs $117 daily for a single adult and $171 for a family — that’s $42,705 and $62,415 annually — according to the DHS. Meanwhile, the median monthly rent of a New York apartment is $2,980 — which costs $7,000 less annually than one shelter bed.
Whether they’re a fig leaf or a genuine roadblock, the wider adoption of right to shelter laws risks replacing the “right to housing” optimistically declared by the United Nations in 1948. Ample research substantiates the Housing First approach (provide housing, then supportive services), which relies on the simple premise that one cannot get healthier or address mental health issues without having a place to live. Demanding prerequisites of sobriety and upstanding citizenship — hardly true for many of us who live indoors — has proven a recipe for failure.
The ultimate balancing act? Mustering political will to maintain some emergency shelter funds while prioritizing development of low-income housing with laser-beam focus. This could mean finding creative ways to use vacant units and empty lots, changing zoning laws and returning to a pre-Reagan commitment to building public housing and expanding rental assistance.
As California leaders eye the other coast, it’s critical to understand why New York’s story is not one to emulate. It’s a tale of good intentions and generous public funding undercut by a status quo that benefits private developers, property owners and shelter providers to the detriment of the city’s poorest.
Deborah K. Padgett is a professor of social work at New York University who specializes in homelessness and mental health.