Gimme Shelter

TomPaine.com
Aug 26, 2003

Gimme Shelter

by Kathryn Lewis

Among those commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 civil rights march this past weekend was a group of advocates for the poor and homeless. They were observing the anniversary of another event spurred by King’s vision: the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. During the last two years of his life, King rallied around the problems facing poor Americans, and the marchers who came to Washington, D.C. last weekend sought to remind people of that struggle.

“What we hope to do is draw attention to the real terrorism in America, which is that we have men, women and children going hungry, people without health care and people left without any place to live,” said Cheri Honkala, director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which organized the march. Children and families make up one-third of the homeless.

Looking at New York City, there’s little question that Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign remains unfinished. It’s hard not to pay attention to the scores of homeless people asleep on the park benches, subway cars and streets. The city's homeless population has reached record highs. And just this month, the National Coalition for the Homeless rated New York the third “meanest city” in the country for its treatment of people experiencing homelessness.

As the number of homeless people rises across the country, the National Coalition found that cities are increasingly responding by criminalizing homelessness, passing ordinances, for example, that forbid sleeping in public. Shortly after taking office, Mayor Bloomberg held a joint press conference with the police commissioner announcing a list of “seven deadly sins” the administration would be targeting. In a list that included actual crimes like unlicensed street vendors and drug dealing, one “sin” stood out starkly: homelessness.

This year, more than 3 million Americans will find themselves without a roof over their heads. Of these, a third are children and families. What's known as the 'chronic homeless' — adults who return to shelters time and again because of mental illness or substance abuse — now make up only 10 percent of the nation's homeless population. The National Coalition for the Homeless links the increase in homelessness to the slumping economy and the shrinking stock of affordable housing. The U.S. Conference of Mayors recently released a report that also points to the housing shortage as the primary cause of homelessness in our nation. With the highest unemployment rates in almost a decade, more people are becoming homeless, and as the economy continues to tighten, shelters and other services that serve these people are in financial crisis.

In New York, one in six families living under the federal poverty level (for a family of four that's $18,100 a year) resides in public housing. Nationally, fewer than 30 percent of those eligible for low-income housing find it. Like most American cities, New York suffers from high rents, a housing shortage and a homeless population that is second only to Los Angeles.

But unlike every other American city, New York is legally bound to provide shelter to the homeless. This policy was codified in 1979, but advocates claim Mayor Bloomberg is jeopardizing it. Early in 2003, Bloomberg’s administration pushed forward a Giuliani-era policy (blocked by court orders in 2000) which would grant the city the right to kick homeless adults out of shelters for breaking safety and social service rules. Patrick Markee, an advocate for the homeless in the city, says if the plan is implemented, it would result in "more homeless people sleeping on the streets and ultimately more deaths."

The U.S. Conference of Mayors recently released a report that also points to the housing shortage as the primary cause of homelessness in our nation.

Many American cities do leave the homeless out in the cold. In 2002, close to 40 percent of emergency shelter requests were denied nationwide. While it's admirable that New York finds housing for the homeless, the city's approach is far from ideal. Because the focus here is on providing emergency shelter, little effort goes to finding long-term strategies to deal with the problem.

Markee characterizes the city’s response to homelessness as a "band-aid approach." For example, in a program called "scattered-site housing," the city pays private landlords to temporarily house homeless families. New York pays roughly $3,000 a month for shelter for a single family — at a cost of about $65 million annually. And because there is such demand for shelter, the city has failed to bring all buildings up to code, leading to numerous lawsuits. Considering the dramatic increase in homelessness and the legal obligation to provide housing, the city’s acceptance of such stopgap measures is not surprising.

While the Bloomberg administration far surpasses its predecessor in investing in affordable housing, the dimensions of the housing shortage remain staggering. Last year, the mayor released a plan to build and rehabilitate 60,000 units of middle and low-income housing. Some units will be saved for the homeless, but the plan falls short for the city’s most needy residents, according to Markee. Despite the housing shortage, the mayor’s proposed budget for 2004 cuts existing housing programs significantly and calls for eliminating a third of city shelter cleaning and maintenance staffs. And in early May, the Rent Guidelines Board tentatively approved a dramatic rent increase for New York’s one million rent-stabilized apartments. It's the greatest increase since 1989, raising rents 5.5 percent for one-year leases and 8.5 percent for two-year leases, up from 2 and 4 percent increases last year.

On the federal level things are not so rosy, and there's little evidence that a permanent solution is coming soon. The housing budget has been cut by more than 70 percent in the past two decades. Worse still, the Bush budget for 2004 actually cuts funding for housing programs to a whopping 37 percent of what it was in 1976. However, a Democratic member of Congress from Indiana, Julia Carson, offered some hope in July when she introduced the “Bringing America Home Act,” a bill that could remedy these cuts.

Looking at New York City, there’s little question that Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign remains unfinished. So what can be learned from New York? Since Bloomberg began his term, arrests of homeless people for minor violations have increased 300 percent. But the homeless are still there. Making homelessness illegal is not a solution. The city is doing something right by not turning homeless people away from shelters when they reach capacity. But the fact that $65 million was spent last year on emergency shelter when funds are desperately needed for permanent housing points to a systemic flaw in how homelessness is handled nationwide. Too many resources are wasted on temporary measures that merely tide people over or worse, punish them, and not enough go toward meaningful long-term solutions. Until we start investing more to help people out of homelessness, we are far from fulfilling Dr. King’s dream of economic human rights for all.

Kathryn Lewis is a freelance writer in New York City

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