The Partnership for the Homeless

Déjà vu All Over Again

A response to the NYT Editorial, "Seceding From the Homeless Crisis"

As I opened the New York Times and read its October 11th editorial about opposition to a homeless shelter being located in Maspeth, Queens, I thought I was experiencing déjà vu all over again. Was I reading an editorial published from another time, not just years ago but decades past.
Once again, we find community residents up-in-arms over another shelter being placed in their neighborhood, with a contrite, well-intentioned city official wringing his hands over having little or no other alternatives.
How long will we have to endure the conflict that foments between “NIMBYism” and “carrying your fair share?”  How long will we have to battle over where to place homeless New Yorkers, who have done nothing more than to be terribly poor and struggling in this unaffordable city?
Yes, shelters are not desirable for any neighborhood, and they’re especially not for those who have no choice but to call a shelter home. They’re usually poorly run and allowed to fall into decrepit condition.  In many ways, they’ve become the shame of our city.
Perhaps though, as a start, the solution lies with us.
Let’s begin by dispensing with the ugly rhetoric and instead offer the city administration some breathing space from our own angst so there can truly be real long-term planning.  Undoubtedly, it’ll require a dramatic shift from where we are today, understanding the problem through the lens of the larger antipoverty struggle, rather than the myopia of crisis thinking, which historically seems to have a strangle-hold on city policy.
Of course, the transition won’t be easy or smooth or quick. In all likelihood it won’t be accomplished during the mayor’s term in office. But a shift in approach, where we work over the long-haul, offers us a chance to lay the foundation for future success by finally confronting some very large structural issues – centering on the lack of decent and affordable housing, inadequate access to quality physical and mental health care, and the dearth of economic opportunities - that have been neglected for decades, and conspire, perhaps inadvertently, to perpetuate the problem.
Certainly, the issues at stake are much more challenging to solve than those small measures that ease the burden, over the short-term, on the city’s shelter system. But, with the opportunity to take a step back from the fray, the mayor and his administration may be able to set the stage by developing a long-term plan with the support and collaboration across many levels of the public and private sectors, including businesses, local public officials, civic leadership and other community stakeholders, and especially with the state and federal governments.
Perhaps as important, though, success will also depend on a far greater expression of collective will from us, the public, than we’ve shown to date. Without it, we just may never see an end to the sad ritual playing out in Queens.  
Arnold S. Cohen
President & CEO