The Partnership for the Homeless

Shelter: The wrong answer to the crisis

Arnold's latest piece as seen in the NY Daily News

As I listened last week to Mayor de Blasio unveil his plan to open 90 new homeless shelters, I thought I was experiencing déjà vu all over again. Once again, homelessness is on the rise. Once again, community residents where shelters will be located are gearing up for a fight. Once again, a contrite mayor is wringing his hands over having no other alternatives.

“There’s just no affordable housing for New Yorkers in need,” de Blasio bemoaned in an attempt to muffle the anticipated clamor.

The mayor certainly identified a core part of the problem. And though fingers can be pointed at the failure of previous administrations to grapple with that reality, another culprit may come from an unlikely source: the legal right to shelter, from which our sprawling shelter system steadily grows.

Or more to the point, how our city responded, and continues to respond, to the establishment of that right.

A lawsuit with the city and the state resolved in 1979 gave birth to a right here in New York, unique among American cities, for individuals to have a place to stay. That right was later extended to families.

Back at the time it was established, when so many people suddenly began appearing on our doorsteps and streets, and in our parks and subways, that right was an important breakthrough. Requiring government to provide emergency shelter was the humane thing to do, especially when the problem was thought to be a short-term crisis that would soon be solved with a robust affordable housing effort.

History, however, proved everyone wrong. Nearly four decades later, we have a mammoth shelter system that warehouses more than 60,000 people every night, for which we have the pleasure of paying over $1 billion, a price tag that increases every year.

Looking back, instead of tackling our city’s housing problem, every administration focused on the quick fix of building shelters in a vain attempt to put a lid on the ever-growing problem — and avoid being held in contempt of the settlement.

And contempt proceedings became the ritual dance between the city and advocates when there weren’t enough shelter beds to let people in. This legal sledgehammer allowed both parties to collude together, albeit unintentionally, taking everyone off course and rendering shelter the centerpiece rather than an adjunct to address short-term emergency needs.

Making matters worse, the fixation with shelter spawned an entrenched industry intent on perpetuating itself. With millions at stake, shelter providers fueled our continued dependence on them, insidiously couching their self-interest in outmoded social service theory that shelter is necessary because homeless people are not “housing ready.”

Let’s be honest, shelters are not desirable for any neighborhood. They’re especially not for those who find themselves with no other choice but to call a shelter home. Shelters are usually poorly run and allowed to fall into decrepit condition — and they’re a poor substitute for our city’s mental health and other social support systems.

What’s more, it’s now beyond dispute that housing, not shelter, is the critical first step to solving homelessness. Research confirms that housing is central to success, debunking old notions of readiness, even for those who are struggling with significant mental health issues or drug and alcohol use.

I hope, with such a dismal outlook, we have finally reached a tipping point for change. That we can begin to end our reliance on shelter, moving individuals and families into permanent housing through expanded rent-subsidy programs, and then use the money saved, along with other creative revenue streams, to both preserve and build affordable housing.

Surely, if we don’t dramatically shift the paradigm, we’re bound to be trudging down the same path — or uphill like Sisyphus — for the foreseeable future, spending enormous tax dollars on shelter and other stop-gap measures that solve nothing. We’ll continue to see mayors, with little in their toolkit, tinkering around the edges of an already fundamentally flawed homeless services system.

And we’ll see children, who are languishing in shelters today, grow into adulthood, still unable to find a home of their own, pitted against community residents railing at city administrators for trying to build a shelter in their backyard.