‘The Honest Goal’

Bill de Blasio’s Big Homelessness Problem

It’s a problem that speaks to the mayor’s management, and to the general sense of life in the city, which the mayor’s election-year opponents are seizing upon.


Brendan McDermid/Reuters

“I own it,” Bill de Blasio said at the end of last year about New York’s homelessness crisis, as more than 60,000 people, a third of them children, now live in shelters or on the street.

The candidates running for mayor against him this year agree. They pounced last week when data revealed by Politico New York showed a large jump in street homelessness. That data, via the annual one-night HOPE Count, can be questioned, which de Blasio has, but even while doing so the mayor admitted Monday night that street homelessness is “a real problem…a growing problem.”

De Blasio argues, though, that he has programs in place—rental subsidies, eviction protection efforts, and street outreach teams, for example—that are working, but need more time and fine-tuning. The mayor and his aides say that the billions of additional dollars and new programs they’ve put into place have kept homelessness from reaching a projected 70,000 as they’ve moved tens of thousands of people out of shelters and into stable housing and helped spare tens of thousands more from displacement even as entries to the system have matched and at times outpaced those efforts.

In short, homelessness is both de Blasio’s single largest policy failure as mayor and, therefore, a critical election year vulnerability.

Like most elected officials, de Blasio is reticent to admit failure, but his inability to more successfully address the city’s homelessness crisis was so clear that this February, at the beginning of an election year, he announced a new homelessness-fighting approach that includes opening 90 new shelters across the city, albeit while ending the use of other facilities, like commercial hotels. Even that implicit acknowledgment that his previous effort had fallen short though, was widely criticized as he set a too-modest goal of reducing the city’s homeless population to 57,500 people over five years.

“We will reduce the number of people in shelter by 2,500 people by the end of 2021,” de Blasio said in February. “Is it a gloryful goal? Is it everything we want it to be? No. It’s the honest goal. We want to surpass it, and…we aim to surpass it. But this is what we can tell the people of New York City can be done and can be sustained.”

And that reboot came less than a year after he announced in April of 2016 the results of a 90-day review of the city’s homelessness policies de Blasio ordered after he removed his commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services. All the messy machinations around homelessness show de Blasio has struggled to reverse the dynamics he seized upon four years ago when he ran for mayor largely against the lopsidedness of the Bloomberg-era boom.

Even as he’s made progress on other fronts, 58,160 people slept in city homeless shelters July 6—22,078 of them children—with somewhere around 3,000 more on the streets. Overall, the 60,000-plus census is up from around 53,000 when de Blasio replaced Bloomberg in City Hall.

That de Blasio rightly points out homelessness was growing rapidly when he took office, accelerated by the 2011 cancellation of a joint state-city rent subsidy program, is of little comfort to New Yorkers.

A May Quinnipiac poll showed that “voters disapprove 48—41 percent of the way de Blasio is handling poverty and homelessness” and “a total of 93 percent of New Yorkers say homelessness is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem.”

Few New Yorkers will go to the polls as single-issue voters on homelessness, but it’s a problem that speaks to the mayor’s management, and to the general sense of life in the city, which the mayor’s election year opponents are seizing upon.

The mayor’s likely Republican opponent in the race, state Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, has sharply called the homelessness crisis “a bureaucratic failure and a national disgrace that Bill de Blasio personally helped create,” though she did not offer particularly innovative alternatives to what the city is currently doing.

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To his credit, de Blasio put forth his new shelter-siting plan, admitting it would not be “politically popular,” but arguing that more local shelters would help people becoming homeless stay connected to their communities and have a better chance at more quickly re-entering stable housing. Yet, the mayor foolishly allowed “90 new shelters” to become the headline of the plan, provoking significant local backlash.

The term “quality of life” gets tossed around a lot in New York City politics. On homelessness, it usually means that many people hate seeing a homeless person lying on the sidewalk or asking for money. That’s not typically de Blasio’s lens, though in an all-too-common example of tone deafness, the mayor recently said he wished panhandling was illegal. Tellingly, de Blasio announced his street homelessness outreach program, Home-Stat, at a breakfast event of the tony Association for a Better New York, in front of city business leaders longing for a more Giuliani-esque approach.

De Blasio is on point when he names the devastating combination of skyrocketing rents, stagnant wages, loss of rent-stabilized housing, unscrupulous landlords, lack of affordable housing, and missing-in-action state and federal “partners.” (Not to mention New York City’s unique “right to shelter,” which mandates anyone in need of a bed a place to sleep provided by the city, with few exceptions.)

The Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group and service-providing nonprofit, puts it well on its website: “The fundamental cause of homelessness is the widening housing affordability gap. In New York City, that gap has widened significantly over the past decades, which have seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable rental housing. At the same time that housing affordability has worsened, government at every level has cut back on already-inadequate housing assistance for low-income people and has reduced investments in building and preserving affordable housing.”

The mayor has taken action to address each of the legs of the homelessness problem, but there are limits to what he can do without more state and federal help. Yet, there is also room to question whether his programs have been managed well, whether he was slow to identify the growing crisis under his watch and act more robustly, and whether someone else could have earned more buy-in from those at other levels of government. There’s currently a bill pending in Albany that would significantly increase state rental subsidies for those facing homelessness. De Blasio is supportive, but it did not pass in the legislative session that recently ended.

The mayor’s main homelessness czar is Steven Banks, now the social services commissioner and previously the Legal Aid attorney whose efforts helped win that right to shelter. Banks told The Daily Beast that the three essential elements of fighting homelessness are “a combination of prevention services, efforts to provide decent shelter, and permanent housing” and that in decades working on the issue he hadn’t “found a mayor until this one that has invested in the kind of resources needed.”

“I’m as impatient as anybody,” Banks said in an interview, but “breaking the trajectory [of increasing homelessness] itself was a significant achievement,” and “three and a half years in, there are signs of progress and signs of much more we need to do.”

Banks pointed to larger economic factors, an urban homelessness crisis across the country, and failures from past city administrations, limited state help, and a missing federal presence in the fight.

National tides aside, be Blasio’s efforts here simply haven’t matched the scale of the problem, and his promises for the years ahead are underwhelming.

But while homelessness has been both a major cause for concern to anyone who cares about the people involved and a sharp thorn in de Blasio’s political side, that same Quinnipiac poll from May showed the incumbent mayor with “a 60—34 percent job approval rating, his highest score ever.

Ben Max is the editor of Gotham Gazette.