Maria T. Walles, 49, will never forget the years she spent worrying about where she and her family would sleep on any given night in New York City.
Sometimes Walles, her husband, and her 3-year-old daughter stayed in a family shelter. Sometimes they were denied. On those nights, they’d have to leave her toddler daughter with a friend or family member, then split up to go to separate women’s and men’s shelters.
Then there were cases when even that wasn’t an option.
“We did the streets for a while. We slept in the station. I’ll never forget the time we slept in Penn station, they tried to kick us out,” Walles told The Daily Beast. “We took the trains, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.”
Some of Walles’ longest nights trying to find a place to sleep in America’s largest city came when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. Now she’s bristling at the billionaire running for president as a benign, socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democrat who got things done. That’s because, during his tenure, Bloomberg presided over an extreme rise in homelessness, including family and child homelessness. When he left office, there were over 50,000 people in NYC shelters, a jump of 69 percent since the start of his first term in 2002, according to the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless.
During that same period, wealth in the city—and real estate prices—rose exponentially, prompting Bloomberg to celebrate the city’s lack of housing as a sign of success even as inequality skyrocketed.
Bloomberg inherited a large homeless population, and his successor Bill de Blasio—himself a short-lived 2020 contender—has failed to reverse these trends, despite running hard against “a tale of two cities” in 2013. Today, an estimated one in 10 students in the city is homeless. According to the Coalition, as of December, there were 62,590 people, including 22,013 kids, sleeping in shelters. And people of color are disproportionately affected, they found, with 57 percent of heads of households in shelters African-American, 32 percent Latino, and just 7 percent white.
But to many homeless people and their advocates, Bloomberg’s 12-year reign over New York represented a descent into new lows when it came to housing policies that favored the rich and left the homeless—many of them people of color—out to dry.
“There’s been a lot of media attention given to Michael Bloomberg’s racist policing practices like stop-and-frisk,” Kiana Davis, a policy analyst at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project, told The Daily Beast. “But I think it's really worth noting that the racist practices also extended to his policies on homelessness and housing.”
When asked to comment for this story, a spokeswoman for the Bloomberg presidential campaign actually disputed that homelessness rose during his three mayoral terms. “While Mike was mayor of New York, he initiated programs that helped to reduce homelessness by 28 percent,” she wrote. “Under his leadership, services supporting the homeless increased and numerous programs were created to ensure at-risk individuals received the appropriate care. Throughout his time in office funding for these programs increased dramatically and, in his last mayoral budget, Mike increased the budget for homeless and poverty programs to ensure these vulnerable New Yorkers would continue to be cared for.”
The 28 percent figure may refer to a count of people sleeping outside on a single night by a task force created by the mayor. Advocates say it’s a limited and inaccurate measure of homelessness rates that wouldn’t include, say, someone sitting in a McDonald’s or crashing in an abandoned building.
If Bloomberg is obscuring the reality of homelessness now, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2013, the then-mayor said “nobody’s sleeping on the streets” when, in fact, 3,200 people were, City and State reported.
In 2020, Boomberg seems aware of the vulnerabilities he has on this front. As a presidential candidate, he has put together a platform that would be an improvement to the status quo, according to Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst with The Community Service Society, a progressive economic think tank. But he noted it tends to be short on numbers.
“It would be better than past federal housing policy. He says he would extend Section 8 vouchers [a major federal government program to help people obtain their own homes], a huge improvement,” Waters explained. “He proposes to increase a lot of the other funding streams for affordable housing.”
Still, Davis of the Urban Justice Center argued, while Bloomberg’s plan may look fine on paper, the former mayor also promised to lower homelessness in the city at the start of his first term. Instead, “we saw a lot of gentrification under Bloomberg and a lack of policy addressing its impact,” she said.
Towards the end of Bloomberg’s third and final term, The New York Times published a blockbuster series called “Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life” about a black girl who lived in a Brooklyn shelter under terrible conditions. Asked to comment, the then-mayor had this to say: “This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.”
But almost across the board, advocates for the homeless and people who experienced it personally point to a series of policy choices that contributed to skyrocketing rates of homelessness under Bloomberg. In other words, something other than divine intervention.
“I feel like the mayor didn’t do his job,” Walles said. “He was all about the money. He made homelessness worse.”
Bloomberg didn’t ignore homelessness outright. In 2004, in fact, the mayor launched a five-year-plan to combat the problem. But although the plan generated some early successes, the administration decided to end a policy that helped homeless families obtain Section 8 vouchers and access to the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) affordable apartments, programs advocates said were proven to reduce homelessness.
It turned out the politicians running New York were worried people would pretend to be homeless to get public housing benefits.
“They started to make a case that there were people coming into shelter because they believed they could get these subsidies. If we eliminate access to these subsidies, then we’d reduce the shelter population,” Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, told The Daily Beast. “They had no evidence for that. They've never shown any data to support this claim.”
Davis suggested the thinking echoed the Welfare Queen trope, a myth popularized by Republicans that insinuates poor black people game the public benefits system. “This false idea that people were going into the shelter specifically to get priority access to subsidies—that's been proven to be a racist policy,” she said.
The administration rolled out its own temporary housing vouchers instead, finally landing on the Advantage program, which helped poor Americans with their rent—but only for two years.
Once their Advantage voucher expired, families were left in the same boat: unable to afford rent in the swiftly gentrifying city. But it was better than nothing.
Then, in 2011, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo cut state funding for Advantage and, instead of using city funds or his own fortune to make up the difference, Bloomberg just axed the vouchers without a replacement, sending an estimated 8,500 Advantage families back to the shelter system. “Due to the inability of both of these people [Cuomo and Bloomberg] to act like adults, they just killed the program outright,” Goldfein said. “So now we had no housing subsidy.”
Looming over Bloomberg’s larger approach to the problem is that New York’s city government was legally obligated to provide shelter thanks to the 1979 Callahan v. Carey State Supreme Court ruling.
But Bloomberg officials sought to have that precedent effectively reversed, or at least neutered, in court. Meanwhile, the city increasingly relied on cluster site shelters, which put the homeless in private apartments the city paid for—a potential boon to negligent or abusive landlords. They also upped the hoops families had to go through to obtain shelter, forcing them to prove they were truly homeless.
“I’d have nowhere to go. I had so much proof. Soup kitchen, they saw me every day. They wanted more freaking proof,” Walles recalled.
It might seem obvious that a billionaire businessman has no idea what life is like for people without homes. But just in case there was any doubt, Bloomberg spent his third term routinely issuing statements that made advocates’ heads spin. In 2012, he argued that more people were staying in shelters because the experience was more “pleasurable” than in the past.
Sixty-one-year-old Philip Malebranche, a Haitian-American who’s been homeless for almost two decades, voted for Bloomberg and still looks fondly at the former mayor’s efforts to curb gun violence. Yet he also recalls being heart-broken when he heard Bloomberg on the radio explaining away homelessness. "You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine... and walk in the door and we've got to give you shelter," Bloomberg said in 2013.
Suffice it to say that has not been Malebranche’s experience.
He mostly stayed out of trouble at the notoriously violent men’s shelters, he recalled to the Daily Beast, specifically by not talking and keeping to himself. Still, once a pack of kids in the park beat him up until he started to see stars, he said. He appreciates the beds he’s gotten over the years, but there were also days and nights he’d have to stay in a drop-in center where there were no beds.
“I’d get leg infections—cellulitis, the usual affliction that people who don't get circulation get. If I don’t have a bed, the swelling would return and the circulation problems flare up. It's a continual health issue,” he said.
Walles said she was evicted from an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Broolyn in 2012 after her Advantage subsidy ran out.
“I took it so hard. I didn't want to go back to the shelter,” she said.
If the mayor’s alleged shortcomings in New York are well-documented, it’s not just homeless people and their advocates in his home city who are irate at the idea of Bloomberg representing the ostensible party of the working class in November.
Paul Boden was homeless in New York’s Alphabet City when he was younger, but now works for the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), an anti-poverty advocacy group in California. He summed up Bloomberg’s approach to the poor this way: “He was a stop and frisk motherfucker. That brutalized homeless people,” he told The Daily Beast, adding, “The police scatter people around because it scares the condo fuckers.”
Bloomberg apologized for his years-long embrace of stop and frisk policing right before he ran for president, and has echoed that apology on the campaign trail. "I defended it, looking back, for too long because I didn’t understand then the unintended pain it was causing to young black and brown families and their kids,” he said earlier this month. “I should have acted sooner and faster to stop it. I didn't, and for that I apologize."
But for Walles—who attributed her past housing problems in no small part to the former mayor being indifferent to the poor—it was too little, too late.
“I voted for him.... I thought he was going to do something,” Walles told The Daily Beast. “Years later, after broken windows, after stop and frisk.... That’s what he was all about: discrimination, discrimination, discrimination.”
She added, “Hell no, I’m not voting for you.”