Why Is New York's Homeless Population Going Up?

New York City is often ahead of the national game in areas ranging from finance to art and culture, but unfortunately, according a report for the Coalition for the Homeless, it's also leading a national rise in homelessness. The number of people sleeping each night in shelters rose to 50,000 in 2012 the highest in nearly 30 years, and a 19% jump from the previous year. Twenty one thousand of them are children. That's a 22% jump for the children's numbers from 2011. 

It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a five-year plan for reducing the homeless population by two-thirds a cornerstone of his administration. He emphasized prevention over immediate crisis management and permanent housing over shelter. At first it worked, "Within the first year of the plan's implementation, the shelter census fell from 38,136 individuals to 33,295. Considering that the shelter population had been on a constant rise since the late 1990s, this was a meaningful improvement." Then came the 2008 financial crisis, and an increase in the homeless population every year since. 

Adminstration officials have blamed the economy for much of that rise, which is likely, at least to a point. No one could hold off the effects of a devastating economic crisis. The state's 2010 elimination of the city's Advantage program, which offered two years worth of rent subsidies for shelter residents looking to move into permanent housing, didn't help either.

However, as many advocates argue, neither did eliminating the use of federal public housing subsidies for shelter residents, a common practice pre-Bloomberg, which, according to the Coalition for the Homeless's 2013 State of the Homeless Report, would have gone a long way to mitigate the loss of the Advantage program, which some believe had too-strict, unrealistic time limits anyway. Bloomberg refused to reinstate the use of federal subsidies, even after pressure from allies like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. 

Advocates are also fuming over the Mayor's recent comments on the City's shelter admission policy, made on his weekly radio show: "You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we've got to give you shelter." He neglected to mention why anyone with access to a limosine would even entertain the thought of sleeping in a shelter. 

Tone-deaf comments aside, this problem is not solely New York's. Nationally, families in particular have become a larger portion of the homeless population, increasing 1.4% from 2011 to 2012. Boston had 1,166 homeless families in December 2012, a 7.8% jump from 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal. Washington, D.C's percentage of homeless families grew by 18%, even though the total homeless population decreased by .4%, according to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Local Governments (MWCOG) report. 

On a national level, it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will be able to tackle issue, especially while managing the effects of the sequester, which as we have noted previously, is particularly damaging for the country's poorest. As for New York, with Bloomberg nearing the end of his last term, it will be up to the next administration to determine how to tackle the homelessness problem. So far, the candidates remain quiet on the issue.

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