Inching Toward Safer Homeless Shelters

Mar 19, 2016 · 40 comments
Fredda Weinberg (Brooklyn)
Utopians see the world as they want it to be. I studied the possible and sad to say, if we built an attractive system, more will come. Even the author mentioned how he came here and utilized our flophouses, which certainly were no delight to the neighborhood.

I've read of colonies of homeless in warmer states, so while our weather is a challenge, it also keeps the number of unprepared immigrants relatively low. I speak as someone who was born and raised in East Flatbush, a challenge itself, who spent two weeks in a single room occupancy hotel in 1978.

As an example, I knew a young man who didn't want to fit into our system and had the tattoos to prove it. After spending one night in a shelter, he reconciled with his father and moved to Nevada. Can you not consider that the best possible outcome? What if he had found the shelter pleasant? Would he have any incentive to improve his situation?
maryann (detroit)
My schizophrenic patients would often refuse shelters, even walked away when sent there by cab in the worst of winter. They would never tell me why, but I knew they had to be awfully bad to leave with snow drifts and freezing temperatures outside. I finally learned how the mentally ill were often the most victimized. Clothing or meager possessions stolen, robbed of a bus pass or a few dollars. You know a civilization by how it treats those most in need.
Zejee (New York)
Politicians will try anything -- except HOMES for the homeless.
Rick in Iowa (Cedar Rapids)
I think we are asking the wrong question. The question should be, why does the richest nation in history, on earth, have such a large, growing population of homeless?
John Smith (NY)
How about relocating the homeless to less expensive states? No one has the Constitutional right to live near Central Park (although rent control/stabilized tenants believe so). NYC can bus the homeless down to say, South Carolina where they can live in trailer parks. The homeless will have a safe, warm place to live, NYC would save a ton of money and South Carolina would get rental income from these new residents. And if the "homeless" don't like their digs they can always get a job, get off the public dole and move back.
Zejee (New York)
They always get a job? Really? I know in my borough -- the Bronx -- there once were lots of factory jobs. NAFTA killed that. (Thanks Hillary.)
WmC (Bokeelia, FL)
What most people fail to realize---including many of those leaving comments here---is that society actually saves money by providing shelter for the homeless.
"The average public cost for impaired homeless adults decreases 79 percent when housed, from a monthly average of $2,897 to $605."
M. (Seattle, WA)
More taxpayer dollars wasted.
JillM (NYC)
I do not believe there is a way to drive down the costs for homelessness when 1) there is not enough housing, affordable or otherwise; 2) a good portion of the current affordable housing needs repair; and 3) the powers that be believe safety = security be they police officers or private.
A security guard/police officer cannot defend against domestic violence. They can remove the offender after the fact. To be cynical, the program used to work as victims of domestic abuse rise to the top of the list for housing. What better proof than at a city facility. Most likely, though is domestic abuse is basically as humans, we often hurt the ones we love the most.
Social workers sound nice for shelters, however, what can they accomplish for a person who is already in a homeless shelter due to no place to live due to a lack of funds? What can they do for a person having addictions or mental health problems when there are a lack of inpatient and outpatient programs to help them?
I am not sure why everyone is harping on Cuomo's cuts. As a NYC'er, the money to pay for this will come from my taxes, regardless of them being city taxes or state taxes.
NYC officials and NY officials would do well to think before acting. For some reason they just never see the big picture or consequences down the road when they are looking to preserve the "rights" of the "down-trodden" .
David Gottfried (New York City)
I commend the editorial for noting that much of the problem is attributable to the faults of our governor, Mr. Andrew Cuomo. He labors mightily to project an image of undiluted liberalism and concern for the poor. Indeed, our airwaves are periodically bombarded with advertisements featuring Cuomo's booming voice proclaiming that more must be done for the dispossessed and poor. And, while he purports to care about the disadvantaged, he wields an ax toward programs designed to ease economic and social misery. He is, in a word, the consummate phony rich liberal. Of course, his kind is very much in vogue these days as a woman who is showered with money from Goldman Sachs pretends to care deeply for the poor and expects the coronation of a gullible, slavish Democratic Party.
Feel the Bern.
Rick in Iowa (Cedar Rapids)
When you said a woman from Goldman Sachs, you surprised me with a "right" turn when you said Hillary Clinton instead of Ted Cruz's wife.
Zejee (New York)
I think the Clintons have amassed more than 6 million dollars from Goldman Sachs in just few years. I don´t think Ted Cruz´s wife has been so fortunate.
John (New Jersey)
Since the dawn of mankind, the govt have been "inching toward safer homeless shelters".

And they've been inching towards "safe and affordable public housing".

And every endless years of failure, you STILL advocate it?
Zejee (New York)
Yes. Everyone should have shelter. Everyone. This is the richest nation the world has ever seen.
JulieB (NYC)
I hate to sound like the ultimate pessimist, but this problem is so widespread and of such a huge scale, with multiple impossible-to-solve root causes. It cannot be vanquished. It feeds on itself and grows daily. Using our valuable NYPD to maintain order is an incredible drain on the safety of other citizens.
manfred marcus (Bolivia)
Homelessness is a awful blot on us, redeemable only by providing adequate housing. But this is easier said than done, as it is not only an economic problem, as described. The mental health issue, coupled with drug abuse/addiction/trafficking, is enormously difficult to resolve. How do we guarantee safety in shelters, beyond the temporary provision of 'bed and breakfast' and a shower and a medical check, etc? Security that may include a TSA-like check so no weapons are introduced into a shelter, and potentially used to extort, even kill, others, may be of the essence. Still, how does one select out those with a criminal record? Permanent audiovisual vigilance in real time could help, but it may be objected if a minimum of privacy is sought. Should shelters be privatized, so they are more efficient? Or a combined public-private enterprise drawing the best of both worlds? Who will provide the necessary funds so homelessness becomes rare, and visits to the ER negligible? Cuomo's stance without providing the financial support sounds hypocritical, even if a personal vendetta with de Blasio is defused. Poverty, and violence, may be a relatively new phenomenon in a rich society that pretends to be inclusive on paper...but without walking the talk. Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest link (in the chain of events), and we shall be judged by how we treat the least among us. So, for now, the homeless strives to staying away from shelters. Very sad!
John Smith (Cherry Hill NJ)
TOP STRESSORS Include loss of domicile along with loss of work and moving to an unfamiliar environment. Only death of an immediate family member is not typically present among the homeless, who may face all 4 of them. Particularly troubling is the fact that privatized guards whose jobs have been outsourced are not being given training in defusing conflicts. No doubt the agencies owners would spout the typically offensive, irresponsible refrain that requiring safety training would represent a burden on business. Whatever happened to a corporate good neighbor policy? Well, until the Reagan years, the legal language among the requirements for incorporation were fundamentally changed, so that the historically mandated statement about the reason for incorporation was in order to better serve the community in some manner. Freed from the requirement for good corporate citizenship, business has greedily and dangerously neglected its duty to provide something of value to the community. Rather, what drives corporate priorities are actions that raise the probability of a rise in quarterly stock value. For persons reintegrating into the community after release from prison or those who struggle with mental health problems, having access to well-trained staff and mental health experts are AWOL. Then there's Nancy Reagan with her minimalist contribution to the common good, Just say NO! It is of particular import since she gave so little to anyone other than her Ronnie. Bad news!
Finally in the last paragraph the mental illness is brought up. From my perspective this mess is the result of deinstitutionalization. Advocates for fair treatment of those in hospitals were right to fight to improve the lives of those living there, but per usual, they took it a step too far. Instead of fixing the system, they pushed for its demise. So now we have given people with true mental illnesses the "right" to live in homeless shelters and either hurt those around them or be easy targets of others. I am so glad the deinstitutionalization brought dignity to the lives of those with mental illnesses.
blackmamba (IL)
The single most populous mental health facility in America is the Cook County Jail at 25th and California in Chicago. While the jail was not intended to be a mental health facility by malice aforethought default in cuts in mental health care funding that is what it has become. Indeed, the new head of the jail is a black female psychologist.

The correlation between the homeless and mental health is obvious. As well as the disproportionate numbers of drug addicts and veterans who are homeless.

Safer homeless shelters merely treats a symptom of a chronic underlying substantial problem. We need fewer homeless people. More and better quality available mental health care would help. Along with treating drug addiction as a public health problem akin to alcohol and tobacco. Finally we need to take much better care of our veterans.
Janis (Ridgewood, NJ)
Years ago when their were more orphans and during the depression when many were unemployed, the Catholic Church and other charities did a better job than the NYC government.
Zejee (New York)
So why don´t those charities step up?
Me (In The Air)
njglea (Seattle)
I can't remember ever seeing such an unfeeling comment on an article that discusses such a serious social problem. Do the Syrian refugees make you yawn? What kind of human being are you, me?
RG (upstate NY)
In the past fifty years technological advances in military weapons and entertainment systems has been incredible, but our mental health technology has improved marginally if at all. It all comes down to priorities, and ours are what they are.
njglea (Seattle)
Homelessness is America's shame. I often see a homeless person on the street and try to imagine what it would be like to have to live that way, never getting to sit down and relax, to not be able to afford a place - even a room - of one's own. Having to sleep in shelters or in parks or doorways. Being constantly harassed and having your few things stolen by other homeless. Being attacked when nobody cares. I can't imagine it. It is particularity loathsome that so many homeless are families down on their luck, abused women and their children, mentally ill or addicts who can't get help. There will be many more if we allow the NON-distribution of wealth to continue in America and allow "investors" to buy up all the real estate. Your family may be next if you all lose your jobs and/or get sick and can't work, lose your insurance, then your home. WE must stabilize America by electing socially conscious lawmakers and becoming more socially aware in our own communities. NOW is the time.
Cheryl (<br/>)
So the city needs money; It has billionaires by the dozen moving to unfathomly expensive apartments -- and it is the increased pressure on property values partly responsible for the lack of any housing for the poor. So Tax them. Raise the taxes to the rates commensurate with the surrounding suburbs - and use those funds. I don't know if this is done or not already - but certainly developers must provide lower cost housing directly or kick into funds to expand lower coast housing. The shelters would be less crowded if those who struggle at low paid jobs had housing they should have,

They also should not be blended with hard core homeless who have substance abuse and mental health issues too extreme for employment. Both of the latter require state - and even federal attention.
richard kopperdahl (new york city)
I was homeless (undomiciled was the official designation then) in the '60s. I was new to New York, lost my job and was on the street. I was a drunk and was too messed up to find another job when I heard about the Bowery Flophouses. The flophouses let you bring your bottle to your flophouse bed, there were no rules about drinking or drugging. If I wasn't allowed to drink at the flophouse I would have slept on the street.

Today, you are required to leave your bottle and drugs outside if you want a bed—in effect, de-toxing for a shelter. I don't know how many of the current homeless have an alcohol or drug problem, but I would guess the number is fairly high. I suspect that having to give-up their jug or drug before getting shelter causes more of the homeless to prefer the street to the "dangerous" shelters. Is this a more enlightened age that the days of the flophouses? I wonder.
Leave Capitalism Alone (Long Island NY)
This is just an extreme version of the left's constant push to embrace the nanny state while ignoring the natural selection inherent in free markets. The same capitalist system that allows success like that of Bill Gates will also place hundreds of thousands into abject poverty. Attempts to influence or derail that fact not only risks unintended consequences but is also un-American.
Rick in Iowa (Cedar Rapids)
Funny how the right don't believe in evolution, until they discuss the artificial creation called Capitalism.
Zejee (New York)
Thousands in abject poverty -- we should accept this?
"And while there has been talk of having actual police officers keep the peace in shelters, this is problematic because it might give residents who fear police harassment and arrest even more reason to stay on the streets."

Huh? You mean a police presence might discourage the predators and other felons who currently prey on weaker residents of the shelters? With one throwaway comment you dismiss the action that might best work?

Glad to see the NYT Editorial Board on the mark, as usual.
Lynne (Portland, OR)
People like to blame their local governments for not doing the right things to solve problems of homelessness but if every city's overwhelmed with the same problems, it can't be a local issue, not each jurisdiction doing the wrong thing on its own.
Perhaps it's become a national issue. Maybe we need to have a War on Homelessness instead of Drugs or Middle East soil.
njglea (Seattle)
No more "wars". Habitat for Humanity does a wonderful job of helping people work their way into homes. Perhaps their model could be used to help the homeless repair derelict apartment buildings and other shelters, with donated materials and professional time, so they have homes and communities can be proud.
Ian MacFarlane (Philadelphia PA)
America's wealthiest city.
Tony Longo (Brooklyn)
There's a very off-the-cuff statement in here that's jarring - the reference to Steve Banks, the HRA Commissioner, who "is responsible for the shelter system." This may entirely reflect the current reality of the de Blasio Administration's approach, but it does not reflect the City Charter. The Department of Homeless Services was separated out from the Human Resources Administration 23 years ago, precisely because that overloaded super-agency could not handle homeless services as well as all the other aspects of NYC social services. Shelter programs changed from City-run to contracted, and DHS was created to award, oversee and administer these programs.
The Mayor's failure to replace the resigned DHS Commissioner, his replacement of the resigned Health & Human Services Deputy Mayor with someone whose background is entirely in health and not at all in social services, and his reliance completely on Steve Banks to handle the homelessness crisis while juggling all other HRA issues - excuse me, this doesn't strike me as sound organizational thinking.
Rima Regas (Mission Viejo, CA)
For as long as homelessness, how we think about it, isn't decoupled from crime, it will remain unsolved. For as long as homelessness isn't coupled with the true state of our economy, it will get worse. For as long as government isn't better in control of statistics gathering and policies to cure long term housing and economic problems that go hand in hand, homelessness will continue to grow.

Homelessness is no longer only an issue of the mentally ill. It is no longer a problem of single moms unable to provide for their children. It is a problem that has grown exponentially and is exploding on the scenes of every city and every state. While the media has focused on the millions of new jobs these past couple of years, it hasn't focused on what those jobs pay or the severity of the housing crisis across the nation. People who were laid off at the start of the recession and displaced from middle class careers and lives have yet to recover. They've not been counted as a part of the ranks of the unemployed. The BLS has no way to count them. One would only know this by following the handful of economists who track and then write about these issues. Cities like NYC, LA and many others have had tent cities on the peripheries since the recession and they are now growing larger after 7 years, with people finally coming to the end of their savings. We still talk about the impact of trade and economic policy in non-urgent terms, in part to accommodate certain political candidates.

Rima Regas (Mission Viejo, CA)
Homelessness is now front and center in many cities, but still without a full grasp on its magnitude and the underlying reasons for it. With rents having skyrocketed over the last few years due to the lack of affordable rental housing, raising the minimum wage over years is not slowing the problem down. For as long as a vast majority of the new jobs created in our nation are minimum or low wage, with little to no new affordable housing to go with and with student debt left as it is, homelessness will continue to grow exponentially. This problem is now an economic problem at its core.

I should know, my family is now in that situation, after years of unemployment following the start of the recession. Millions of people who were in their late thirties to forties have been left out of the job market for years. They are what Paul Krugman called "the lost generation" in blog posts and op-eds until two years ago. These people - we - are still waiting for a solution to our economic problems and the longer obstruction and polarization of our politics continue, the worse these problems will get. Here in Orange County, California, homelessness has exploded. Hotels and motels are full with people who were displaced by an economy that is unable to meet the needs of people who are educated, experienced and underemployed. This isn't about the middle class, but a new class called the precariat.

Progressive-Neoliberal Split:
Rima Regas (Mission Viejo, CA)
I've been collating articles and writing about all these related issues for the past couple of years. There recently was a discussion on counting the unemployed, underemployed and figuring out where the bounds of full employment are. You can read it here: The media has been greatly remiss in its reporting - both what is written and how - and I wrote about that here:

On affordable housing and wages:

This isn't just New York. It's everywhere.
John (New Jersey)
But you voted for the politicians and policy that brought that out and keep you down. Except you try to blame it elsewhere.

You got what you voted for.
Richard Luettgen (New Jersey)
What we don’t see from either the charitable organizations or anyone else is a statement of what constitutes shelters of “safety and dignity”, what it would cost to establish and maintain such sanctuaries, and where the money is to come from. The reason the problem of homelessness and of inadequate shelter was never properly solved in NYC always was the sheer size of the problem and the many contending priorities for finite public funds. Our challenge of caring for our elderly through a failing Medicaid system where nursing home care is provided for more and more seniors who can’t afford decent care otherwise exacerbates what is a more pervasive problem of caring for those who can’t care for themselves – for age, for mental condition, even for economic condition.

In the end, we need to find some way to attack this problem on a scale meaningful to the size of the challenge, and by doing so drive the costs down to manageable levels. Only when we can effectively and sustainably handle the greater, more general problem, will we see meaningful improvement in only one piece of it, NYC’s homeless shelters.