Although New York City has the largest homeless population of any city in the United States, we don’t have the massive tent encampments found in many other cities with growing homeless populations. In fact, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that on a single night in 2016, an impressive 96 percent of the estimated 73,523 homeless people in New York City were sheltered, compared with only 25 percent of homeless people in Los Angeles. Homeless New Yorkers aren’t left to fend for themselves on the streets because of the Callahan Consent Decree and the final judgment in Boston v. City of New York, which respectively established a legal right to shelter for single individuals and families with children – and, as the weather gets colder, that guarantee of a safe, warm bed can be lifesaving.
In the midst of an affordable housing crisis that continues to push more individuals and families into the shelter system – and facing community resistance to opening traditional shelters – the City has resorted to renting commercial hotel rooms as emergency shelter to meet its legal obligation under Callahan and its moral obligation to bring in families and adults from the cold. Although necessary in the short term, hotel rooms are expensive and often lack the case management and other services to help clients get back on their feet.
The shelter system’s capacity issues underscore the need to expand housing-based solutions that can stem the tide of people entering homelessness and help others move into permanent, affordable homes. The City should utilize more of its available housing resources, such as NYCHA, Section 8 and HPD units, to house homeless New Yorkers. The City must also aggressively enforce source-of-income discrimination protections for people trying to pay rent with vouchers. The City Council can combat unjust evictions by passing Intro 214 to create a right to counsel in housing court. Meanwhile, the State should adopt the Home Stability Support rent subsidy program and immediately sign a memorandum of understanding to release nearly $2 billion for affordable and supportive housing. Together, these strategies can reduce the shelter census enough that the City would not have to scramble to rent expensive hotel rooms to fulfill its legal obligations.
Tobias Salinger took an in-depth look at the hotel shelter issue in City Limits:
“Homelessness is at an all-time high in New York City,” says Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney for the homeless rights project at The Legal Aid Society.
“The easy answer is that the hotels are a result of the city’s crisis. They have to provide shelter somewhere, so they’re using the hotels.”
The legal mandate to house the homeless, which stems from a class-action lawsuit in the late ’70s, has forced the administration’s hand, says Coalition for the Homeless policy director Giselle Routhier. The Coalition reported 62,306 people sleeping in city shelters in October.
DHS homelessness figures, which are calculated differently, passed 60,000 that month for the first time ever and ticked up slightly to around 60,400 people by late December. The city’s “moral and legal obligation” demands space, according to Routhier.
“The best way to reduce the need for hotels and the need for shelters more broadly is to make affordable housing more available so that the census starts to decrease.”
[Beth] Hofmeister, of Legal Aid, says the administration could also strike more deals with developers for housing for the homeless during the zoning approval process for new projects. The Coalition called for more apartment units aimed at the homeless in housing sponsored by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
In the shorter term, though, administration officials are “doing what they think they have to do” under their right-to-shelter obligations, Hofmeister says.
“I would like to believe that if there are other options available besides hotels or cluster sites, that they would be using them,” she says. “They’re going to need a place to put people. I don’t know that there’s any other option out there.”