During the tenure of billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg, the number of homeless people in New York City's shelter system has increased to more than 50,000, an all-time high. An astoundingly high percentage of those people have jobs.
The New York Times reports today in a moving story that "More than one out of four families in shelters, 28 percent, include at least one employed adult, city figures show, and 16 percent of single adults in shelters hold jobs." That means that there are tens of thousands of New Yorkers who work low wage jobs and go home to a bed in a shelter at night.
Why? It costs the city about $3,000 a month to house a family in a homeless shelter. Due to a lack of shelter space, the city is forced to rent thousands of apartments at market rate to temporarily house homeless families. The Bloomberg administration, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to try to make our city's shelter system less attractive by imposing strict requirements that a shelter be a place of last resort, and by ending rent subsidies for homeless families to move into permanent housing, and by not moving homeless families to the top of the waiting list for public housing. Yet despite this effort to discourage people from entering the shelter system, more and more people are entering the shelter system.
It's almost as if you can't magically legislate away economic inequality, without spending any money.
New York City has to house the homeless by law. Why spend $3,000 a month to keep families in shelters, where no one actually wants to live? Why not give the working homeless rent subsidies, which they could use to get their own apartments for far less than that price? And, more broadly, why not spend money now to increase the number of affordable housing units in this city, rather than pouring money down an endless hole for homeless shelters? (It would be nice if the federal government would help with this!) It is like choosing to take a hundred bottles of aspirin a day rather than getting surgery for a brain tumor.
Programs for the homeless that really work are explicitly designed to give people the skills to work and move into their own apartments and achieve independence. The Bloomberg administration, by contrast, simply tries to discourage people from getting into shelters in the first place—and even the people in shelters who do work cannot afford to live in the rich, prosperous city that Bloomberg has created.