At Newsday yesterday, a guy named Ruben Navarette has one of those usual laments about the terrible partisan divide and disappearing middle ground in American politics. His prescription: we just need to have a civil and intelligent search for "solutions":
We'd be a stronger country . . . if we demanded — from elected officials and from one another — that we all put more thought, honesty and nuance into our discussion of policy issues, instead of drawing out our perspectives in stark black-and-white terms when the world comes in shades of gray.
Well, Ruben, the problem here is that the other half of us don't buy the idea that the government can solve every human problem if it just puts enough smart people on the job of finding the "solution" and throws enough money in the right direction. To take two big scourges that the government is endlessly trying to fix with programs and spending -- poverty and homelessness -- the evidence would seem to be rather strong that all government efforts to "solve" these problems only make them worse. No amount of "thought, honesty, and nuance" is going to change that.
For today let's take Ruben's call to "thought, honesty, and nuance" and apply it to government policy for dealing with the homeless. Here in New York, the administration of Mayor de Blasio has the idea that the cause of homelessness is lack of sufficient affordable housing, which can be fixed by the government subsidizing and/or mandating the provision of apartments at far-below-market rents. And yet, New York for around 80 years has been ground zero for affordable and subsidized housing initiatives, not to mention rent control, and somehow the number of homeless never goes down and housing becomes more and more expensive relative to other cities.
Back in 2002 when prior Mayor Bloomberg took office, the City had a policy of giving priority in subsidized public housing to those who had become homeless and entered the shelter system. Bloomberg and his people became convinced that that policy was giving an incentive to many people to declare themselves homeless in order to jump a long waiting list to get into the public housing. So in 2005 the Bloomberg administration reversed the policy of giving priority in public housing to the homeless. That brought withering criticism from homeless advocates, notably something called the Coalition for the Homeless, which called the idea that people would enter the homeless shelter system in order to jump the subsidized housing queue a "zombie lie." Here is their advocacy piece from March 2014, at the beginning of the de Blasio administration:
In the area of homeless policy in New York City, there is no more persistent “zombie lie” than the notion that providing housing subsidies – in particular, priority referrals for federal housing programs like public housing or Section 8 vouchers – leads to a surge in families entering the homeless shelter system. . . . [T]his “zombie lie” was long espoused by Bloomberg administration officials to defend their elimination of housing aid for homeless children and families.
How's that for withering scorn? After a few months, in July 2014 de Blasio and his people succumbed to the advocacy and reinstated the policy of public housing priority for shelter residents. Did it work out? A year and a half into the new policy and the local papers are filled with stories of the surge in homelessness and the new homeless "crisis." The New York Post has had one article after another on the subject throughout the fall, for example here and here. And yes, the New York Times has been unable to avoid noticing. From October 26, "Despite Vow, Mayor de Blasio Struggles to Curb Homelessness":
The number of people entering city shelters has increased under Mayor Bill de Blasio, and when they enter the system, people are staying longer, striking markers of a crisis that has forced its way to the top of the mayor’s agenda. As of Thursday, 57,448 people — more than 40 percent of them children — were sleeping in shelters overseen by the Department of Homeless Services. . . .
The 57,000 shelter residents are up from a figure in the mid-30,000s during the Bloomberg tenure. On December 17 the Times reported that Mayor de Blasio, after insisting for months that nothing was amiss, had finally announced new measures to combat the "homelessness crisis."
But then, even those 60,000 +/- shelter residents are just the tip of the iceberg of New York's population dependent on government handouts for their housing. The numbers are staggering. According to the Metropolitan Council on Housing here, New York has almost 180,000 subsidized low-income NYCHA apartments; almost 100,000 "portable" Section vouchers; another 90,000 "project-based" Section 8 vouchers; another 140,000 so-called "Mitchell-Lama" subsidized apartments; and about 1 million private-owned but "rent-regulated" apartments. And yet somehow the "affordability" crisis and the "homelessness" crisis persist.
So does Mr. Navarette actually believe that all it will take is a "thoughtful, honest and nuanced" discussion to figure out the one more program that will finally fix this? On the other side they are advocating to just dismantle the entire mess. Is there really a middle ground?