How Is It Going With Mayor De Blasio's Efforts To Reduce Homelessness?

For twenty years, from 1994 to 2013, we had Republican mayors in this most Democratic of cities. OK, Bloomberg (2002 - 2013) didn't maintain the Republican label consistently; however, he was a successful businessman with at least some common sense.  And Bloomberg's predecessor Giuliani wasn't perfect either.  Anyway, at least those two tried a little.  Then in 2013 we elected the far left progressive Bill de Blasio, with the soaring promise of more and yet more government spending on social programs to bring newfound equality and social justice to all.  At the top of de Blasio's agenda were the issues of "affordable housing" and "homelessness."  I've had a long series of posts on the folly and idiocy of de Blasio's "affordable housing" efforts.  (See posts accumulated under this tab.)  For today, let's check in for an update on how it's going with "homelessness."

First, the starting point.  The Coalition for the Homeless -- a leading advocacy organization for more spending to reduce the problem -- put out a big summary in late 2012, toward the end of Bloomberg's tenure.  Bottom line:  the number of "homeless" was put at 43,000:

Last night, more than 43,000 homeless men, women and children went to sleep in New York City municipal shelters, including an all-time record 17,000 children.

The Coalition particularly excoriated Bloomberg for ending a pre-existing policy of giving those deemed "homeless" priority in admission to the City's public housing system.  

Up until 2005 and under Mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani, the City’s main resource for combating homelessness was to prioritize homeless individuals and families for federal housing programs, such as public housing and Section 8 rental vouchers. For decades, these resources had been a proven, effective way to move families out of shelter and keep them stably housed.

Bloomberg had ended that policy, arguing that the admission priority incentivized people to declare themselves homeless in order to jump the queue.

Now for some of the things that de Blasio has done to reduce the number of "homeless":

  • First, de Blasio hired a guy named Steven Banks, initially (2014) to be Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, and then (2016) to take on the additional title of head of the Department of Homeless Services.  Banks remains in those jobs today.  Previously, Banks had had a 33-year career at the Legal Aid Society, where in the latter years his main job had been the head lawyer on endless lawsuits against the City to force more spending and more programs to help the homeless.  Now, Banks was to be put in charge, and given free rein to implement the policies that he had claimed would fix the homelessness problem once and for all.
  • Next, in July 2014 de Blasio reversed the Bloomberg-era policy of priority for the homeless in admission to public housing.  Now, all those slots would open up specifically to reduce homelessness.
  • Next, spending on all sorts of homeless services soared.  And not just spending on housing for the homeless.  Besides just that, there would now be spending on every kind of help and service for the homeless or potentially homeless that anyone could think of, to somehow head it off or cure it.  For example, from the Wall Street Journal in November 2016, about 3 years into de Blasio's first term:  "The administration is spending about $350 million a year on rent for those who they believe could become homeless or are leaving shelters. The city is now spending $79 million annually on street outreach, $62 million on legal services—up 10 fold from Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg —and $190 million on shelter security, up by $90 million. Last week, the city added $52 million to its budget for homelessness."
  • Finally, the overall budget for homeless services went through the roof.  In the final year of the Bloomberg administration, that budget was about $1 billion.  The 2016 Wall Street Journal article linked in the last bullet gives the 2016 budget as $1.6 billion, up 60% in three years.  The New York Post on April 26 this year gives the budget for the upcoming 2019 fiscal year as $2.06 billion, which includes the latest increase of $386 million in annual spending, and brings the total to more than double the spending in Bloomberg's last year.

Take that, homelessness!  Surely, then, homelessness in New York City must be way down and on its way to elimination!  Actually, of course, it's the opposite.  An article at WNYC gives the homeless shelter population in New York City as of the end of 2017 as 76,000.  OK, it's less than double the number when de Blasio took office -- but not by much!

To get some insights into how the desperate throwing of money at this problem works in practice, you might want to check out the big series running in the New York Times on the state of the housing court in Brooklyn.  The latest installment appeared on May 20 under the headline "Where Brooklyn Tenants Plead the Case for Keeping Their Homes."   Of course, as usual with Pravda, you need to read between the lines to figure out anything important.  (The gist of the article on its own terms is that things are terrible in Brooklyn housing court and the government is doing little to nothing to alleviate the suffering of these vulnerable people -- undoubtedly a prelude to a coming demand for much more government spending to fix this latest problem.)

But why is the Brooklyn housing court so crowded and noisy and dirty and dysfunctional?  Why is the rate of rental delinquencies and eviction proceedings so much higher here than elsewhere in the country?  If you have the patience to get toward the end of this endless thing (I would not recommend it), you will find out about the availability of City-funded so-called "one-shots."  What are those?

The one-shot room is where the Human Resources Administration, the city’s social-services agency, processes emergency payments to extinguish the arrears of tenants facing eviction. The payments, called one-shot deals, are talked about all day, every day. They’re the magic elixir of housing court. In a single wondrous act, a one-shot vanishes that $2,351 in debt, that $6,802, that $4,013.

That's right -- if you have the stomach to fall behind on your rent by a few months once a year or so, and you get yourself hauled into eviction court, and you can offer some plausible excuse why you can't "afford" the arrears, then magically the New York City taxpayers will bail you out!  

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, significantly more money has been paid out as the program has been marketed more aggressively and caseworkers have been told to stress averting homelessness when they weigh applications. In Brooklyn, $62.6 million was spent on one-shots in fiscal 2017, up from $35.2 million three years earlier, the individual amounts averaging $3,800.

But isn't there a significant chance that you'll be turned down?

[I]n this office, [the approval rate] is close to 99 percent.

Do you just get to keep the money?  In all likelihood, yes:

Technically, one-shots are loans. But older New Yorkers and people collecting Social Security disability don’t have to repay one-shots. Others on public assistance are expected to repay between 5 and 10 percent. The rest, who are a minority, get repayment schedules that can stretch for years. According to the social services agency, about 80 percent of people are behind on repaying the loans.

According to Pravda, it seems that, in Brooklyn alone, they "avert" an average of some 55 homelessness cases a day by this magical method.  For 260 court days per year, that would come to about 14,300 cases of homelessness "averted" every year!  Extrapolating for the city as a whole (Brooklyn being about 31% of NYC population), you get something like 46,000 cases of homelessness "averted" per year.  

And yet somehow, the number of homeless people just keeps increasing relentlessly, to far greater numbers than before this desperate cash dispersal program got going.  Funny how that works, isn't it?