City Council Member Ben Kallos at the homelessness forum at the Ramaz School. Photo: Ben Kallos, via Twitter
by shoshy Ciment
For New Yorkers, the issue of homelessness is virtually impossible to ignore.
Approximately 63,495 people are homeless in New York City, 22,293 of whom are children in the public school system and 17,085 are parents with children, according to the NYC Department of Homeless Services, in figures from April 12 cited by City Council Member Ben Kallos.
These numbers only account for people in shelter system and do not represent the minority of homeless individuals — about 3,700 people — who sleep on the streets.
City leaders and homelessness experts discussed the situation on April 12 at the Ramaz School during a forum that addressed avenues for alleviating the problem in New York City, specifically on the Upper East Side.
“It really is more of a think tank,” said Barbara Rudder, a co-chair on the Health, Seniors, and Social Services Committee of Community Board 8. The forum, which was attended by over 60 people including Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, was meant to share information about the homeless problem with the public and discuss workable solutions to fix it.
To the experts on the panel — who included representatives from the NYC Department of Homeless Services, the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, the Doe Fund and the Women’s Mental Health Shelter — affordable housing is the first step. In the years between 2005 and 2015, rents have increased by 18.4 percent while incomes have increased by just 4.8 percent.
Kallos, whose district includes Yorkville, Lenox Hill and Carnegie Hill, discussed his efforts to increase the number of supportive housing facilities in the city. He mentioned his success during his re-election last year when he assisted in the acquisition of seventeen two-bedroom apartments for homeless women and their families.
“We are a welcoming community,” remarked Kallos. “And whether it is women in need or others, we are going to work with you.”
Ann Shalof, executive director of the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, agreed that affordable housing is necessary to start the process towards stability and independence. “The best way to serve homelessness is through housing,” she said. The NCS operates two supportive housing residences, one that caters to young adults who have graduated from the foster care system and another for adults, primarily those that are mentally ill.
In addition to affordable housing, panelists emphasized the need to provide resources for permanent independence. Felipe Vargas, the vice president of programs for the Doe Fund, stressed his organization’s emphasis on job placement and self-sustainability. Last year, the Doe Fund placed 430 men into jobs and independent housing.
Central to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Turning the Tide” plan on homelessness from February 2017 was this idea of staying on track for the long term. While the 114-page plan emphasizes a shift from outdated cluster programs and hotel facilities to transitional, high-quality housing centers, the ultimate goal is to equip down-on-their-luck New Yorkers with the tools to regain stability in shelters close to their hometowns. It seeks to strengthen networks of support within their community.
So far, this model has worked. For the first time in decades, the growth in homelessness has ceased. The shelter census is flat and upwards of 81,000 people have left or avoided the shelter system altogether since de Blasio has taken office.
But there is still a long way to go. The homeless crisis in New York City is a deep-rooted problem, born from decades of income inequality, mental illness and apathy.
“The national challenge of homelessness didn’t occur overnight and it won’t be solved overnight,” said Isaac McGinn, the NYC Department of Homeless Services’ press secretary in an email. “But our City’s comprehensive strategies are taking hold.”