The cost of shelter

By Michelle Chen May 11, 2009

The nation’s housing crisis is now following thousands of New Yorkers all the way to the shelter doors. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to effectively force working homeless people in shelters to pay a portion of their earnings toward "rent." Bloomberg argues that the city is simply enforcing a law that has rested quietly on the books for years, which mandates a rent contribution based on income. City authorities estimate that the requirement will impact roughly 2,000 out of 9,000 shelter families. As an unfortunate fixture on the landscape for over a generation, New York’s homeless represent an ever-widening cross-section of the most disenfranchised communities in the city: The Coalition for the Homeless reports in the past decade, family homelessness has soared, and they remain stuck in shelters on average for about ten months. About nine in ten homeless New Yorkers are Black or Latino. The Bloomberg administration (which has lately gotten into Obama’s good graces) has presided over a dramatic spike in homelessness citywide. Recently, the City moved to limit access to homeless services and slash overnight shelter capacity at faith-based shelters and drop-in centers serving street homeless on an emergency basis. For families attempting to transition out of homelessness, the City cut back homeless assistance from federal programs like section 8 housing vouchers, which advocates say are key to ending the housing affordability crisis. The City’s new Work Advantage program mandates that families–that is, those lucky enough to be holding down any job in this recession–save a certain percentage of their income to maintain their rent subsidies. Parallel reforms are underway in Massachussetts. All of this in the midst of a shrinking market of affordable rental housing and a shortage of sustainable-wage jobs. In other words, the Mayor’s concept of reducing homeless seems to involve reducing the number of homeless people the city is willing to help. Activists say these policies, supposed aimed at promoting self-sufficiency, actually exacerbate homelessness by placing unrealistic constraints on families’ income and housing options. While the City treats homelessness like a disease to be quarantined, the reasons people become homeless are global, often tied to various overlapping systems like criminal justice, child welfare and immigration, along with the trauma of domestic violence or substance abuse. Nick Turse at described the plight of Tyrie, a domestic violence survivor from Trinidad struggling against joblessness, precious immigration status, and the chronic fraying of public services, ranging from rising transit fares to basic child care:

At night, when she tries to rest, her mind races. "I am not sleeping. I can’t tell you the last night I really slept," she says. "I don’t know if they’ll authorize me to get back my work permit. I really want to know because I need a second job. I can’t live like this no more, ya know? The security people want me back, but if I don’t have that card to give them, they don’t want to take me back." In fact, she’s willing to do just about any work short of prostitution. "I’ll wash dishes. I’ll go clean any office. I will clean any bathroom. Anything, just to make the extra couple dollars. I’m not no prima donna."

More parents like Tyrie are being driven toward the burgeoning shelter system, to languish indefinitely as officials fail to establish a pathway to long-term housing. Instead, the City is settling into the role of a de facto landlord–charging them for the privilege of survival. Image: Diego Cupolo, The American Journey (via flickr)