New York City Makes the Homeless Disappear

By Michelle Chen Jul 31, 2009

New York City has gotten quite a bit of press lately over its program to offer homeless people a “one-way ticket” to a destination of their choice–supposedly a voluntary alternative to staying in the city and using public services. The media are amused by the notion of government-financed flights to such glamorous locales as London and Johannesburg. The bad news is that most of the city’s homeless residents are stuck, with nowhere to go. Bloomberg said at a press conference:

I don’t know, when they get to the other places, whether they find jobs… It may be an easier place for them. If we don’t — we either have two choices. We can do this program or pay an enormous amount of money daily to provide housing.

The city’s definition of "providing housing" is debatable. Bloomberg has come under fire for the failures of his much-hyped multi-year action plan. Today, as they are squeezed out of the shelter system, families and individuals—often burdened with multiple stressors like unemployment, substance abuse problems, or domestic violence—are left to fend for themselves on a patchwork of inadequate rental subsidies. Countering the Mayor’s effort to put the homeless out of sight and out of mind, the grassroots group Picture the Homeless recently staged a tent city protest against the government’s failure to address affordable housing issues. An extensive report recently published the group finds the Mayor’s plans not so much anti-homelessness as just plain anti-homeless: Since 2004, the Department of Homeless Services has seen a 34-percent surge in adult families in the system, while housing placements of single adults have fallen sharply. The study points to the increasing racialization of homelessness in the city. An earlier study by the Vera Institute found that among the city’s homeless families, about two-thirds were black and over a third identified as Latino. Nearly forty percent spoke a language other than English at home. (That might explain, in part, why San Juan was one of the most popular destinations for the families that the city has sent elsewhere.) The study described family homelessness as a byproduct of concentrated, structural social barriers; neighborhood risk factors included “the number of families living below the poverty line, African-American residents and vacant housing units.” Meanwhile, the latest census data show that after years of increasing racial diversity in the city, the white portion of the population has ticked up slightly. So homelessness roils on in communities of color while the city as a whole becomes increasingly white. Picture the Homeless places the crisis on a continuum of gentrification and displacement, in which poor communities of color are sundered by an influx of the wealthy pushing into low-income neighborhoods. These problems aren’t limited to New York City, and they aren’t intractable. John Petro at the Drum Major Institute points out that policymakers can take a holistic approach by providing living wage jobs, limiting gentrification through equitable zoning laws, and changing rent control policies to empower tenants instead of landlords. In the city’s desperate attempt to reduce the homeless population, the expense-paid export of homeless families sends the same message as an eviction notice: it’s the greatest city in the world, but sorry, you don’t belong here. Image: Picture the Homeless Tent City, via flickr