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Record Homelessness Calls for New Approach

Homelessness in New York City is the highest it's been since the Great Depression. This is simply unacceptable in the wealthiest city in the world, and we can and must do better.
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This post was co-authored by Christine Quinn, Annabel Palma and Mary Brosnahan.

Imagine a child waking up each morning not knowing if he or she will have a place to sleep that night. Bouncing in and out of shelters, taking refuge in the crowded apartments of friends and relatives, staying on couches and floors. Imagine trying to keep up with schoolwork, or maintain any semblance of a stable life. For thousands of New York City's most vulnerable children that nightmare is all too real.

Last week, the Coalition for the Homeless released its annual State of the Homeless report, and the results are shocking. Homelessness in New York City is the highest it's been since the Great Depression, with over 43,000 New Yorkers sleeping in shelters each night, including 10,000 families and a record 17,000 children. This is simply unacceptable in the wealthiest city in the world, and we can and must do better. The New York City Council has proposed a fiscally responsible plan that would move many of these New Yorkers to permanent homes, and it must become a reality.

According to the city's own data, overall homelessness increased 8 percent since last year and this is not an isolated event -- the numbers have been consistently breaking records in each of the past several years. Over the past decade the homeless shelter population is up 39 percent, with an alarming 49 percent increase in family homelessness and a 32 percent increase in children in shelters. And now, when a family becomes homeless it takes longer for them to get back on their feet: The average family stays in shelter nearly one year, which is 27 percent longer than just a year ago.

Perhaps the most troubling part of this crisis is that it could have been avoided. While the recent economic downturn has played a part in this spike, the biggest factor contributing to the skyrocketing shelter population is that, for the first time in more than three decades, New York City has no long-term housing plan to help families and children escape homelessness.

Mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani all shared a similar approach that allocated a modest share of federal public housing apartments and rental vouchers to help re-locate homeless families from the shelter system into the permanent, affordable housing they needed to get back on their feet. The Bloomberg administration continued this policy early on, but beginning in 2005, vacancies and vouchers once reserved for homeless families were given to others deemed more needy by City Hall.

Today, it's clear that policy shift has been a mistake. Despite record homelessness, , the city used federal housing aid to assist only 202 homeless families last year, down from thousands of families helped per year under previous administrations, Republican and Democratic alike.

This is not the New York City that we know and love. Instead of helping to stabilize these children and giving them a chance to succeed, we're shuttling them into a shelter system that has become an unforgiving dead end. If these kids are going to have a fighting chance, we need to get their families back on the path to stable housing.

In a first step towards reversing the disastrous rise in homelessness, the City Council has outlined a plan to provide our neighbors who are struggling with the basic housing assistance they need to leave the shelter system for good. That means returning to the proven strategy of setting aside a reasonable share of open slots in public housing and marshaling valuable federal housing vouchers for those trapped in the shelter system. In addition, a new rental assistance program, modeled on the successful federal voucher program, must be created.

If enacted, this plan would provide critical help to thousands of homeless children and families each year. This is without a doubt the morally right thing to do. But here is a rare case where the right thing is also the most fiscally responsible. Taxpayers are on the hook for a whopping $36,000 a year to shelter a homeless family; the average cost of a housing voucher for the same family is $10,000.

Enacting the City Council plan would, for the first time in nearly a decade, begin to give hope to our homeless neighbors. With a rising numbers of families and children immobilized in shelters, the future of our city depends on it.

Christine Quinn is the speaker of the New York City Council. Annabel Palma is the chair of the Council's General Welfare Committee and Mary Brosnahan is the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

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