Running Out of Beds

In June 2004 Mayor Bloomberg pledged to reduce homelessness in New York City by two-thirds within five years. Five years and three months later, his administration is about to preside over a much different milestone: New York City is on track to literally run out of shelter beds for homeless adults.

On Sept. 30, there were only two empty beds left in the entire New York City shelter system for homeless men and only eight empty beds for homeless women. That's 10 available beds in a system of nearly 7,000 beds for homeless single adults. This month, according to the city's nightly shelter census reports, the municipal shelter system for homeless single men and women has repeatedly exceeded 99% capacity.

The worst part is this: The wave of homeless adults entering New York's shelters hasn't crested yet. The system is virtually maxed out, while unemployment in New York City continues to rise. Affordable rental housing remains as hard to get today as it was during boom times. And there are weeks to go before the temperature really drops. For the first time in recent history our city faces the prospect of running out of beds for New Yorkers who no longer have one of their own.

In the first nine months of 2009, the number of homeless men coming through the doors of the central intake shelter in Manhattan has increased 8%, while the number of men who are entering the system for the first time is up 10%. Overall, New York City is seeing the largest one year increase in the number of homeless single adults since the 2001 recession.

The bottom line is this: New York City urgently needs more beds. But that's not just a matter of renting more hotel rooms at exorbitant prices. New Yorkers should press Mayor Bloomberg to speed up the city's plans to develop new permanent supportive housing, particularly for homeless individuals with mental illness and other special needs. While the city's current ten-year plan to construct 6,250 new units is laudable, more than half of those aren't scheduled to come online until at least 2011.

The single biggest change the mayor must make is to reverse his 2005 decision to cut off homeless New Yorkers from federal housing assistance, such as Section 8 vouchers and vacant public housing. The Bloomberg administration -- particularly Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs -- believes that denying homeless New Yorkers access to rental vouchers and public housing will provide a disincentive to people who might have another housing option with a friend or relative from entering shelter.

It hasn't worked out that way. In fact, since Bloomberg cut homeless families off from Section 8 vouchers and public housing priority, more families, not less, poured into the shelter system. (That's a major reason why the nightly New York City shelter population, including homeless families and children, is now at 38,000 people.)

Put simply, Mayor Bloomberg's responsible for this crisis and needs to reexamine and reverse this flawed policy. He must ensure a portion of the 12,000 Section 8 Vouchers the city will distribute this year and the more than 5,000 public housing apartments available for rent go to moving homeless New Yorkers out of shelters and into housing.

The Mayor needs to acknowledge this crisis and change direction quickly. And before frigid weather arrives, he needs to ensure that New York City has sufficient emergency shelter for the rising number of homeless men and women. Otherwise many homeless New Yorkers will be left out in the cold this winter.