By: Becky Waldman and Yitzchak Fried  | 

Helping the Homeless: An Affair of City and State

Every morning while walking to school, I encounter a homeless man named Anthony. Anthony sits and holds a sign that reads, “homeless”. Many people sympathize with Anthony and give him a few cents or a dollar, but most, after giving him a moment’s eye contact, ignore his pleas. Unfortunately, Anthony is not alone. As Matt Flegenheimer wrote in his article for the NYT, “Mayor de Blasio’s Budget Commits $100 Million to Combat Homelessness in New York”: “Homelessness in New York City has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression, with shelter populations in December exceeding 59,000 people.” Over one third of the homeless people in shelters - about 23,000 - are children.

I’m here to write about homelessness in NYC, because the issue can no longer be ignored. It is important that we move beyond the dangerous stereotype that homelessness is the fault of the homeless. This is simply not true; many factors cause people to become homeless, including mental illness, unemployment, tragic life occurrences, and drug addiction. We must further realize that homelessness in New York City affects more than the homeless. If a New Yorker is not homeless himself, he has certainly shared a sidewalk with a homeless person or knows of a person who is homeless. With all its ugliness, homelessness thus creeps into our public spaces, shaping the contours of city life.

To decrease the amount of homeless people in the city, the government should step in with more initiatives. Initiatives that could be run to help the homeless include providing job assistance, making housing and shelters more accessible, and providing the homeless with mental health treatment. A key question, however, is what role the state government should play in all of this. While many people believe it the responsibility of the state government to house the homeless of New York City, others disagree, and put more of the budget burden on the city government. This dispute creates an endless shifting of responsibility - with the New York state government calling on the city to spend more on the homeless, and the city government unwilling to do so until they receive more state funding.

Some of the blame for the city’s inaction goes unequivocally to the city. Ritchie Torres, chairman of the City Council’s public housing committee, asserted that “the city is choosing to do less than what it can do.” But New York state is equally at fault; without more state funding, there is a limited amount that the city can do even if it exerts its best efforts. It is already true that the New York state government takes substantial measures to deal with homelessness. For example, the New York state policy of resettling 5,000 people annually in cheap affordable homes has done much to counter the explosive growth of homelessness. Nonetheless, the state’s present efforts are insufficient to address the city’s evident crisis. It has become clear that $100 million is an insignificant portion of the New York state budget to assign to address the issue. But, although aware of the problem, the NYC government is unwilling to set aside its own money for more housing units because of its reluctance to spend more of its own budget. The lack of housing units leads to extensive waiting lists for homeless people to be housed - and more people on the streets.

To my mind, the fact that the state should take responsibility for the homeless crisis is obvious. In part this is because, as mentioned, helping the homeless isn’t only about the homeless. Homelessness degrades the quality of our society, not just because it means the visible presence of human suffering, but because homelessness is linked to crime. The frustration of being homeless provokes some people to engage in illegal activities, which can put the lives of of non-homeless New Yorkers at risk. Studies conducted by psychologists link crime rates in a city to the amount of homeless people present there; for example, a neighborhood like the Bronx, which has a large homeless population, has a high crime rate. The intangible effects of homelessness and crime further degrade the quality of society, because citizens perceive areas that harbor many homeless people as insecure. Furthermore, vices such as drug dealing and drug and alcohol addiction are common among the homeless. All of this means that homelessness is a public safety issue that falls squarely within the mandate of the state government. The state government should therefore see to it that New Yorkers don’t have to suffer the social consequences of homelessness, including insecurity in the street, and subjection to begging and harassment. But, while Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to address the issue of homelessness at the federal level, the state government of New York has yet to establish specific legislation to curb the problem.

The cost of helping the homeless has led some to protest even the present efforts of the state government. Some argue that homelessness is due to laziness and that the government should only assist homeless children, not adults. But, as mentioned, this argument isn’t tenable. Most of the homeless people in New York suffer from a plethora of problems. Often, the reasons for homelessness start in childhood, including such things as having moved homes frequently as a child or having a history of physical or sexual abuse. These experiences have profound effects on people, and can lead to feelings of isolation and insecurity. Furthermore, the Coalition for the Homeless explained that the majority of people are homeless because of their inability to engage in any form of employment. This inability can be due to a number of factors,  including health problems, physical handicap, and a lack of the skills needed to engage in productive work.

I’ve tried to demonstrate that helping the homeless is a legal duty of the state government, which needs to be dealt with immediately. By providing more homeless people with shelter, the government will curb the soaring numbers of the homeless and will prevent the vice associated with homelessness. We all live in New York. It’s where we go to school and spend most of our time. Do we really want homelessness to be a permanent feature of NYC, a morbid icon alongside the Empire State building and Central Park? Do we want homelessness to be part of the identity of NYC? If not, it’s time we did something about helping the homeless.