Taking It To The Streets: How Can New York Fix Its Homeless Epidemic?

Taking It To The Streets: How Can New York Fix Its Homeless Epidemic?

By Annette Barlow August 31, 2016
Photo courtesy of

When, in the same month, news stories confirm both that record numbers of homeless New York families are sleeping in shelters and the city’s housing vacancy rate has just hit a new high, it’s clear that something is deeply amiss in the Big Apple.

Related: All Aboard The S.S. Homeless Shelter?

Thousands and thousands of apartments sit empty, landlords refusing to lower their asking prices, as the vacancy rate in Manhattan reaches an astounding 1.92%, while on one August Sunday, 12,750 New York families slept in a homeless shelter—including 23,207 children. That’s not to mention the 2,378 couples forced into hostels for the night, either.

Homeless families outside a downtown Seattle shelter.
Photo courtesy of

Mayor Bill de Blasio has very publicly pledged his commitment to addressing homelessness in the city, not only seeking to rehouse families with a budget of $1.7 billion in 2016, but also to make shelters and homeless services as efficient and safe as possible for all users.

Well, 8 months into the year, and it doesn’t seem as if de Blasio’s plans are gaining much traction. Very simply, New York can no longer cope with the influx of residents knocking at shelter and hostel doors. And yet, the city’s rents continue to rise, far beyond the rate of salaries, making affordable housing for huge swathes of residents just a distant pipe dream. In fact, New York rents hover around 63% of a resident’s income: the average resident, mind you—not even those living in poverty.

So what’s being done to address this chasm between income and expenses? Part of de Blasio’s budget is earmarked for sourcing and providing legal services for tenants facing eviction, but legal outcomes are never guaranteed, and hordes of evictees are still ending up on the streets, with de Blasio’s financial aid just a distant memory.

And while this financial aid may indeed be the lifeline that many families are looking for, it fails to do what is so desperately needed in the modern housing crisis: address why families are unable to pay their rent in the first place, and how landlords can be better monitored and incentivized to provide truly safe and affordable housing.

Indeed, over a two-year period, the city has moved just 3,600 households from shelters back into public housing, a dramatically small number given the increasing flow of people into shelters.

Space, therefore, is at a premium. New Yorkers legally have a right to shelter, and the city must provide: but if all the hostels are full, where can homeless families go? Well, one initiative sees the city planning to repurpose disused buildings, recently signing an $11 million contract to renovate a dilapidated building in the Bronx. The hope would be that this would serve as a permanent residence for relocated families, thereby freeing up space in shelters.

But once again, this approach seems to be missing the point: wealthy cities such as New York must address the causes of homelessness. Slapping a very pricey Band Aid on the problem will help for a short time, but the wound won’t go away.

Perhaps de Blasio would be better advised to tighten his purse strings and look to other city innovations for inspiration. Could Dallas’ “Housing First” strategy provide a viable template? Or even Portland, OR’s tiny villages?

Annette Barlow



Annette is freelance editor, sub-editor, journalist and proofreader with a fierce love of all things feminist, food and music. She is a regular fixture on the arts, culture and feature desks at The Guardian, and her words have appeared on NME, Great British Chefs, The Fly, The Line of Best Fit and Australian Times.

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