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The False Debate on Homelessness

Homelessness is the natural result of a system that makes some fantastically wealthy and others desperately poor.

Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio just can’t get along.

Shortly after the New Year, Cuomo, New York’s governor, issued an executive order mandating that New York City transport homeless people sleeping outside in sub-freezing temperatures to shelters.

In response, Mayor de Blasio’s administration announced that, regardless of weather conditions, the police can’t expel people from public property — and that if they bring them to a shelter, they can’t make them stay. “To forcibly remove all homeless individuals in freezing weather, as the governor has ordered,” de Blasio spokeswoman Karen Hinton said, “will require him to pass state law.”

Under state law, police are authorized to take people to hospitals without their consent if they pose a threat to themselves or others. This makes Cuomo’s mandate technically legal, but also irrelevant.

Perhaps the reason why Cuomo thought he had the power to herd people into shelters is because he sees street homelessness as a problem of mental hygiene. As the Associated Press reported:

Cuomo aides said Sunday, shortly after the order was issued, that state officials were interpreting the law to mean anyone who chose to turn down shelter in favor of sleeping outside in freezing temperatures inherently displayed some degree of mental illness and could therefore be removed.

It’s the best Catch-22: you’re allowed to sleep outside if you’re mentally stable, but if you want to sleep outside, then you’re obviously not stable.

Things got even more absurd when Cuomo took to the airwaves to promote his executive order and tried to score another point against de Blasio. Slamming the conditions in homeless shelters in New York City, Cuomo inveighed, “We’re now in the winter. We’re in freezing temperatures. We have people who are on the streets who don’t want to go to the shelter system because the shelter system is dangerous and dirty. And it is literally a matter of public safety.”

It’s hard to look at this parody of policy and see that Cuomo is seeking anything more than publicity. But as he bumbles through his man-of-action performance, it would be a mistake to miss the ideological significance of what he’s promoting: a caretaker, humanitarian approach (Cuomo has argued that homelessness is a “human” problem) against de Blasio’s “housing first” economic approach, which calls for more permanent supportive housing as a precondition to solving the problem.

Cuomo has long held the view that homelessness is detached from economics, that it is a problem arising from human nature. In the early 1990s, he headed up the “Cuomo Commission,” which reversed former New York City Mayor David Dinkins’s policy on homelessness.

Like de Blasio, Dinkins framed homelessness as, above all, a housing problem. After coming to office in 1990, Dinkins used a task force report he had commissioned as Manhattan borough president to try to disprove several myths about homelessness. One prevailing belief was that providing permanent supportive housing would inspire a kind of homelessness fraud.

Dinkins’s task force submitted the following:

Myth 7: Families with other housing options voluntarily enter the shelter system in order to upgrade their housing at the public’s expense and get priority for rehabilitated permanent housing.

Fact: There is little evidence that families forsake stable housing arrangements hoping to get an apartment through the city.

Acting on this conclusion, Dinkins doubled the rate at which homeless families were moving from shelters into apartments in his first year. In the summer of 1990, the city provided an average of 55 percent of sheltered families with their own home.

The problem is, the number of families entering shelters did indeed begin to rise. Whether this was a direct result of Dinkins’s policy is still a matter of debate, as no comprehensive study has ever been undertaken. But it’s not difficult to see why this might happen — why low-income families, doubled up at a friend’s house or sleeping in their car, would head to the local shelter for a few weeks in order to qualify for permanent housing.

Dinkins — either shocked at the sharp uptick or unwilling to stand up to political pressure — set up a homelessness commission and put then-Governor Mario Cuomo’s son Andrew Cuomo in charge of it. The resulting report not only rejected Dinkins’s strategy but became the “widely accepted wisdom of homeless policy” at the national level.

To be fair, it wasn’t all reactionary. Cuomo recommended ending New York City’s “congregate” shelters — barracks-style shelters for hundreds if not thousands of individuals — and maintained that moving the homeless into permanent housing was still an effective strategy.

Nevertheless, the conservative and often racist City Journal boasted in 1993 that Cuomo’s report

refuted the assumptions that had guided the early Dinkins policy. The commission forthrightly acknowledged that placing thousands of homeless families into permanent housing contributed to an enormous surge of families entering the shelter system. It also acknowledged that behavioral problems were an important cause of homelessness . . . [and] that homelessness is frequently a symptom of some underlying problem, such as lack of job skills or education, a substance-abuse problem, or mental illness.

Thus, the Cuomo Commission recommended a screening process for those seeking permanent housing through the shelter system in order to identify fraud and to spot illness and addiction, making treatment a prerequisite for securing an apartment. And housing vouchers were suggested as an alternative to public housing.

The report’s overall message, according to City Journal, was that “the sociological reality of homelessness in New York was incompatible with a policy of unconditional right to shelter.” It attacked the basic assumption of Dinkins’s remedies — that “homelessness was primarily an economic problem.”

The Cuomo Commission argued not only that such an approach misunderstands the true nature of homelessness, but also that it strains the city’s limited resources. Government should not, and cannot, be expected to provide housing to everyone who asks for it . . . A determination of need must be made so that government’s limited resources can be targeted to the most needy.

Dinkins adopted the Cuomo Commission’s recommendations almost entirely. He embraced a “treatment first” policy, advocated subsidizing rentals in the private housing market instead of constructing new public housing, and instated anti-fraud screening for public housing applicants.

Today, as executive of the state, Cuomo has set his sights on de Blasio’s housing-first policy — even though studies have shown that housing-first is not only better at helping chronically homeless people achieve stability, but more cost effective because it acts as a kind of preventative care in the long run.

Unfortunately, de Blasio has made it easier for Cuomo to play the role of the bleeding heart by failing to follow through on his conviction that homelessness is an economic problem. While he wants to build fifteen thousand units of supportive housing over the next fifteen years, he has also contributed to the criminalization of homelessness, announcing a program at the end of last year called Home-Stat that increases the number of police assigned to making homeless people disappear when the city’s well-heeled residents feel threatened.

But as long as the governor and mayor feud about homelessness as if it were an isolated problem, a crisis that emerges only when policy fails — that somehow social services can be targeted to deal with the “most needy” and no one else — the problem will persist. With wages so low and rents so high that the average American is now spending over 30 percent of her income on rent (the highest rate on record), homelessness is created faster than it can be treated.

In his State of the State address in mid-January, Cuomo proposed a $20 billion budget for one hundred thousand new affordable housing units and six thousand supportive housing units. For a state with a $1.3 trillion gross domestic product in 2014, that’s hardly heroic. But it’s something.

And if de Blasio is able to muster some political power, he may be able to get Cuomo to ante up even more and replace the units that have been lost after twenty years of demolished high-rises and slashed funding for public housing.

Still, in New York City, where four hundred thousand millionaires live alongside sixty thousand homeless people, there will be no end to the homelessness crisis without a fundamental change in the system that causes it. And no such change is on Cuomo’s or de Blasio’s agenda.

This commitment to the status quo was perfectly illustrated in a publicity stunt at the State of the State. Cuomo, by way of introducing the topic of homelessness, invited the audience to give a round of applause to a young man, Joey Resto, who had been filmed on the New York subway taking off his shirt and hat and giving them to a shivering homeless man in the same car.

It’s impossible to watch the video — which has been viewed 14 million times — and not be moved. But what it says about the current state of affairs is disturbing. When Cuomo proclaimed, “This is New York!”, he meant to say Joey Resto is New York. Yet the whole scene was New York — not just Resto’s generosity, but the shirtless man’s destitution, produced by a system that de Blasio and Cuomo, for all their disagreements, both stand by.