The distressing reality of homelessness in New York City

This article was originally published on news.com.au.

March 1, 2016
Charlotte Willis in New York, news.com.au

IT’S an image Americans are all too familiar with — the homeless men, women and children begging for spare change on a busy street corner.

It’s a sight both saddening and shocking to those who visit popular tourist destination New York City, and one the authorities have been struggling to reduce in the hopes it will one day fade from view altogether.

While significant progress has been made in reducing the number of homeless veterans in the city (officials say the number now stands at 486, down from 4600 in 2012), the Bill de Blasio administration is now facing a larger and more complicated challenge: homelessness among youths, those with mental illnesses and families with children.

In a city with over eight million residents, accurately determining the number of homeless people is a daunting task. Each year, the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) rallies 3000 volunteers, who disperse throughout the five boroughs of New York City to do a headcount — a system that is often criticised by social service groups as inaccurate. But the federal government’s annual homelessness count, released in November, confirmed what many New Yorkers already feared — there was a visible increase in the number of people living on the streets, in the subway system and in shelters.

Despite a slight dip in the number of homeless individuals nationwide compared with the previous year, the count found 75,323 people, including both sheltered and unsheltered, were homeless in NYC. This figure accounts for 14 per cent of the nation’s total.

The city’s daily count — which does not include some adolescents, some domestic violence victims and those in shelters overseen by unrecorded agencies — is currently 58,247.

The latest attempt to address the crisis that has been building for years has drawn greater attention in recent weeks, following mayor de Blasio’s promise to allocate more than $US53 million worth of new spending out of the preliminary $US82.1 billion budget for 2017 to beating homelessness.

But while the city’s spending on homeless services has skyrocketed since de Blasio was sworn in as mayor in January, 2014 — including billions spent on affordable housing programs and legal aid — New Yorkers argue they’re yet to see results.

Tori Lyon, CEO of Jericho Project, a nationally recognised non-profit organisation aimed at ending homelessness, said it’s only a matter of time until taxpayers start seeing a significant change on the streets.

“You’ve already started to see it trickle down a little bit with the families in shelters,” Ms Lyon told news.com.au. “We’re really focusing on what the main barriers are to having this person have and maintain housing, produce direct cash assistance, also a focus on getting them jobs.

“We try to work with them to increase their income at the same time, they might be disabled and have a fixed income so it can be challenging to find affordable housing, they might have a criminal history, poor credit.”

Lyon, who has worked in the supportive housing industry for nearly 20 years, was quick to defend de Blasio’s frequently criticised approach to ending homelessness, saying, “there’s never been a mayor who has poured more resources into it.”

Speaking in support of de Blasio’s two-year focus on veterans (in December, the federal government announced an end to chronic veteran homelessness), Lyon added: “Has it paid off yet? Not really but we’ve had success with veterans, which really heartens me.

“We have really wonderful outreach teams that work 24 hours a day, they engage people on the street, you always offer them shelter, a lot of people don’t take it.”

Inevitably, there will be those who fall through the cracks in the system.

Jennifer, 30, has been homeless for eight months, after being kicked out of a shelter where she had been for just 10 days. “We were staying with my husband’s mother and had to care for her medical expenses and she moved into hospice and we lost the house,” Jennifer told news.com.au.

“We don’t have [a New York City] ID, first of all. Second of all, we were in a shelter for 10 days and they kicked us out because we couldn’t prove we were homeless.”

She and her husband are currently waiting for their soup kitchen ID to qualify for free meals. “We want to try to save the money and bypass the system and you know, get a place of our own.”

Jennifer says she’s often moved along by police and told to find a quieter street corner away from heavy foot traffic, while the reaction from passers-by is varied.

“Some people think we choose to be out here, others give what they can,” she said.

George, a 24-year-old mechanic from Jersey, says he’s been out of work and living on the street for about a year.

“I didn’t go to college, so I was working off the books, working side jobs and stuff like that but since I didn’t go to school it’s hard,” he explained to news.com.au.

“I take my chances out here. The shelters are exactly as people say they are, they’re disgusting, they’re dirty. I’ve been to a couple, I won’t go back.”

George was one of thousands of homeless individuals forced to find shelter during last month’s record-breaking blizzard. “I did all right. We made it through, we stayed outside, it was cold but we all stuck together and we made it through,” he said, referencing a friend who happened to be begging across the street at the time.

Sharmaine, a 41-year-old born and raised in New York, found herself living on the streets with her husband a year ago. “Stupid situations [got us here] and then the city doesn’t seem to anything, unfortunately,” she told news.com.au.

The mother of one, who says she worked for eight years as a universal servant and six years as an assistant for Revlon, claims she has been unable to get into a shelter and has resided outside bustling Penn Station in Manhattan for the past six months.

“It sucks, being out here and not getting the help you need. And they’re saying that everyone’s got a mental health issue. No, this is why I’m out on the street, because I don’t pass the mental health issue status.

“When you go into the shelter and they put you through all of these questions, you gotta see a psychiatrist … my brain is too smart to be homeless and I’m too smart to go into the shelter for you to give me an apartment.”

Sharmaine’s husband, who remained bundled up in the blankets behind her while she spoke, lost his eyesight last year after being attacked and stabbed in the eyes while he was sleeping. He was taken to hospital and received adequate medical care, but the pair still found themselves back on the same street corner.

“I’ve got a lot of blankets, a lot of stuff, people and the churches bring us hot food,” said Sharmaine. “It is what it is. I look to the Lord to guide me.”

On any given night, there are more than 500,000 people experiencing homelessness in America. A quarter of them are children. Ms Lyon acknowledges that getting to full housing is a lofty and distant goal. “There’s not one solution, there are lots of things that need to be done, and it seems like the city is trying to address it in many different ways with different tools.

“But you still get to a point where you have 58,000 homeless people and — are there even enough houses in New York City?”