New York City is in the throes of a humanitarian emergency, a term defined by the Humanitarian Coalition of large international aid organizations as “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people.” New York’s is what aid groups would characterize as a “complex emergency”: man-made and shaped by a combination of forces that have led to a large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes. What makes the crisis especially startling is that New York has the most progressive housing laws in the country and a mayor who has made tenants’ rights and affordable housing a central focus of his administration.
The tide of homelessness is only the most visible symptom. There are at least 61,000 people whose shelter is provided, on any given day, by New York’s Department of Homeless Services. The 661 buildings in the municipal shelter system are filled to capacity nightly, and Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced plans to open ninety new sites, many of which are already being ferociously resisted by neighborhood residents. A packed meeting in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, about a proposed shelter for 104 men over the age of fifty that I attended this winter quickly devolved into a cacophony of ire. “You dump your garbage on us because you think we’re garbage!” shouted a black woman to a city official. The official seemed stunned, and police watched anxiously as the meeting broke up.
The revulsion against the homeless seemed linked to a deep suspicion of “the powers that be, whoever they may be,” as one attendee put it. There were already several shelters in the area. The de Blasio administration’s argument that the homeless should be placed in the neighborhoods they come from so they can renew connections and have a better chance of getting back on their feet only compounded the insult. Were the local residents “connected” to the homeless—those on the lowest social rung? When the city changed eligibility for the shelter to men sixty-two and older, residents opposing it were not assuaged: a neighborhood association filed a lawsuit that blocked the shelter from opening for nearly two months, until it was dismissed by a judge in late May.
The case is indicative of what New York faces as it tries to cope with its housing emergency. Last year more than 127,000 different men, women, and children slept in the shelters. And in 2015, though the city managed to move 38,000 people from shelters to more permanent housing, the number of homeless increased. The administration’s most optimistic forecast sees no significant decrease in homelessness over…
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