As New Yorkers prepare to elect our next Mayor, there is an urgent need to address the sharp rise in homelessness. After a year that brought insecurity and devastation to our city — and that laid bare deep racial and economic inequalities — we need a leader who represents our City’s most vulnerable.
At a recent forum on the topic, candidates discussed housing solutions ranging from cancelling back rent, to converting hotels and offices, to building government-subsidized supportive housing for “special needs” populations. Even as a major shelter provider, we at The Doe Fund agree much more must be done to get people into permanent housing. To do so, candidates should prioritize another group for first-rung housing just as much as those deemed special needs: low wage workers.
These New Yorkers have been overlooked since at least 2000, when we built the last SRO building in NYC (from 200,000 SRO units in the mid-twentieth century, the City has retained 40,000, of which 11,000 are operated by nonprofits and the rest by commercial landlords who overwhelmingly fail to maintain decent conditions).
New York is a diverse and dynamic city. We need a diverse and dynamic toolkit to end homelessness, one that identifies people’s needs as well as their capabilities in order to match them with the right intervention. Supportive housing will help, but it cannot be the sole solution.
Housing for special needs populations and permanent rent subsidies may seem like the most immediate answer. However, only 25% of those experiencing homelessness are considered “chronically homeless” and thus eligible for permanent supportive housing. What about the other 75%? In the majority of cases, these individuals need opportunity-based transitional support — which has decreased 9% nationally over the previous year — to resolve their circumstances.
For example, we know that meaningful and sustainable employment is the key to creating and maintaining housing stability for non-disabled individuals. Researchers with the US Department of Labor’s seven-year Job Training for the Homeless Demonstration Program found that:
“[W]ith the appropriate blend of assessment, case management, employment, training, housing and support services, a substantial proportion of homeless individuals can secure and retain jobs and that this contributes to housing stability.”
Thirty years ago, The Doe Fund pioneered what it calls the Work Works approach, providing people experiencing homelessness with immediate access to paid employment and career training. They develop workforce skills and obtain living wage jobs. They also receive safe, transitional housing and comprehensive social services. Graduates leave the program sober, with permanent housing, industry licenses and certifications, and full-time employment.
Just as with housing, paid work alone is not the only solution. Providers need to offer a continuum of care that meets vulnerable citizens where they are. That is why The Doe Fund operates over 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing at 11 residences for those not best served by the Work Works model, including veterans, families, and individuals with disabilities, mental illnesses, and HIV/AIDS.
But the majority of people facing homelessness are ready, willing, and able to work; they must be provided with economic opportunity. This is especially true as we recover from a pandemic that drove the unemployment rate to nearly 15% and that has been disproportionately devastating for low income workers and people of color, already overrepresented in homeless populations. Columbia University projects that homelessness in America will rise by up to 45% — to potentially over 800,000 — as a direct result of COVID-19.
Housing alone will never be a panacea for homelessness. Efforts to address this crisis must be holistic, data-driven, cost-effective, and outcome-based. They must also include upstream interventions that address the lack of economic opportunity, the dearth of post-incarceration reentry services, insufficient access to behavioral healthcare such as addiction treatment, and the legacy of systemic racism.
New York City needs a Mayor who understands that homelessness is a condition that can be prevented and remedied through a multifaceted continuum of care, including renewed focus on paid employment and career training. Service providers like The Doe Fund should share our collective experience so our next leader has all of the tools needed to permanently solve this complex crisis.