amNY series, day three: City braces for rise in homeless
New York City is legally obligated to shelter the homeless and officials have pledged to meet demands even if the weakened economy means a diminished budget. (RJ Mickelson/amNY)
As record numbers of newly homeless families check into city shelters, a likely symptom of a weakening economy, observers are asking how much worse the problem might get.
While New Yorkers could see an increase in the number of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks in the coming months, residents shouldnt expect their quality of life to suffer, said Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who studies homelessness.
First of all, because the city has a legal obligation to shelter the homeless, the number of people sleeping in public should remain minimal although thousands still spend the night outside.But New Yorkers should not feel less safe because rises in crime have never been directly linked to the economy, and aggressive panhandling would only fester if residents tolerate it.
Theres plenty of soup kitchens in this city, Mac Donald said. With the amount of assistance that is offered, nobody needs to go hungry.
New Yorkers interviewed last week said they have yet to notice more homeless people on city streets, adding that they dont feel threatened by the ones they do encounter.
It just makes me feel bad for those guys, said John Watkins, 41, of the Flatiron district, who said he recently witnessed Au Bon Pain workers in Union Square giving bread to people who appeared hungry.
I think you just question if they really are beggars, said Nicole Sherry, 24, of the East Village. You see the same people every day. You feel guilty, but I dont know if I should give them money.
Ma cDonald said one of the few ways New Yorkers lives could be impacted is if the city and state governments are forced to dedicate more taxpayer money to accommodate a rising homeless population, potentially taking dollars from other government projects or services.
To date, the increase in homelessness is isolated to families with children. More than 8,200 families, accounting for more than 26,000 individuals, were living in shelters as of last week. In September, 1,464 new families entered shelters, a record high for the third consecutive month since the city began tracking such numbers 25 years ago.
Other homeless segments in shelters single adults and adult families -- were down in October compared to a year earlier. However, that could soon change if the economy continues its downward spiral.
Were really in the early stages of the recession, said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. We havent really seen the last of the job losses and the impact of the economic downturn on the city. I think theres going to be a ripple effect from the Wall Street layoffs thats going to continue for at least many more months.
Overall, more than 35,000 people are in the citys shelter system. The total number of homeless in the city is difficult to pin down, but some estimates exceed 50,000.
Making matters worse, Markee said, is that homeless prevention services were among the victims of city and state budget cuts this year and could be on the chopping block again in 2009.
In many cases, prevention services landlord/tenant mediation, one-time rent payments, employment assistance -- stave off eviction at a small fraction of the cost to house a family in a shelter, about $31,000 a year, Markee said.
At a time of economic downturn, you should be putting more money into those programs because theres going to be greater need and greater demand for services, Markee said.
Robert Hess, director of the citys Department of Homeless Services, said the Bloomberg administration is striving to strike the right balance between prevention and providing shelter as it makes tough budget decisions. Hess said hes confident the city will meet the demand to shelter the homeless even if Homeless Services budget is cut again.
I think the mayor has been very firm in that commitment, Hess said.