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As New York battles coronavirus, the homeless crisis rages on, too

A homeless man sits on 42nd Street across from Grand Central Station. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

BY SHELLY NORTZ

Year after year, we have seen the homelessness crisis reach record highs. One need not analyze the statistics to notice — every New Yorker sees it with their own eyes.

More than 250,000 New Yorkers were homeless at some point in the 2018-2019 school year. While New York City remains the epicenter of the worst homelessness crisis since the Great Depression, this is a crisis that does not discriminate and is not confined to only certain neighborhoods. 

Homelessness has risen dramatically since Governor Cuomo took office in 2011. The Governor eliminated State funds for a mediocre rental assistance program to help homeless New Yorkers secure and retain housing, and never replaced it with something better. Thousands of formerly homeless households found themselves once again homeless in the wake of this misguided change in State homelessness policy.

For too long, the state response has fallen far short of what we need to solve the homelessness crisis, which is rooted in an unchecked and deepening affordable housing crisis. It is imperative that in the coming days, Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders step up and take decisive action to end the vicious cycle of homelessness. That decisive action is to include Home Stability Support (HSS) in the State budget.  

Home Stability Support would help individuals and families receiving public assistance remain housed when they are at risk of displacement due to eviction, hazardous conditions, or domestic violence, and to help those who are already homeless obtain and retain stable housing. 

Due to the increase in housing costs, around two-thirds of households receiving public assistance statewide have rents that exceed their housing allowances, which is a leading reason why 23,000 more New Yorkers become homeless than escape homelessness each year. HSS would bridge the difference between incomes and reasonable rents to enable homeless and nearly homeless New Yorkers to stay out of the impermanent and often disruptive shelter system and move into secure homes.  

Shelters, while vitally important, are not homes and should not be viewed as the solution to homelessness. Overcrowded shelters are costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year. The real solution to homelessness is simple: Give the poorest New Yorkers who are homeless or on the brink ready access to affordable housing, and ensure they are able to stay in their homes. 

Housing is health care. As the rapidly growing threat of COVID 19 disrupts life everywhere, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of living without the privacy and security of a home. Those with fewer resources have an increased risk of being infected, particularly if they are dealing with other chronic medical conditions, as these are common among homeless individuals. The current health crisis underscores the urgency of tackling homelessness through housing subsidies such as HSS.  

It is now time for Governor Cuomo to step up and finally make a dent in our worsening homelessness crisis by including HSS in the State budget. An estimated 80,000 households would benefit from receiving HSS subsidies once fully implemented. By preventing evictions, helping those fleeing unsafe homes, and providing greater residential stability, HSS would have a ripple effect, giving New Yorkers the stability they need while also greatly reducing the unsustainable societal costs of record homelessness. HSS would benefit taxpayers by reducing the very high cost of shelters and other homeless services.  

It’s not only a fiscally smart solution — it’s a humane solution. Governor Cuomo can position New York as a leader in its response to homelessness and COVID 19 with the same remedy: He must include HSS in his final budget. This is an opportunity New York cannot afford to waste.

Shelly Nortz is the deputy executive director for policy at Coalition for the Homeless.

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