How to best help homeless

Councilman Eric UIlrich led protestors from Rockaway, Queens, against a DHS proposal to build a homeless shelter on Beach 101st Street in his Rockaway district.
Councilman Eric UIlrich led protestors from Rockaway, Queens, against a DHS proposal to build a homeless shelter on Beach 101st Street in his Rockaway district. Photo Credit: Todd Maisel

NYC faces a historic crisis of homelessness, and there is a need for more shelter for families. But there are few issues in NYC today that generate as much public rancor as the siting of homeless shelters.

A number of siting discussions have been characterized by contentious, hours-long community board meetings, protests at a city commissioner’s home, and personal attacks on service providers. Often, outsized attention goes to the loudest residents who claim to speak in opposition for the neighborhood.

But the truth is that this anti-shelter sentiment doesn’t actually represent how most New Yorkers feel. And they’ve said so.

Win, the largest provider of family shelter in NYC, commissioned a poll with HarrisX of more than 1,000 New Yorkers across the five boroughs on homelessness. When New Yorkers were asked whether they would support or oppose a homeless shelter opening in their neighborhood, 59 percent voiced support. Fifty-two percent said NYC has too few homeless shelters.

What emerges from this poll is that New Yorkers believe that shelter is a human right. An overwhelming 92 percent of New Yorkers agreed that more needs to be done to combat the crisis, and more than 9 in 10 residents said we should provide shelter to all those who need it.

These findings are a far cry from the standard neighborhood opposition stories that emerge during shelter siting discussions. But while New Yorkers are ready to act on this crisis, many still have perceptions that don’t match the reality of the crisis. More than 70 percent of the 61,000 people who will sleep in a city shelter tonight are families with children.

Our city’s housing crisis hurts residents across most of the economic spectrum, but low-income New Yorkers are the hardest hit. That’s why the main focus of “The Forgotten Face of Homelessness: Housing Instability,” Win’s public policy and advocacy campaign, is addressing housing insecurity for the most vulnerable.

At Win, we regularly hear from mothers who tell us that city rental vouchers — one provides $1,553 per month in rent for a family of four — don’t come close to the amount needed to secure a modest, safe apartment. And when homeless families finally can achieve housing independence, the system fails them yet again. Once families leave shelter, they lose access to supportive services, like child-care assistance and counseling, just when they need them the most.

We can build a better future for the thousands of homeless families across NYC. There’s a lot of work to do, and it’ll take more than a few pieces of legislation to break the cycle of homelessness. But now, for the first time, we have proof there’s no need to fear the political consequences of taking action.

Christine Quinn, a former City Council speaker, is the president and chief executive of Win, a provider of shelter, social services, and supportive housing for homeless families in NYC.