Déjà vu All Over Again?

Per Yogi Berra, we’ve learned very little over the last 40 years about dealing with the homeless

14 Aug 2020 | 10:35

I had to do a double take when the headline in the news said the city had moved hundreds of homeless men and women into West Side hotels. The public outcry harkened back to an era decades ago when the city, desperate to find shelter beds, paid inordinate sums of money to unscrupulous SRO and hotel owners and “dumped” homeless people into neighborhoods literally in the middle of the night.

What the public was unaware of then (and seems to not have a clue about now) is that the State of New York has a “right to shelter” mandate requiring it to house those who find themselves without a roof over their heads. This includes New York City, where there has been little public conversation about the underlying causes of homelessness or the rationale behind the government’s response. The issue will only become more acute as the pandemic lingers and there is an inevitable rise in housing evictions.

The mandate is the result of the 1979 landmark Callahan decision and ensuing consent decree issued by the New York State Supreme Court in 1981 in which the City and State agreed to provide shelter and board to all men who were homeless “by reason of physical, mental or social dysfunction.” This right is also embedded in the New York State constitution, which stipulates that the “aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state...” (Homeless women were later included in the mandate.)

This has shaped homeless policy over the last four decades. The city currently spends over $3 billion year on services and housing to individuals and families who have been displaced, often because of traumatic life events. In my mind, no municipality in the country is as caring and responsive to those in need (yes, there are imperfections) as New York City. This is a good thing.

Community Support

I come by this issue somewhat honestly. I’ve been an Upper West Side resident since 1975 and spent my entire working life creating programs for community residents. The majority of those years were spent at Goddard Riverside Community Center, a venerable settlement house on West 88th Street. I retired as the Executive Director in 2017. At Goddard Riverside we successfully created a continuum of care for homeless people from street outreach to permanent housing – all of which was accomplished with considerable community support and input. We never shied away from the community resistance when we developed housing or introduced a new service. Transparency and good faith efforts to include the community were tools to overcome the resistance and win over our neighbors. We were trusted.

I took a hiatus from Goddard Riverside in the early 1990s and was in on the ground floor when the Dinkins administration created the Department of Homeless Services. I was the Assistant Commissioner for Community Affairs and spent many hours in front of neighborhood groups explaining city homeless policy and the need for different neighborhoods to share the responsibility.

Why this background and context? Simply, because I know this issue well. The recent uproar over the use of local hotels as shelters has left me feeling that we have learned very little over the last 40 years. Yes, the city is caught between a rock and a hard place, but what were they thinking moving hundreds of homeless people into the neighborhood without any community consultation? Didn’t they know that the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces would be energized, and that questions (whether valid or not) of personal safety, property values and kids going to school would need to be addressed?

Promises that this would only be temporary come from an old playbook that the city is on the verge of solving the homeless crisis while we know that the numbers are higher than ever and “temporary” is never what it means. Moreover, there is little discussion of what it’s like for those homeless individuals to be uprooted and parachuted into a strange neighborhood where they might have little connection.

Joan Malin, a former Commissioner of Homeless Services, spent years in the trenches working on this issue and has a valuable perspective. “There is a long frustrating history of placing shelters in communities,” she said. “Everyone conjures images of homeless people as dangerous but more and more people are working and have lost housing, have nowhere else to go and want to feel safe especially in the midst of this pandemic. Still, there needs to be some kind of community process before placing people in strange neighborhoods. Residents need to be reassured that the community will be fine and people have to feel safe. This is the dialogue that needs to take place.”

The tragedy is that there are real evidence-based, practical solutions to addressing homelessness. They revolve around the development of more permanent housing and an active, serious engagement with the community to allay its visceral fears and concerns. Homeless people, like the rest of us, yearn to find work, lead stable lives and feel part of the community. Working with strong, local community-based organizations, we can tone down the rhetoric, help those who need a lift and add to the diversity of the West Side that we all cherish and wish to maintain.

Stephan Russo is a West Side Spirit contributor. He served as the Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center from 1998-2017.

“There needs to be some kind of community process before placing people in strange neighborhoods. Residents need to be reassured that the community will be fine and people have to feel safe. This is the dialogue that needs to take place.” Joan Malin, a former Commissioner of Homeless Services