Taking A Look At NYC’s Sheltered Homeless Population

Source: NYC Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration and NYC Stat shelter census reports, via Coalition for the Homeless.

Source: NYC Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration and NYC Stat shelter census reports, via Coalition for the Homeless.

Homelessness in New York City is a problem, despite what Mayor Michael Bloomberg and spokespeople for the Department of Homeless Services might say. In the last two years alone, the number of people sleeping in municipal shelters has increased 27 percent. Since Bloomberg took office in January 2002, the number has increased 61 percent. To better understand the shocking graph floated around by advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, let’s take a look at significant events impacting homeless numbers in the last 40 years.

January 1974 to December 1989: During the reign of Ed Koch, homelessness became a pervasive problem in the city. “Bums” and “derelicts” could be found most anywhere, but they tended to congregate on “skid row,” which at the time was along the Bowery. The city was not required by mandate to shelter the homeless until 1981, after which Koch established the modern shelter system. (This is when the city began to try to count homeless in their shelters.) Some of the increase during Koch’s terms can be attributed to a rise in mentally ill patients being released to the street after 1960s and 1970s “deinstitutionalization” as well as the  crack epidemic, which began around 1984. As the chart shows, numbers rose during this time, but decreased after the epidemic and when many mentally ill were re-institutionalized in jail and nursing homes.

January 1990 to December 2001: The numbers remained steady during the terms of mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani. While addicts and mentally ill homeless decreased, sheltered numbers didn’t decrease because income inequality remained and many of the city’s poor were unable to find affordable housing. At the end Giuliani’s administration, the number of sheltered homeless increased dramatically, by 35 percent from January 2000 to January 2002, when Bloomberg took over.

January 2002 to May 2004Before and after Bloomberg was first inaugurated, sheltered homelessness saw huge increases as the result of the recession in the early 2000s (which was partly ignited by the Dot-Com boom).

June 2004: In response to the crisis, Bloomberg unveiled a five-year plan to reduce homelessness by two-thirds, focusing on programs and interventions that “solve homelessness” as opposed to “simply sheltering individuals and families.”

October 2004: The Bloomberg administration announced they would no longer allow homeless families in emergency shelters to apply for Section 8 federal rent vouchers or public housing, instead offering five-year rent subsidies called “Housing Stability Plus.” Section 8 vouchers provide rent subsidies for an unlimited amount of time. HSP, on the other hand, provided working candidates with shrinking rent grants up to $1,300, depending on family size, for up to five years to working candidates.

April 2007: The city announced the end to “Housing Stability Plus,” which was replaced by “Work Advantage.” The new program provided rental-assistance vouchers up to $1,100 a month for two years or less to sheltered homeless people who found jobs.

March 2011: The state cuts funding for Advantage and the city stopped the program entirely without a replacement. Since then, the number of sheltered homeless has increased 34.6 percent.

Tompkins Square: A Park Divided…on Cleanliness, Anyway

The central knoll at Tompkins Square Park in N...

Image via Wikipedia

Depending on the different sections of Tompkins Square Park, visitors are divided on its cleanliness, though a government report found a small drop in the percentage of  parks deemed “acceptable” in overall cleanliness.

Jeremy Flynn, 23, said that the dog run is always cleaner than the walkways in the park. “There’s a lot of trash,” he said. “I have to watch the dogs so they don’t pick up cigarette buds and shit like that.” However, Flynn, who moved to the city from Texas five years ago, explained that the park was better than those back home. “This is probably as good as it gets,” he said.

Many East Village residents seem to agree with Flynn. Despite the chilly 40-degree weather, hundreds flock to Tompkins Square Park on one of the few clear days in February to enjoy the sun. The park, between Avenues A and B and from East 7th to 10th Streets, has a dog run, several playgrounds and a basketball court that skateboarders share with the players. In addition to water fountains, a comfort station and many benches, several dozen trashcans are available to the park’s visitors.

Regardless of the trashcan abundance in Tompkins Square Park, the city reported fewer parks throughout the five boroughs deemed “acceptable” for cleanliness, with a decrease from 93% in 2006 to 88% in 2010. The Mayor’s Management Report for Fiscal Year 2010, released last September, evaluates services during the City’s fiscal year from July 2009 to June 2010 and assesses the performance of 46 of the City’s central agencies and organizations, most of which report directly to the Mayor. Evaluations are based on the office’s own research.

Through this research, the city found the percentage of large parks like Tompkins Square rated “acceptable” for cleanliness declined from 89% in 2006 to 76% in 2010. However, the amount only decreased by one percent since 2009.

In spite of the decrease in the number of acceptably clean parks in the city overall one visitor said she thinks Tompkins Square Park has gotten cleaner in the last eight or seven years. “It seems a lot more family oriented,” said the woman, 31, who has been living near  the park for the last decade. “They upgraded the kiddie area and did a lot of landscaping.”

East Village resident Mark Wightman, 41, visits the park with his kids a few times a week. While they spend most of the time in the park at the playground, Wightman said he believes the park is reasonably clean. “I don’t think there’s a lot of graffiti or anything, but we’re mostly in the playground.”

The park’s playgrounds and dog run are virtually spotless, but pathways with less foot-traffic attract glass, cigarette butts and litter. In corners of the park further from the entrances, garbage is sprinkled near trashcans instead of thrown away, attracting the city’s nastier residents.

Though Bridget Maher, 24, visits the dog run often, she explained she was worried about her small dog being hurt by the park’s rats. “I was walking her the other night and this rat just came out of a pile of trash and starred at us,” Maher said. “I’m worried about the garbage piles and all the rats that live in them,” she added, pointing to a heap of ten bags near the comfort station. Like Maher, a reporter observed several rats in various sections of the park walking through the park one night.

While she’s weary of the rats, Maher said her dog chases after them. “She has fun,” Maher said, laughing. Notwithstanding vermin, Maher explained she was pleased with the cleanliness in Tompkins Square Park overall. “Other than that, it’s fine,” she said.

Note: The above was an assignment for my Journalistic Inquiry class. I published it because I liked it and thought it might be interesting to some people.