OPINION: New York needs to take homelessness solutions into its own hands; here’s how
Housing is a basic human right, as defined by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. This includes security, quality and affordability. Yet more than 60,000 New Yorkers live in homeless shelters, while thousands more experience homelessness on our streets or in public places. Now with President Donald Trump’s proposed executive budget cuts to affordable housing programs totaling $6 billion, this catastrophic number stands to get much worse.
Recently, LIU Brooklyn’s MPA program partnered with Care for the Homeless to hold a conference geared toward solutions. We brought together academics, key policymakers and homelessness advocates including New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, New York City Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks and Bobby Watts, CEO, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, to talk about changes that could end this needless disaster.
The pathway toward a solution lies in a combination of short and long-term social and policy changes in three major ideas: destigmatizing homelessness and humanizing people experiencing homelessness, passing a home-stability support bill and beginning to find long-term housing solutions in New York City’s overabundance of vacant properties.
Homelessness has long carried a social stigma that prevents those in need from getting the help they deserve. Destigmatizing is a crucial step toward eradicating homelessness. An actionable step is to tell the stories of the 60,000 people that populate our shelters. Who are they? How did they get there? By sharing their individual stories, we can humanize them, which is the first essential step toward changing hearts and minds.
Here’s how: We need to work with the media to help them understand how to report on homelessness in a multifaceted way, away from horror stories that tend to dominate tabloid journalism and social media. Platforms such as the “Face of Homelessness” campaign tell these individual stories. They change the perceptions of people experiencing homelessness. They help people understand that many of us are one or two bad breaks away from needing help ourselves.
We need to shift the way that homelessness is framed in the media and within the community of advocates. Shifting the rhetoric from an endless battle to one that contains a positive message with tangible solutions will counter “compassion fatigue” and can move people to understand that homelessness is a problem that can be solved.
On a policy level, we need to enact effective policy change and put the proper funding behind it. In the short term, that means we must advocate for New York state to pass and fund Home Stability Support legislation in the 2018-19 budget to increase housing allowance for people on public assistance.
Of course, the long-term answer to homelessness is housing, plain and simple. A starting point is releasing long-vacant government-owned properties, including lots and buildings, to be transformed into affordable housing for extremely low-income people and those living in deep poverty. This makes sense, financially and socially. At our conference, Public Advocate Letitia James called this “housing, not warehousing.”
The bottom line is that with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on the chopping block in the federal budget, New York cannot look to Washington. We must take matters into our own hands and solve this problem ourselves. Each day that we do not do so, another human being suffers on our streets. We cannot wait for more money from the federal government and we cannot let the stories of old crystalize the mindset that leave the homeless forgotten. Their plight worsens every day.
We have made progress to address this issue, but we still have mountains to climb. At Care for the Homeless and LIU’s MPA program, we believe that if we all work together, we can end homelessness in a matter of years, not decades. The 60,000 human beings in New York City’s shelters can be 60,000 potential success stories of how they achieved stable housing or 60,000 tales of woe. Let’s work together to rewrite this ending.
Jeff Foreman is director of policy at Care for the Homeless; Dr. Helisse Levine is director of the MPA program at LIU Brooklyn; and Dr. Edgar Troudt is assistant dean for the LIU Brooklyn School of Business, Public Administration and Information Sciences.
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