Homeless shelters are overflowing — and most likely in poor areas, despite fair share promises
Mayor Eric Adams says every community must do its part to house the homeless. Yet his own Department of Homeless Services is canceling planned shelters in the face of community pushback.
Since late spring the number of homeless families seeking shelter in New York City has risen steadily, putting increasing pressure on the limited supply of beds available to keep them from winding up in the streets.
Mayor Eric Adams has called the spike “unprecedented” and claimed it’s driven by asylum-seekers instructed to check in at the city’s shelters. On Tuesday, he announced a new push to find more spots for beds across the city.
“We have to continuously find new locations for emergency housing,” he said. “We’re going to reach out to all of our electeds who are advocating on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are homeless and we’re going to ask them to assist us in finding locations within their districts.”
And, he made clear, all neighborhoods need to be part of the solution. “Everyone must be in the game,” he said. “You cannot say, ‘House the homeless, let’s get them off the street — just don’t put them on my street.’ You can’t do that.”
But five years after Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, promised dozens of new shelters in every community district, the initiative remains far behind what was promised — and the shelters remain inequitably distributed, disproportionately concentrated in the city’s lowest-income communities.
As of this week, only 48 of the 99 new shelters de Blasio vowed to create by 2023 have actually opened, while eight community districts out of the city’s 59 still have zero shelters, a review by THE CITY has found.
In Adams’ first months in office, his administration has put the brakes on three shelters that were on the verge of opening — all in community districts that still do not have a homeless shelter, and where local opposition has been fierce.
Other shelters have been in the planning stages in those districts, in some cases for years, with no opening dates in sight.
The shelter system, and its costs, have been on an overall upward trajectory. Last year the Department of Homeless Services’ budget topped $3 billion, triple what it was 10 years ago when the shelter population was two-thirds what it is today.
De Blasio invited headlines, and a lawsuit, when his administration converted a “Billionaires Row” hotel in midtown Manhattan into a men’s shelter; it opened at the end of his second term, four years after it was first announced.
But the heaviest burden of sheltering the homeless still falls on neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and Hispanic and saddled with the highest rates of poverty, THE CITY’s examination found. Meanwhile, community districts that host the fewest and in some cases no shelters have the lowest rates of poverty citywide. The population of these districts is predominantly white or Asian.
The 20 community districts with poverty rates above the citywide average of 20% host on average 11 per district, while the 39 districts below the citywide poverty rate host on average three.
The population of Bronx Community District 6, which includes East Tremont, Belmont and Bathgate, is 63% Hispanic and 26% Black. This district has one of the highest poverty rates in the city at 40%. It also houses 21 shelters — the second highest number of any community district in the city.
Brooklyn’s CD16 (Broadway Junction, Brownsville, Ocean Hill) has a poverty rate of 33%. It also has 23 shelters — the most of any community board in the entire city. That community district is 67% Black, 22% Hispanic, 3% white and 1% Asian.
“The community felt that it was an oversaturation of shelters, especially with the single shelters where most of the clients have [mental health] classifications,” said CD16 Community Board Chairperson Genese Morgan. “This has impacted upon the quality of life, especially on those blocks where the shelters are located. We have received and continue to receive complaints of loitering on private property.”
Again and again, the de Blasio-instigated “fair share” effort on shelters has run into obstacle after obstacle, often with more affluent, better organized neighborhoods pushing back or suing to keep shelters out of their neighborhoods while other less-affluent communities find shelters popping up all over.
‘Definitely an estimate’
The need for more shelter space emerged as a flash point last week when Adams convened an emergency press conference to acknowledge City Hall was confronting a new wave of shelter applicants that he called a “historical surge.” His administration later sent out a transcript driving home what he says is the issue with the shelter system: “MAYOR ERIC ADAMS PROVIDES UPDATE ON ASYLUM SEEKERS.”
Adams claimed at that press conference that the spike started in late May or early June “when it was revealed that, oh, these are families from out of state, from other countries, that’s starting to show up.”
Department of Homeless Services data shows the number of families staying in city-run shelters has been steadily rising since May, from 8,587 on May 1 to 9,520 as of Thursday (the most up-to-date daily count).
New York City is legally required to promptly provide “safe, sanitary and decent” shelter to all families with children but earlier this month four families with children ended up sleeping at the DHS intake center in the Bronx, the Adams administration confirmed, in what the Legal Aid Society said was the first violation of the law since at least 2014.
The city’s 168 family shelters have the capacity to house 9,700 families. On Friday, a DHS spokesperson described the current vacancy rate as “severely below the standard vacancy rate (5%) we hope to maintain for the shelter system.”
There is much debate about what’s causing this surge in demand. While Adams claimed the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona were sending asylum-seeking individuals on buses to New York, those officials acknowledged they were sending asylum seekers to Washington, D.C. but denied sending them to New York City.
Adams asserted 2,800 individuals seeking asylum have recently shown up at city family shelters, while Manuel Castro, head of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, claimed at the same press conference that “almost over 3,000 asylum seekers have arrived.”
A DHS spokesperson told THE CITY the agency started seeing a significant increase in its families with children census and recently reported a corresponding increase in the migrant population seeking services.
Department of Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins admitted the mayor’s number was “definitely an estimate,” noting that the agency does not ask a person’s immigration status when they apply for a bed.
Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, questioned the mayor’s claim that it’s asylum seekers driving the rising demand for shelter, noting other factors in play — including an increase in evictions following the January termination of a statewide pandemic moratorium.
She also noted the annual summer phenomenon in which homeless families seek shelters before the start of school in the fall to ensure children can attend schools nearby.
“Nobody knows for sure other than that every family that applies for shelter has a unique circumstance,” Nortz said. “There is no evidence in anything we’ve found to show that there is a state government that’s shipping people by bus to New York City.”
A capacity problem
No matter the cause, City Hall acknowledged that they must find ways to address the need for more shelter beds. Last week, Adams recounted Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom telling him that “because of the surge, Eric, we’re going to have to look into new locations and do different things.”
Early last year, the de Blasio administration ended the practice of sending families to “cluster sites” — privately owned apartment buildings that were often plagued by poor conditions. Last fall, DHS stopped placing homeless individuals in hotels.
But with the recent surge, DHS on Adams’ watch has again begun turning to hotels, as City Limits recently reported. As of May 2022, 47 of the 366 buildings that house homeless individuals and families in New York City were commercial hotels.
Meanwhile, the number of city-run shelter beds has remained the same for quite some time.
The issue is neighborhood resistance that puts planned shelters into a kind of NIMBY Twilight Zone, particularly in community districts that currently have no shelters.
So much opposition emerged over the last year in some zero-shelter districts that Adams had to pull the plug on planned facilities, including a men’s shelter at 2028 White Plains Avenue in Bronx CD 11 (Allerton, Pelham Parkway and Morris Park), canceled in March, and a shelter with stabilization beds at 231 Grand Street in Manhattan’s CD 2 (Greenwich Village and SoHo and parts of Chinatown), canceled in May.
A third shelter planned for zero-shelter CD 11 in Brooklyn has also been canceled. Adams spokesperson said that decision was made by the prior administration, although as of last week the community had not been informed of this.
“As part of our equitable shelter siting process, we are committed to opening shelters in communities that don’t have any or sufficient transitional housing resources,” DHS spokesperson Neha Sharma wrote in an emailed response to questions from THE CITY. “To that end, we remain committed to opening shelter sites we already have in the pipeline for communities that don’t have traditional shelter capacity.”
“There very likely is pushback as the city is going out to open more capacity. I have no doubt they’re getting calls from electeds saying, ‘Don’t do this in my district,’” Nortz of the Coalition for the Homeless said. “I do sympathize with the city administration in their struggle to get community acceptance.”
She stressed the importance of keeping this process fair by fulfilling the promise to distribute the burden to all neighborhoods, not just the locations that already have their share of shelters.
“Every community in NYC has homeless people that come from there and need a place to stay, so every community should contribute to helping people get shelter,” she said.
The idea of treating neighborhoods equally is hardly new. Back in 1990 the city adopted a “Fair Share” rule requiring that the city site facilities in an equitable manner across neighborhoods, as mandated by the city charter.
But past administrations — including de Blasio’s — balked at aggressively applying the rule, and in 2017 then-City Councilmember Brad Lander found “NYC’s Fair Share rules aren’t working as they were intended.” He proposed a package of reforms, but de Blasio fought the effort and the rules from the ‘90s were never updated.
The struggle to distribute the burden more equally emerged recently in Brooklyn where shelter plans are pending in two community districts with zero shelters: CD 10 (Bay Ridge), which is 51% white and 27% Asian with a poverty rate of 13.8%, and CD 11 (Bensonhurst) which is 43% Asian and 36% white with a poverty rate of 16%.
In both communities, opposition emerged instantly — and as of this week, neither of the planned shelters has an opening date.
CD 10 held a November virtual hearing on a proposed shelter to house 121 families, to be run by Women In Need (WIN) at 801 65th St. More than 100 residents participated, with some supporting the shelter but most opposing its location at a gateway to Brooklyn’s biggest Chinese community and near two elementary schools.
“We’re a little concerned about having a homeless shelter at the entrance to Brooklyn Chinatown as the best representation of our community,” said Paul Mak of the Brooklyn Chinese American Organization.
Joslyn Carter, a DHS administrator, pushed back, stating, “We committed in 2017 to have shelters throughout Brooklyn. Every community is in the same boat. It’s not just in certain communities.”
Organized community opposition has succeeded in halting plans for new shelters in community districts that have none, or in changing and delaying plans for them. Take what happened in Brooklyn’s CD 11.
The district first learned of DHS’s plans for a 150-bed men’s shelter at 2147 Bath Ave in December 2020. The developer was a multinational corporation specializing in real estate development and running hotels, and the community immediately came out against it.
The community board held a virtual meeting in 2021 with 700 people participating and got 4,000 more watching. As of last month, local officials who were opposing it said they hadn’t heard from the administration in months about what was going on.
On Friday a DHS spokesperson confirmed that the prior administration had dropped the Bath Avenue site, apparently without notifying the community.
On Tuesday CD 11 District Manager Marnee Elias-Pavia said the board still hasn’t heard from DHS about whether the Bath Avenue plan is dead or alive.
“The communication was lacking to say the least,” she said. “It was back and forth. We had a meeting with them. We were opposed to the single men’s shelter. They came, they gave notification, and we never heard back. We never got a response from DHS.”
But CD11’s victory was temporary. DHS told THE CITY the Bath Avenue shelter would be replaced by a shelter to house 75 families in the district at 137 Kings Highway, but had not yet informed the community board. Assemblymember William Colton (D-Brooklyn) notes the non-profit provider, Homelife, picked by the city to run that shelter has been cited for problems at other shelters.
“The community is totally united. We have brought together every element of a very diverse community and they’re against it,” he said. “We’re against money making companies that are basically making their money off the backs of homeless people. We’re not opposed to helping homeless people and we do support things like affordable housing.”
‘An unfair burden’?
A tale of shelter inequity has been unfolding for months in Lower Manhattan, where DHS canceled what would have been the first homeless shelter in Community District 2, in a former hotel at 231 Grand Street in Chinatown.
There residents challenged the proposal, saying the facility would put more burden on the Chinatown neighborhood at a time when Asian hate crime reports swelled. Chinatown is also in Community District 3, which already hosts 14 shelters housing nearly 1,200 individuals and families.
Spread across CD 1, CD 2 and CD 3, the neighborhood is already lifting up an uneven burden of the homeless shelters in Lower Manhattan.
Minutes of Community Board 2’s April meeting declared that the proposed 231 Grand Street shelter with 94 stabilization beds faced “unprecedented and sustained opposition” from the community as it was seen “by many in the community as an unfair burden to be placed on the Chinatown neighborhood.”
“Serious concerns around equity and safety must be addressed before deciding to move forward with a specific site,” the board minutes state.
The area was supposed to get one more “safe haven” men’s temporary shelter at 47 Madison Street but the city canceled it in April, amid concerns DHS was putting a disproportionate burden on the neighborhood of Chinatown.
“The safe haven at 47 Madison Street would have been a very good one. But that is the one that DHS decided to go back on because of “equity and fairness”,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager, Community Board 3. “It’s not very fair, or equitable to people living on the street that don’t have homes. It makes sense to have more services here because we have a history of being a very poor community. The homeless here are associated with the community.”
Stetzer said they haven’t heard from the DHS whether any new shelters will come to CD 3.
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