New York City has been crumbling under the pressure of a homeless crisis - but an innovative experiment could turn the tide
- New York City has the largest homeless population in the United States with 77,000 homeless people.
- The De Blasio administration is tackling the issue by closing hundreds of low-quality shelter sites and building 90 new ones, including an innovative Bronx facility that combines a 200-bed shelter with more than 100 units of affordable housing.
- Experts say that the newly-opened building, and other shelters like it, may be "a step in the right direction," but the money may have been better spent directly on affordable housing.
With around 77,000 homeless people, New York City has the largest homeless population in the country.And while that constitutes a crisis, most who work on the issue say homelessness is really two problems: a lack of quality homeless shelters and a lack of affordable housing.Advertisement
Those two issues feed the larger vicious cycle of homelessness, where many people become homeless because they can't find an affordable home and then stay homeless due to shelters that don't deliver adequate services to get people back on their feet.
Muzzy Rosenblatt, the CEO of nonprofit shelter provider Bowery Residents' Committee, and Steven Banks, New York's commissioner of social services and the man tasked with alleviating the crisis, think they have a solution. Or at least a start.In February, BRC and the City opened the Landing Road Residence, a $62.8 million facility in the Bronx that uses a 200-bed homeless shelter to subsidize 135 low-income apartments.
Landing Road is able to do that because BRC developed, owns, and operates the building. Most other shelters are housed in buildings owned by private developers who rent the space at market rates to nonprofits, who ask the city to reimburse its costs.Rosenblatt told Business Insider that several years ago he had an epiphany: why not own the actual building, take out the income that a landlord would have kept as profit and use it to subsidize permanent housing. "[This model] takes the cycle and makes it virtuous," said Rosenblatt, who contends that by creating permanent housing, the demand for shelter shrinks, which allows the city to spend less on emergency housing and avoid spending on low-quality shelters simply to meet demand. Advertisement
Rosenblatt and the De Blasio administration are hoping that Landing Road becomes the city's model for shelters, as the administration seeks to revamp the shelter system by closing more than 360 sites and building 90 new facilities as part of its Turning The Tide program.
But some experts have questioned the efficacy of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into building new shelters, even those like Landing Road, when the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development and a vast cross-section of researchers say the best solution to homelessness is skipping shelters altogether and placing homeless people directly in affordable housing and providing support services, a strategy known as Housing First."It looks good on paper. It's not that it's a bad idea, but there are better ideas that cost less," Dr. Deborah Padgett, a New York University professor and leading researcher on homelessness, told Business Insider. "That's what baffles me."Advertisement
Business Insider recently got an inside look at the Landing Road Residence - here's what it's like:
Landing Road is the city's newest homeless shelter, located on a cul-de-sac overlooking the Major Deegan expressway in the Bronx. The bottom two floors are a 200-bed shelter for single men. The rest of the building is affordable apartments ranging from $470 to $1000 a month.
The facility's model is based on the commonly accepted idea that the city's homelessness issue is tied to a lack of affordable housing. "The new face of homelessness," Banks told Business Insider, is working people who fall into the shelter system because their income can't cover their rent.Advertisement
Since 1994, homelessness has exploded by over 100% in New York, while rents have gone up around 19% in real dollars, household income has actually gone down 6.3%, and the city has lost hundreds of thousands of rent-stabilized apartments.
Last year, the De Blasio administration launched its Turning The Tide program, a multi-pronged effort to stem the homelessness issue by revamping the shelter system with 90 new shelters, as well as an affordable housing plan that calls for building or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2022.Advertisement
The plan also launched rental assistance and rehousing programs like Living in Communities (LINC), which helps people move out of shelters. But Banks said those efforts have taken time to develop because the administration has had to rebuild the programs from scratch after similar programs were discontinued under Bloomberg.
The most visible result of the Turning The Tide program so far has been the revamping of the shelter system. In the last year, the city has opened 11 new shelters, Landing Road being one of them, with another six set to open by June.Advertisement
Some experts, like Padgett, the NYU professor, have criticized the city's focus on the shelter system, saying that it is costly and outdated. The Department of Housing and Urban Development said in December that it is more "efficient and effective" to put funding directly towards housing and support services for the homeless, a strategy known as Housing First.
Rosenblatt said that because New York is mandated to provide shelter to anyone homeless, there is a lot of pressure on the system. It's hard to divert shelter funds to housing when the city is just trying to stay above water on the shelter population.Advertisement
Currently, New York has around 60,000 people in homeless shelters around the city. In Rosenblatt’s view, if you could take even a third of the shelter system and convert it to Landing Road-esque facilities, you could generate enough subsidies to support 10,000 permanent low-income units without changing how the city spends its funds.
But making that kind of impact on "throughput" (i.e. moving more people from shelters to permanent housing) is contingent on nonprofits following the Landing Road model, which is no simple task.Advertisement
BRC is now raising money, using Landing Road as a proof-of-concept, to open two more similar facilities. Rosenblatt said BRC has secured $2 million in funds out of a goal of $7 million.
Landing Road is one of BRC's "employment shelters," meaning it focuses on single adults without severe mental health disorders or substance abuse issues who are able to work, are in job training, or are searching for work with BRC's help. Most are likely at the facility due to job loss or difficulty finding housing they can afford.Advertisement
Other shelters in the system focus on high-needs individuals who may just be coming off the street or suffering from severe disorders.
According to Padgett, if any shelter provider is going to experiment with a model like this, BRC has one of the best track records in the city. While the average stay for a single adult at a shelter is around 335 days, for BRC’s "employment shelters," it is only 220 days.Advertisement
Each client gets 60 square-feet of space and beds are required to be separated by three feet. Linens, blankets, and toiletries are stocked in each client's locker, which also comes with a lock. "It's like a mix between college and sleep-away camp," joked Rosenblatt.
Rosenblatt said the decision to focus on an employment shelter came from data about their clients. "We were seeing that our clients were finding jobs and moving out, but that they were coming back at higher rates than they were before," he said. "But they weren't coming back because of relapse or criminal activity, but because they were struggling."Advertisement
The city is working to create more modern, high-quality shelters like Landing Road in an effort to get more people off the street. But many homeless see the shelter system as a dangerous, restrictive place. DHS spokesman Isaac McGinn said that's more perception than reality.
Banks similarly suggested that Landing Road is the city's "new approach" to shelters due to the facility being specifically built for housing the homeless, its non-profit ownership, and focus on a specific population. For example, free laundry is available on-site.Advertisement
The administration is focusing on developing facilities like Landing Road designed to provide services to specific populations like those mental health issues, seniors, young people in the LGBTQI community, or families. BRC added this patio area so that clients have a space to hang out outside without incurring questions from the community.
According to Rosenblatt, it's something of a no-brainer for the city and other nonprofits to develop shelters like Landing Road. BRC is paying almost half-as-much per square foot as other shelters, according to Rosenblatt, and getting a brand new facility that also generates subsidies for housing.Advertisement
Apartments in the building are split between 111 studios and 24 one- and two-bedroom apartments. The studios, which will go to formerly homeless people, cost $470 per month. The one- and two-bedrooms cost around $714 and $1000 respectively, and will go to community members by lottery.
While Padgett said she likes the idea of creating more affordable housing with the model, she worries that it will be hard for those living there to get away from the "institutional" nature of the building.Advertisement
The larger issue for Padgett is that developing and running a facility like Landing Road costs a lot more money than other solutions.
Still, for Rosenblatt, the Landing Road model represents an opportunity to show nonprofits that they can make a difference in the affordable housing crisis, and thus homelessness, simply by changing how they operate.Advertisement
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