After months of headlines bemoaning New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's handling of homelessness on the city streets, the mayor announced on Wednesday a $2.6 billion investment in creating 15,000 new supportive housing units over the next 15 years for the city's most severely-disabled homeless people.
The project will help transition mentally-ill, disabled, and addicted individuals living on the street into apartment-style homes with health and community services on-site, and is one of the best ways for public officials to help that portion of the homeless population, according to experts.
"These housing units are designed for people with very severe disabilities who have been on the streets a long time, and it's proven to be very very effective at getting people off the streets and into housing that nobody thought could possible be housed," said Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
It's also cost-effective, Berg noted. Individuals with disabilities — particularly mental health problems — who stay on the streets end up causing taxpayers more money in emergency medical and jail costs. Housing them and providing social services can help prevent those costs from accruing.
"Every person in supportive housing and on the road to wellness is one fewer person in a city hospital, prison or shelter," de Blasio said in a statement. "By making this historic investment, we are confronting the moral crises of homelessness and mental illness our city faces today."
The city said it will also help veterans and those under 25 living on the streets.
The individuals will be asked to pay about 30 percent of their income, whether that's from Social Security or a paycheck, to help cover some of the costs, a standard procedure in public housing, Berg said.
But the severely disabled only make up about one-quarter of the city's homeless population, or about 13,500 individuals, while the rest of the city's 59,000 shelter inhabitants are almost entirely comprised of families, according to Giselle Routhier, policy director at coalition for the homeless.
Routhier praised de Blasio's announcement today as a "historic commitment" to an "effective tool," but said that more remains to be done for homeless families and other populations.
"This is more than any previous mayor has ever done and it comes at a time of significant need," she said. "We applaud the mayor."
'It's really doing nothing for people languishing in shelters, which are really families and children.'
To really make a dent in the city's housing population, the mayor will have to use the housing initiative as a starting point of a comprehensive strategy that will include rent subsidies, increased affordable housing units, and job creation, Arnold S. Cohen, president of the Partnership for the Homeless, said in reaction to the announcement.
"That's a good initiative for single adults struggling with mental health issues but it's really doing nothing for people languishing in shelters, which are really families and children, which really requires a larger effort," Cohen said.
Disabled individuals living on the street tend to get more attention from public officials than those who are living in shelters because they are more visible to the public, Cohen said.
Earlier this year, the a New York police union launched a campaign focusing on highlighting the number of homeless living on the street by asking individuals to post photos of the homeless to social media. Although the campaign helped create the perception that there are more homeless people living on the street today than under previous mayors, Cohen said the numbers don't support that.
"The numbers have increased a bit but not as significantly as some are suggesting. What's happened, and it's changing now, is that initially the police weren't being as aggressive," Cohen said.
Under prior mayors, he said, "they were able to hide it from our view, and chase folks away, and they weren't solving the problem at all."
But there has also been a recent increase in attention across the country to homelessness and effective solutions over the past six months, in part owing to the success the federal government has had in housing homeless veterans and in part because the economic recovery has made urban rental markets more competitive, Berg said.
In many cities around the country, middle class individuals have been able to afford to pay more for apartments, renting their own places after living with roommates or moving out of their parents' houses into apartments. This additional demand has driven up the price of rent and squeezed out those in the lowest tiers of the economy.
"I think leaders now realize we don't have to figure that homelessness is something we're just stuck with, we can do something about it," he said.
While the homeless advocates praised the mayor's move, many said it's only the beginning of what needs to happen to really tackle homelessness in New York.
The housing units are expected to be constructed by 2030.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
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