As the director of a 200-bed homeless men’s shelter, I deal with the homeless of our city on a daily basis. I can tell you from experience that homelessness is a real issue, and it is affecting more of us than we realize.
Early Tuesday morning, I participated in the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) count. The HOPE count is an annual assessment conducted by DHS, with the help of thousands of volunteers, to determine the number of individuals living in New York City public spaces. The HOPE count is considered to be the gold standard by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and for good reason. Since the HOPE count began in 2005, the number of documented homeless individuals living on the streets has decreased 26 percent–from 4,395 to 3,262. HOPE gets results.
As the team leader of five volunteers, we canvassed multiple blocks and subway stops in East New York, Brooklyn, and identified a number of homeless veterans and homeless youth, among others. While it was inspiring to see the level of compassion and generosity from the volunteers who came out to join in the HOPE count on Tuesday morning, it is important to keep in mind that we have much more work to do to fully address this issue.
Factoring in the necessary cost of food, transportation and other essentials, there is simply no way that a person living on the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour can afford a room, much less their own apartment. Under these wage conditions, this is no longer a city where we are one or two paychecks from homelessness: We now live in a city where many working people are homeless, and the worst part about it is that with the cutting of the Advantage Program in 2011, there is no longer a city program designed to assist homeless families in their transition from shelters to affordable housing.
Our goal as a city should be to do all that we can to eliminate homelessness. To that end, we need a living wage bill with teeth, an increase in funding for subsidized housing and to re-evaluate the state’s EMI levels. These measures would give more access to housing to many of our lower-wage earners and make a difference in diminishing the number of New Yorkers living on our streets and in our shelters.
There is much work to be done, but together we can win the battle against homelessness.
Jelani Mashariki is a community activist.