Homeless man in Harlem (156037)
Credit: Bill Moore

Homelessness is considered pretty much an accepted part of life in New York City and has been for decades—the man asking for money when you exit a building, the woman holding a child in her arms who speaks to the entire subway car, the shoeless man with a sign on the sidewalk or the man with the jingling cup asking passersby for spare change.

Although many might consider the homeless a nuisance or an unnoticeable part of the New York experience, the problem is real, and some say the city is ignoring the fact that the problem is growing.

Is the city turning the clock back to “the bad old days” of Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal being filled at night with sleeping homeless people, people living in subway cars and public parks made in encampments? The “tale of two cities” the mayor evoked during his campaign does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

“We have had a reduction in crime, and we’ve had a reduction in street homelessness,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a recent news conference. “And we are going to deal with problems related to mental health much more aggressively.”

The problem is perceived to be so bad that people are looking for ways to get the point across to city officials. Early this week, the Sergeants Benevolent Association launched a social media campaign asking its union members to take pictures of homeless people they see on the street.

“As you travel about the city of New York, please utilize your smartphones to photograph the homeless lying in our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality of life offenses of every type,” the memo sent Monday from Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins reads.

Headlines have been bombarded readers with stories about violent attacks by homeless people. Experts have said that while having people living on the street is an issue, the number of homeless people with emotional or mental issues is also becoming factor.

De Blasio announced this week the launch of the $22 million initiative “NYC Safe,” a program to support New Yorkers with untreated serious mental illness who are prone to violent behavior.

“It is our sacred mission to address a broken mental health system and to revolutionize how we care for all those who are struggling,” said de Blasio. “That includes the small percentage of those with mental illness that, left untreated, are at risk of committing violence against themselves or others.”

The new plan includes a series of measures that together create a continuum of services to meet the specific needs of this vulnerable population, from timely intervention to treatment and follow up, to a law enforcement response when it becomes necessary.

“Homelessness continued to worsen for most of 2014, but Mayor de Blasio’s plan to move families from shelters into stable, affordable housing is starting to have an effect,” said Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless.

This week alone, close to 60,000 people slept in homeless shelters each night. That number doesn’t include people who are not going to shelters or who are being turned away because there aren’t enough beds.

During the past city fiscal year, an all-time record 116,000 different New Yorkers, including 42,000 different children, slept at least one night in the New York City shelter system.

It’s also no surprise that homelessness hits the Black community the hardest. The number of homeless African-American and Latino New Yorkers has grown at an even faster rate. One of every 17 African-American children in New York City slept at least one night in a municipal homeless shelter during the past city fiscal year. One in 28 African-Americans and 1 in 68 Latinos used the New York City shelter system, whereas only 1 in 294 white New Yorkers used the shelter system.

Close to 60 percent of all households (families and individuals) using the New York City shelter system was African-American.

“To make sustained progress, however, Albany and Governor [Andrew] Cuomo must step up and act as the city’s partner in ending this crisis,” Brosnahan said. “With 1 in 17 African-American children spending at least one night in our shelter system last year, we cannot afford to wait any longer to make the investments that are proven to reduce homelessness.”