Homeless man in Harlem (156037)
Credit: Bill Moore

We are not sure what changed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mind about the homeless crisis, but he’s no longer denying it is dramatically increasing. Maybe he ventured over to 125th Street and Lexington, or strolled along Eighth Avenue in lower Manhattan, or took a ride on the A-Train early one morning. At any of these sites—and thousands more—he would have seen living evidence of homelessness.

You don’t have to go far in the city to see people sprawled out on benches in public parks, covered with cardboard blankets at church doorways or pushing shopping carts full of their belongings and clustered at various subway stations. If these huddled masses escaped the mayor’s “perception,” he may have arrived at a new reality from negative news reports and respondents to polls citing their disgust with his response to the problem.

And there may be much more to the recent resignation of Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, deputy mayor for health and human services, who back in May seemed happy with the mayor’s promise to commit $100 million to combat homelessness.

Somehow and somewhere between that promise and the current crisis, between the shadow and the act, the homeless issue has increased exponentially. Perhaps the presence of the homeless is seasonal, their visibility more evident during the spring and summer months. Rather than speculate on the cause and effect of the problem, we take our guidance from the Coalition for the Homeless, an organization that devotes all its time to providing up-to-the-minute information on the homeless.

According to its latest report, homelessness in the city has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. Early on, when the mayor heard of this report, he dismissed it, suggesting there was no increase, claiming that the eyes of residents were deceiving them. In June, the Coalition reported that 58,761 homeless people, including 14,031 homeless families with 23,692 homeless children, were “sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system.” The report further stated, “Families comprise nearly four-fifths of the homeless shelter population.”

Around the same time this report was announced, we were pleased to learn that the Department of Homeless Services was celebrating 45 college-bound high school students and seven St. John’s University graduates who were living in DHS shelters. Obviously, these accomplishments are a good sign, but much more is needed if the number of children living in shelters is as high as reported.

And some of the numbers from the Coalition are staggering: Over the course of the fiscal year 2014, more than 116,000 different men, women and children slept in the city’s shelter system, including nearly 42,000 different homeless children. There is no need for us to note that African-American and Latino residents are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

We could spend the rest of this editorial citing the misery index on the homeless from the Coalition and the problems, but what are some of the available solutions? Now that the mayor has received his wakeup call on the problem, we suggest that he step up his promise to add more supportive housing. Again, the Coalition, which has been insightful in indicating the problems of the homeless, proposes several solutions that have proved successful in the past and in other cities.

Federal housing, particularly public housing, and the housing choice vouchers, or Section 8 vouchers, have reduced family homelessness, keeping them secure and stable without relying on shelters.

Back in the 1980s, the city initiated a permanent supportive housing program that proved effective. Now there is a need to renew or upgrade this program, which saved taxpayers money that would have otherwise been spent on costly shelters.

Decent, affordable housing is key to the problem most of our homeless citizens face, and until the federal, state and municipal governments—including our mayor—see homelessness as a critical and urgent problem, we will only witness an increase in the numbers of homeless. Immediate action is necessary not only to meet the needs of those currently adrift but also to minimize those destined for the same deplorable condition.

Now that the homeless have the mayor’s attention, let’s hope his reaction to the dilemma is more than momentary. The homeless require more than a passing nod, more than tossing a quarter into the plastic cup and moving on to business as usual.