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Credit: Contributed

Currently in New York City more than 60,000 people are sleeping in homeless shelters, including approximately 23,000 children. According to a 2011 study, a citywide count of vacant buildings and lots could provide housing for almost 200,000 people.

Advocates recently pointed to three city-owned vacant lots that could be used. Community residents, elected officials, homeless people, housing advocates and other stakeholders recently gathered on the sidewalk outside of the lots that have been vacant since the 1970s.

The group is fighting for the passage of the Housing Not Warehousing Act (Intros 1034, 1036, 1039), a bill currently before the City Council that would empower the city to quantify vacant buildings and lots throughout the city and to identify solutions.

“We are failing to provide for our city’s homeless population, which has grown to levels not seen since the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “If we utilize the city’s vacant lots and buildings, we could find housing for every homeless New Yorker. The Housing Not Warehousing Act realizes this solution by enumerating all vacant lots, creating a mandatory registry for landlords owning vacant property and using the vacant properties to create affordable housing units.”

Introduced in May, the bill would create a mandatory registry for all landlords holding their property vacant, with fines for failure to register, mandate an annual count of all vacant property in the city and compile a list of all city-, state-, federal- and authority-owned vacant property suitable for the development of affordable housing.

“We need to know what’s actually vacant, so we can stop landlords from warehousing units, trying to make more money,” said Picture the Homeless member Arvernetta Henry. “If you have an empty apartment, there’s a family that needs it. Meanwhile the city’s wasting money keeping those same families in shelters. The Housing Not Warehousing Act needs to be passed. There is too much at stake. Senior citizens aren’t getting any younger. Are they waiting for us to die off? There’ll just be more of us.”

Housing the homeless could also save the city millions of dollars. The city currently spends more than $1.5 billion on homeless shelters every year. PTH co-founder Anthony Williams said one of the reasons why homelessness seems never-ending is because homelessness fuels the city’s “shelter-industrial complex.”

PTH is launching The Business of Homelessness, a participatory research project shaped by homeless New Yorkers containing budget analysis, anecdotes and facts and figures.

“Every homeless person you see is worth big money,” Williams said. “Once we give a provider our Social Security number, our Medicaid card, that’s money from the government. And I figured out that I am very valuable, but I didn’t realize it because I was so caught up in the system, just going from shelter to shelter.”