City’s Homelessness Crisis Worsens

A home for the homeless in Harlem is often one where they can find recyclables in order to get change. (Photo taken by M’Niyah Lynn)

By M’Niyah Lynn | Dec. 16, 2020

Raven Randall is used to seeing the homeless around her neighborhood in Harlem. Still, the cashier was shocked when she learned her own uncle had become one of them after being evicted in February. 

“I walk around New York and I just see a vast quantity of homeless and drug addicts out here,” she said, adding that she has seen a definite increase from five years ago. Randall sees them “more on the streets in areas that [she’s] not used to seeing them in.” 

Randall’s uncle, Jerry Randall, was able to leave the shelter system and is now living with Raven’s aunt in Brooklyn. But with so many people out of work and shelters at reduced capacity due to the pandemic, a growing number are struggling in shelters or on the streets. 

In September of this year, there were 534,138 single adult New Yorkers living in shelters, an increase of 42,753 from September of 2019, the Department of Homeless Services reported. And with the coldest months of the year ahead as the infection rate surges, advocates and mayoral candidates are calling on the city to take urgent action.

“You address homelessness by giving homeless people addresses,” Democrat Jocelyn Taylor said in a Dec. 5 Zoom forum for mayoral hopefuls. 

A lack of space for the homeless amid the pandemic has intensified the existing need for supportive housing and has increased virus transmission. Sheltered individuals in the city have died at a rate that is 78 percent higher than people who are in stable housing, Cal Hedigan, CEO of Community Access said to the Coalition for the Homeless, in response to advocates calling for more supportive housing units. 

The city contracted with the Hotel Association of New York City (HANYC) back in April to relieve some of the pressure on shelters by placing homeless individuals in 63 hotels around the city, covering the average nightly cost of $120 per room. 

Taylor said this isn’t enough, arguing during the forum that people have done their job of staying home like the government asked, so the government has an obligation to make sure people have homes to remain in. She said an immediate step she would take if she was mayor today would be to do quick conversions of vacant office spaces and apartments, and added that the city needs to invest in long-term, stable housing.

Another 2021 mayoral candidate, Kathryn Garcia, the former commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation, said she would also utilize vacant spaces

“I would immediately give them the money to go and rent an apartment and to get them on their feet,” she said.

The city’s emergency hotel housing plan has been met with opposition in some higher-income neighborhoods, like the Upper West Side, where residents successfully pushed back against the presence of homeless people living in the Lucerne Hotel. 

But even in neighborhoods where residents are more accustomed to having homeless shelters in their midst, the increase in people roaming the streets, begging for money and sleeping on the sidewalks has been cause for concern about what this means for their safety and quality of life.

Albina Sanchez and Jose Mendez are a married couple from Sunnyside, Queens who pass through Harlem to get to their respective jobs. Both have noticed that since the pandemic began, more homeless people have been making their presence known. 

“They sometimes follow you,” Sanchez said. “They try to force the money from you.” 

Sanchez, 46, said that around the Upper East Side building where she works as a housekeeper and home health aide, she believes the increased homeless population has contributed to recent building break-ins and violence. “The doorman has started carrying a weapon to potentially defend himself,” she said. 

Mendez, a manager at Don Filippo Restaurant, said that the homeless have frequently visited the restaurant to beg for food, but it drives away the customers. They give the homeless food to “make them go away,” he said.

In addition to the poor quality of the homeless shelters, pandemic-driven financial hardships and lack of support from the government, another main factor driving the increase in the homeless population is that Mayor Bill de Blasio has released prisoners with minor offenses, according to Linda Lopez, an administrator of The Salvation Army on 125th Street and 3rd Avenue. She thinks that former prisoners were “dropped” into the community without consideration for the fact that some of them don’t have a place to go or a plan for what to do.

The number of single adults in shelters has increased by “an average of 10 percent per year” since de Blasio took office, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Lopez, who has been with the Salvation Army for 26 years, said the organization serves between 260 to 300 grab-and-go lunches from Monday to Friday.

“For many of them, it’s the only meal they’ll get for the day,” she said.

The organization provides a food pantry, emotional and spiritual support and hygiene products. It also accepts donations intended to help people get much-needed food and clothing. 

“As long as we breathe there should be hope and we are here to help,” she said. 

The Salvation Army is a Christian organization and has come under fire from critics who say it has discriminated against the LGBTQ community and domestic violence survivors. Other community organizations providing resources to homeless people include Safe Horizon, Housing Works Inc. and Harlem United.

In early October, de Blasio extended the contract with HANYC, with over $100 million now spent to date on hotel rooms for the homeless, so that program will continue through June 30 of next year. As of Dec. 9, the Coalition said that only 6,000 of the 20,000 supportive housing units promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been funded so far. 

As winter approaches and NYC faces another possible lockdown because of a rise in cases, people who are homeless or have housing insecurity could be in trouble. DHS has tweeted nine “Code Blue” warnings from Dec. 1 to Dec. 14. 

These warnings alert people that temperatures will be below freezing at night, so people are encouraged to call 311 for the homeless to connect with outreach teams. This could lead to more people being put in shelters when it gets cold, which increases the chance for coronavirus to spread.

“Injury and death from exposure to the elements are real risks for people struggling to survive on the streets, and this requires that the City act quickly,” Giselle Routhier, policy director for Coalition for the Homeless, said yesterday in a post on the organization’s Instagram as New Yorkers prepared for a Nor’easter that could be one of the biggest snowstorms in years.

Routhier said the city’s only open warming center is a space in Manhattan with 15 chairs. “With the season’s first snow storm approaching, the City is woefully unprepared to meet the basic needs of unsheltered homeless New Yorkers who require warm indoor accommodations,” she said.

The snow is predicted to start falling early this evening in New York City and continue into tomorrow. De Blasio tweeted that the city could expect to get “between 8 to 12 inches.”