NEW York’s homeless advocates are once again loudly blaming the Giuliani administration for homelessness. A record number of families occupied the shelter system in July - all the fault, bray the advocates, of Mayor Giuliani’s heartless failure to build enough housing.
In testing this accusation, we’ll leave aside the question of why government should be in the housing business in the first place. We’ll also set aside the question of what really causes family homelessness: housing shortages, or single-parenthood, failure to work and drugs?
Instead, let’s look at a few facts about the city’s lunatic homeless system that the advocates don’t want you to know, facts that undermine the advocates’ crude morality tale of innocent victims and a cruel administration.
Forbidden Fact #1: Families claiming homelessness can indefinitely reject housing offers and still retain their invaluable claim of homelessness.
In the last three months alone, 88 families living in shelter residences turned down public-housing apartments, 32 of those families for at least the second time. That rejection rate represents about one-third of all public-housing offers made - an extraordinarily high figure that can only cripple the system.
The advocates love to sue the city for huge penalties whenever families have to stay overnight in the homeless intake office; there would be more space for the newcomers, however, if the families already living in shelter residences were required to accept permanent housing.
Why do homeless families reject subsidized housing? Location, location, location. Like other New Yorkers, many homeless families want to live in Manhattan. But that’s not where the affordable housing is.
Last March, The New York Times profiled a homeless grandmother and her four grandchildren, portraying them as casualties of callous Giuliani policies. Soon after the article appeared, a good Samaritan offered the family a three-bedroom subsidized apartment in Brooklyn. No go - the matriarch insisted on a Manhattan residence.
Sometimes a homeless mother’s specifications are even more precise: One woman recently turned down an apartment in upper Manhattan, holding out for subsidized digs in lower Manhattan.
She might as well play the odds, for there is no risk in doing so. Although state law requires homeless families to accept the third offer of housing (hardly a draconian measure), the ultra-liberal New York City judge overseeing the city’s eternal homeless litigation has enjoined this rule.
Sometimes, a homeless mother objects to the quality of the housing offered or to the perceived danger of the neighborhood. These are understandable instincts, but beggars can’t always be choosers.
Government-subsidized housing should be a safety net of last resort. But New York’s pervasive entitlement ethos has converted it to a right of first resort. In so doing, the city has obliterated one of the most powerful motivators for responsible behavior - the necessity of earning better housing through one’s own efforts.
Forbidden Fact #2: The city is offering shelter residents a great housing deal: Engage in some sort of work activity and the city will pay your rent for two years out of its own pocket. Most shelter residents are scorning the offer, holding out instead for a federal Section 8 housing voucher, which has no work requirement and no time limits.
Forbidden Fact #3: The city rejects half the apartments offered by landlords for Section 8 housing because they don’t pass the city’s excessively rigorous inspection requirements. The biggest reason for rejection? The bedrooms are heated by risers, not separate heating units.
Needless to say, generations of self-supporting families have survived such a condition. Other trivial reasons for rejecting apartments include cracked linoleum or missing apartment numbers on the front door.
Forbidden Fact #4: A subsidized tenant who trashes her apartment cannot be kicked out. The apartment, because it has been trashed, will fail reinspection, thereby imposing on the landlord a duty to continue leasing to the tenant. No wonder landlords are reluctant to enter the city’s Section 8 program, notwithstanding the royal bounties the city offers them.
Forbidden Fact #5: The city’s family “shelter” system is a huge misnomer. The term “shelter” conjures up images of dormitory-style barracks and cots, and invokes pity for occupants forced by mayoral negligence to linger in such barren surroundings. In fact, most family “shelters” are indistinguishable from apartment buildings, offering their residents private accommodations with kitchen and bath. Apart from the pesky house rules, irregularly enforced, there is no reason not to stay for life.
These hidden facts - the right to reject housing, the overly stringent code for homeless housing, the lack of consequences for irresponsible behavior - do not explain all the backlog in the homeless system, but they explain a lot of it. Before the next mayor embarks on a budget-busting new program of housing construction, he should eradicate these irrationalities in New York’s homeless empire and introduce reciprocal obligations for the city’s self-defeating and destructive right to shelter.