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New York is one of the least affordable cities in the world, and as its upscale clientele grows, so too does its massive homeless population. It is estimated that over 60,000 people now live in the city’s shelter system, and that number is only expected to rise.
To make matters worse, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans last month to cut millions of dollars in funding to several homeless shelters in New York, saying it favored permanent housing solutions to transitional ones. Critics of Mayor de Blasio’s proposal say this will severely impact these shelters by cutting into their operating budgets and turning even more people away.
So, what does the city have in mind for these institutions? Who will pay for their services, which are not only essential, but legally entitled to all homeless residents?
One organization that is front and center in the fight for homeless rights is Picture The Homeless, founded in 1999 by two patients at Bellevue Hospital. Picture The Homeless, which survives on fundraising and small member fees, aims to bring people together, to tell their stories and to defend each other against police violence and “mainstream media demonization.” The organization is led by the currently and formerly homeless—75 percent of their board of directors, to be exact.
Al Williams, born and raised in Brooklyn, is a member of Picture The Homeless. Before joining the organization in 2015 and earning a living for himself as an engineer, he lived both on the streets and in the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter system. Williams is now active in issues relating to civil rights and housing, and is a fierce opponent of the de Blasio administration’s support for private development, pushing instead for low-income public housing for individuals and families.
“The state’s budget for the DHS is like $1.2 billion and when you factor in the overhead costs, it’s spending close to $20,000 per person per year,” he says. That’s $20,000 for each man, woman and child.
Short-changing the shelters is “not the answer to homelessness,” Williams explains. He believes that HUD should convince the mayor to reallocate the money and come up with a comprehensive plan for all forms of homelessness.
“I don’t know where we’re going to get the money if HUD cuts,” he says with concern. “Some people need housing.” These include people with mental illness and substance abuse problems, people who require the assistance of social workers and aids. There is a great need for housing, whether it’s for a single, couple or family. “All of these things need to be worked out,” Williams insists.
“The city already doesn’t have enough money,” he says with a hint of sarcasm, “except when it comes to police on the street.”
On the issue of policing, Williams definitely clashes with the mayor; he feels de Blasio’s priorities are all wrong. Meanwhile, the shelters are going to close. “Then you’ll really see some homeless,” he warns.
The timing of this plan is particularly troubling, too, since street homelessness tends to rise in the warmer weather. “Summer is worse,” he says. “You do see more people outside, because they can always stay in the shelter system on a colder day.”
In East Harlem, where Picture The Homeless is located, he sees the same people every summer, after they emerge from the shelters. It’s a steady stream, he says. “I haven’t seen a large uptick,” says Williams who explains that he sees roughly the same number of homeless on the subways, too. As with the shelters and streets, these numbers don’t tend to change.
There is a trend that disturbs Williams greatly, though, and that is “cluster sites,” deteriorating neighborhoods full of broken-down apartments, which landlords rent out to the city for $4-5,000 each. He believes the landlords and the city take advantage of these neighborhoods for mutual profit.
Picture The Homeless has a program called Gaining Ground, which specifically targets cluster sites. Members of the group have conducted extensive outreach in their communities, getting signatures and encouraging residents in these neighborhoods to stay put.
Still, people are afraid to do that. “They fear retaliation from the city,” Williams says. Moving can also be a major strain on a family. “It’s horrible to take your child out of one area and relocate to another borough,” he says, adding that it affects the child’s ability to concentrate on schoolwork, among other things.
As of now, members of Picture The Homeless and advocates everywhere are hoping to open a formal dialogue with the city and, as Williams says, “reallocate the money” to better serve New York’s homeless population. Any changes must be made by the deadline, the 30th of this month, when the annual budget is submitted. A spokesman for the city issued a statement, promising to review the local effects of these cuts, explaining that the city values the shelters it provides funding to—just how much remains to be seen.