On Homelessness, Mayor Eric Adams Needs a Little Religion
Mayor Eric Adams of New York wasn’t in church on Palm Sunday. But the Rev. David Lee of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church may as well have been speaking to him. “Jesus doesn’t come in power that would sweep us away in random judgment, but he comes weak and lowly and humble and approachable,” Mr. Lee said. Moments earlier, the service began with a short film about homeless people in New York City.
The mayor’s name was never mentioned. But it was hard not to think about Mr. Adams, who’s taken lately to invoking the Christian faith while justifying his administration’s aggressive campaign to remove homeless people from the city’s streets. “I can’t help but to believe that if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was here today, he would be on the streets with me, helping people get out of encampments,” the mayor said recently.
Mr. Adams is taking his cue from an exhausted, fed-up city. The official number of people living on the city’s streets in 2021, as determined by an annual survey taken in January called the Hope Count, was 2,376 human beings. The survey is widely considered to be an undercount, and advocates and city officials have long said the actual number of people living on the streets is roughly double that, closer to 5,000.
Most of the city’s homeless crisis is tucked quietly out of sight. More than 45,000 people are living in New York City shelters, a figure that includes over 14,000 children. About a third of families with children living in shelters have at least one adult who is employed, according to a 2017 city report — a damning reflection of the region’s ongoing housing crisis.
A smaller number of people, though, are living on the street. New Yorkers don’t need a census to know that in the two years since the Covid pandemic began, the number of people living on the streets has risen starkly. This population is arguably among the most vulnerable and least served in New York, often with complex, unmet needs that can include mental health treatment as well as treatment for addiction.
The central choice facing New Yorkers is whether they want to live in a city that marshals the political and moral capital to truly uplift its most vulnerable neighbors or one that continues to treat the neediest among us as a “quality of life” problem to be tucked away.
The surest path to helping these New Yorkers get their lives back on track is to build supportive housing that offers intensive, on-site services that people need and to make it far easier to get the supportive housing that exists. There are about 2,500 of those supportive housing units available in New York, according to city officials — about half of what is needed.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has committed to building 7,000 units of permanent supportive housing in the city over the next five years. While this is good news, New York needed those units yesterday. Mr. Adams has promised to add 500 transitional housing beds by August, 434 of which are already available, according to city officials. If New York wants to end street homelessness, he’ll have to think bigger.
During his campaign for mayor last year, Mr. Adams said he planned to convert about 700 underutilized hotels into permanent housing. The hotel conversions have been on hold since last fall, when the city’s Law Department issued a technical ruling involving hotel occupancy regulations that nonprofit housing developers say effectively prevents them from converting hotels to long-term use. A spokesman for Mr. Adams said state legislation was needed to allow the city to ease regulatory issues with the hotel conversions. Fine. But this should be a priority, with the mayor securing whatever help he needs from Albany to move forward on an imperative, urgent plan.
Other units are available but sitting vacant, thanks to a tangle of dysfunctional city bureaucracy that also demands Mr. Adams’s attention. Eric Rosenbaum — the president and chief executive of Project Renewal, a nonprofit that provides housing, health and jobs for homeless people — said the work of getting one person off the street and into permanent housing can involve filing paperwork with up to a half-dozen city agencies, from the Department of Homeless Services to the health department. Other times, advocates say the units sit empty for months after a previous tenant died, because of delays with officials at the city medical examiner office, who must sign off before the apartment is made available again.
With rents soaring and significant numbers of New Yorkers at risk of eviction, New York’s enormous bureaucracy needs to be remade to serve, in every agency and at every level, as a bulwark against homelessness. In just one example, the city agency responsible for fighting discrimination against New Yorkers using vouchers to secure housing appears to have no staff members, according to a report in City Limits. Mr. Adams had better get to it.
For now, the most desperate scenes of the housing crisis are unfolding in public view. Children are sleeping in crowded subway cars. People are battling mental illness and drug addiction outside New York’s most iconic landmarks and in its famous parks. For the rest of the city, watching their suffering has always been uncomfortable. These days it feels like a daily reminder of our own fragility.
For weeks, workers from the New York Police Department, Sanitation Department and Department of Homeless Services have aggressively broken up homeless encampments across the city, forcing people to disperse. People living on the street and the nonprofit workers who serve them say the city is largely offering help they don’t want, like referrals to dormitory-style, city-run shelters that have a reputation on the street as dangerous as well as stressful.
Homelessness is a vexing public policy problem. But the basics are clear: the key is deploying trusted social workers and other professionals to coax people into transitional and then permanent housing that is safe and peaceful and, importantly, includes a private bed and bathroom — needs anyone can relate to. Just as crucial is reshaping the city’s approach to services like treatment for addiction, trauma and abuse and mental health disorders so that it is truly accessible to the people who need them. That is the way forward, not sending sanitation workers who usually pick up trash to shoo human beings out of the way.
Outside Redeemer Church last Sunday, Ivan Cabrera Jr. — a 28-year-old with golden skin, a shock of black hair and a disarmingly bright smile who uses “they” pronouns — said they had been living on the streets and in shelters since the age of 17, when their parents kicked them out of the house because they were gay. They said they didn’t trust the shelter system in part because a friend was killed inside one of the shelters several years ago.
The street isn’t a safe place, either. Last week someone threw a cup of hot coffee at them on the subway. Despite more than a decade on the street, Mx. Cabrera, who identifies as nonbinary, said it still hurts when passers-by make anti-gay comments, as they said happens frequently, or make cruel remarks calling them dirty.
“When you are treated like you are nothing, you start acting like you are nothing,” they said. “I am a part of this community. I am from here. I was born at Mount Sinai.”
Mx. Cabrera said they were seeking help for crystal methamphetamine addiction and had finally found help they needed through Breaking Ground, a New York-based nonprofit that offers extensive services to homeless people, including housing.
Brenda Rosen, the president and chief executive of Breaking Ground, said the group’s caseload had risen sharply during the pandemic, which exacerbated challenges that New Yorkers living in poverty were already facing. She said one key to helping people get off the street was deploying caring and consistent social workers who are equipped to help individuals acquire even basic things so many of us take for granted, like birth certificates. “When we say we’re going to come back, we come back,” Ms. Rosen said. “When we see that somebody has a wound and we say we’re going to bring medical services to the person, we do that.”
And yet Mr. Adams talks about street homelessness as though it were a moral failure and about the people experiencing it as though they were incapable of hearing him. “That is not dignity. That is disgusting,” he said when discussing a woman who had been living in the subway system.
In New York this Easter season, something about that doesn’t sound quite right. “The power of this world says you’ve got to use it to coerce people, to use it in violence, so that the oppressed will now become the oppressors,” Mr. Lee said. “True power is always the servant of love.”
Since Mr. Adams brought it up, the Christian thing would be to end homelessness, instead of shuttling it out of sight. People experiencing homelessness are our neighbors, valuable members of this city who have the same human potential as anyone else."