If you ever find yourself walking down Amsterdam Avenue on a particularly frigid evening, take notice of the line of grates in the sidewalk of 114th Street behind John Jay. On most days, the grates emit a column of hot steam, which slowly rises over the sidewalk and dissipates before it reaches the street. It is just a part of my daily walk home. And almost equally inevitable is the small cluster of homeless men and women who gather at these grates each night, shielding themselves with tattered jackets and warming themselves in the steam. In the coming months, the de Blasio administration will face a homelessness crisis that, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, has led to almost 60,000 men, women, and children bedding down in temporary shelters each night. And that isn’t even counting those who are curled up behind John Jay.
Homelessness seems like a constant of life in New York City, but the issue has taken on renewed urgency since the government turnover, both in the city and our own neighborhood. After campaigning on a “tale of two cities,” Mayor de Blasio appointed Gilbert Taylor, a former executive director of the Administration for Children’s Services, as commissioner of homeless services just hours before taking office. Shortly after joining City Council, Mark Levine, our own representative from District 7, was appointed to the housing committee. In light of this recent appointment, Levine is in a unique position to ameliorate homelessness for his constituents—and based on what I have seen of his plans, we have every reason to be optimistic.
At an event at the West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club last week, Levine faced questions from club leader Corey Ortega about how he would respond to the rising homelessness epidemic. Ortega asked whether Levine would work to reinstate Advantage, a housing voucher cut under Mayor Bloomberg that offered subsidies to help homeless families who were employed or in job training—or, as Ortega put it, people who “do good by God and government.” Shelters, as Ortega pointed out, are not “a spa or a resort” and often house not only individuals, but also families of three or four people.
Levine’s answer was spot-on. After a brief nod to the overarching message of the de Blasio administration—“There is no way we can accept that level of homelessness at a time of such great wealth”—Levine said he vowed not only to reinstate Advantage, but also to pursue one of the most effective anti-homelessness approaches in the nation: Housing First. Essentially, the Housing First model is predicated on the groundbreaking realization that it is kind of difficult to get a job, get sober, or get any sort of meaningful stability if you don’t have a place to live. Indeed, Phil Mangano, the former homelessness czar under George W. Bush and Barack Obama and a pioneer of the Housing First movement, told me that when he worked with homeless people in cities as a policymaker, they were “not asking for a program, not for a protocol, not for a pill. They always asked for a place to live. … People invariably answered that they wanted a place to live.”
That Levine is prepared to support this program is a cause for celebration. Although the program has achieved impressive results in cities ranging from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to Philadelphia, New York City has shockingly neglected to implement it. However, Levine’s simultaneous support for the Advantage voucher, which makes employment a prerequisite for receiving funding, and Housing First, which has no such prerequisite, carries a noticeable internal tension. Advantage focuses on short-term solutions, and is qualified by the requirement that the recipient must be either working or training. According to a scathing report by analyst Patrick Markee at the Coalition for the Homeless, nearly half of the families who received Advantage funding found themselves back in shelters after the subsidies expired, eventually costing city taxpayers almost $300 million.
If Levine is going to support relief programs for the homeless of Morningside Heights and West Harlem, he should avoid wasting political capital in supporting a failed voucher program. Advantage did not go far enough to address the homelessness epidemic, and if Levine is truly an advocate for Housing First, we must urge him to stay the course and devote his full energy to pushing Housing First legislation through the housing committee.
Chris Meyer is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and political science. He is a former deputy news editor for Spectator. Outside the Bubble runs alternate Mondays.
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