Bill de Blasio, one of the most liberal mayors in the United States, has made the fight against homelessness a key priority of his first term as Mayor of New York City. Two years after being elected, his administration has been dogged with controversy, conflict, and turmoil surrounding homelessness. Like Gregor Robertson, a liberal Canadian Mayor who promised to end homelessness only to see it increase during his time as mayor of Vancouver, de Blasio has had to admit that his efforts to reduce homelessness have not been as successful has he had hoped.
De Blasio’s administration has acted decisively to change its response to homelessness, but that has not stopped Democrat Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo from openly and severely criticizing the way the Mayor has handled homelessness. Amid all this controversy and hostility, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development announced at the end of December that the City of New York has ended veterans’ homelessness. This fact seems to have been relatively uncelebrated, as the city grapples with a much larger problem.
Beginning in August 2015, media began to suggest that homelessness had increased since de Blasio took office in 2013. De Blasio initially responded that homelessness had not increased, insisting that there was no evidence that there was more homelessness in 2015 than there were in 2013.
De Blasio did eventually admit that the city needed to be more effective at explaining what they were doing to fight homelessness.
Criticisms of de Blasio’s approach to homelessness continued to mount in the fall. In September, former New York Mayor Rudy Giulani, a Republican, claimed that de Blasio’s “liberal policies”, which recognized the right of homeless people to live on the streets, were the cause of a homelessness crisis in the city. When he was Mayor, Giuliani claimed that he had an effective and adequate response to homelessness, and he accused de Blasio of abandoning a winning strategy to fight homelessness and of creating a full-blown emergency. De Blasio countered that homelessness has risen by 40% while Giulani was Mayor.
But it is not just Republicans who criticize New York’s first Democrat Mayor in over two decades. New York Governor Cuomo, a Democrat who has long had a cold relationship with de Blasio, has openly and aggressively criticized de Blasio’s handling of homelessness as well.
Governor Cuomo eventually promised that the state would step in with its own homelessness plan in early 2016, stating that the homelessness problem in New York is a problem of “intelligence and the management” (referring directly to de Blasio).
Not waiting on the Governor’s plan, de Blasio went ahead on his own and announced in mid-November that the city would invest “unprecedented” funding in supportive housing, promising to create 15,000 units of supportive housing over 15 years, with an investment of $2.6 billion. (There are currently 58,000 people in the New York City shelter system, half of whom are children; another roughly 4,000 people are street homeless.)
To promote its actions, which are among the most engaged and interventionist in the United States, the city held a press conference in early December to deliver information about its new programs and to answer questions about its responses to homelessness. In response to a question from a city councilor, Commissioner of Homeless Services Gilbert Taylor was unable to provide specific information regarding the state of homelessness in New York, which was interpreted as a clear failing and sign of mismanagement of the issue. Three days following the press conference, Taylor resigned.
The resignation of Taylor would be the second high profile departure from De Blasio’s team of veteran homeless fighters at City Hall, the first being the city’s Deputy Mayor responsible for homelessness. It seemed to indicate that the Mayor was preparing to change course on his response to homelessness. Indeed, while publicly appreciative of Taylor’s work as Commissioner, de Blasio also announced that he was ordering a 90-day review of the office of the Commissioner of Homeless Services.
A few days following Taylor’s departure, the City announced a new, more “muscular” response to homelessness called HOMESTAT.
HOMESTAT will track and monitor homelessness on a day-to-day basis. Outreach workers will canvass a significant chunk of the city every single day, tracking homeless people and following-up on the success of the interventions that have been offered.
The city also announced that it would expand its police force, aiming to respond to complaints related to homelessness within 1 hour.
Cuomo, for his part, will release his plan on homelessness shortly. He has recently introduced a new measure that he believes will help New York; by executive order, he is requiring that city officials force people into emergency shelters when the temperature drops to below -32F. This measure only applies to people with a mental illness. This is a puzzling measure from the Governor for two reasons. First, he has directly criticized the shelter system in New York City, calling it dirty and dangerous, and has blamed de Blasio for not fixing it. Now, Cuomo’s solution is to force people into a system that, by his own admission, is broken. Second, the measure has finally put de Blasio and the Chief of Police (with whom he has had recent public disagreements) on the same page, as they both insist that the city has long had a policy that allows officials to force people who are deemed “incompetent” due to mental illness into emergency shelters.
It has become increasingly clear, as influential publications like the New York Times have suggested, that homelessness is turning into a political battleground between Cuomo and de Blasio.
The Mayor and Governor could, of course, pool their resources and expertise to the benefit of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. Instead, homelessness risks becoming exploited for political gain in a personal feud between two men who are, to most reasonable observers, on the exact same side.
Timeline of recent New York City conflict
Early August: Mayor de Blasio said that there has been no increase in the numbers of homeless people in New York.
End of August: Deputy Mayor responsible for homelessness, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, resigned from her position. She served under 4 different New York Mayors. De Blasio said she retired, but media and community groups speculate that she resigned due to the growing conflict in the area of homelessness, noting that her departure was very abrupt.
September: De Blasio says that homelessness is not a new problem, but one that is decades old. He backtracks on previous comments, saying that his administration needs to do more to present the origins of the problem, and to better communicate what they are doing to solve it.
September 6: Former New York Mayor Giuliani writes an editorial saying that de Blasio’s liberal policies are responsible for increasing homelessness because de Blasio has made it a right to live in the streets. Giuliani says that his administration had an appropriate and effective response to homelessness. De Blasio responded that homelessness increased 40% during Giulani’s tenure as Mayor.
November 18: The City announced it would invest $2.6 billion over the following 15 years to create 15,000 new units of social housing. Community groups had been demanding 30,000 units in 10 years. The City also began ordering that homeless encampments be cleared and began to dispatch more outreach workers to intervene directly with chronically street homeless people.
November 19: Bill Bratton, New York City Chief of Police, said that the city administration was not admitting what everyone knew: that homelessness and problems associated with it were increasing throughout the city.
November 25: Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo announces that his state administration will step in with its own policy on homelessness, claiming that de Blasio had mismanaged the file. Cuomo said the mismanagement is a problem of « intelligence and the management« .
December 9: Gilbert Taylor, the city’s Commissioner of Homeless Services, was asked how many homeless people there were in New York. Taylor said the city was spending unprecedented time and money on the issue, but did not have an answer.
December 12: Gilbert Taylor resigned from his position as Commissioner. De Blasio said they would be conducting a 90 day review of the department.
December 18: The Mayor announces a new “muscular” plan on homelessness, one that will very closely monitor and track homelessness. HOMESTAT will track responses to homelessness every day by sending outreach workers to every block in Manhattan between Canal Street and 145. They will track homelessness block by block, and will intervene directly with street homeless people. The city also announced more police services, aiming to respond to any call to the police within 1 hour.
During this press conference, it became clear that the Mayor and the Chief of Police were not on the same page about homelessness. The police suggest that they might try to change laws so that they can remove homeless people from certain parts of the city, whereas de Blasio has been very wary of criminalizing measures.
December 30: The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that New York has ended veteran homelessness.
January 4: Cuomo does not agree with de Blasio regarding economic causes of homelessness. He introduces a « new measure », by executive order, that will allow city officials to force mentally ill homeless people into shelters when the temperatures drop to -32 degrees. The City, including the Mayor and the Chief of Police, are confused, saying they have already had this policy and have been doing this for years. The New York Times suggests that Cuomo might be using the issue of homelessness as political fodder rather than out of a genuine attempt to create solutions.
January 6: Expert in crisis management is hired to be the new Deputy Mayor responsible for homelessness. Having overseen responses to Hurricane Katrina and the HIV/AIDS pandemic in San Fransisco, the new Deputy Mayor promises to take immediate action on homelessness.
Alison Smith is a PhD Candidate at l’Université de Montréal