On a recent bitterly cold day, standing in front of a shelter in East New York, Cicely had a message for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
"Let’s make a change,” she said. “It’s time to make a change because I think it’s unfair the shelter system is so crowded. People is living in these things crowded and clumped in.”
Cicely, 40, who asked WNYC not to use her last name, is among the people who entered the shelter system during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. During that time the number of the city’s homeless increased by 71 percent, reaching a record high of over 53,000, according to the city’s largest advocacy group, the Coalition for the Homeless.
Mayor de Blasio hasn’t shied away from faulting the Bloomberg administration for this situation.
“We have the highest number of people in shelter in the history of this city,” he said. “And it simply can’t continue. We will address the problems of the shelter system and we will take a very different approach.”
Cicely said a part of that approach should be bringing back a rental subsidy like the one she had for two years. It allowed her to rent a home in Staten Island.
“If he gives programs, make it a place where they supply half the rent and we supply the other,” she said. “Like we’re able to save up enough money to meet the match of the rent.”
The Bloomberg administration cancelled the subsidy Cicely had in 2011 after losing the state and federal funding needed to run it. So far half of all families who had the subsidy have returned to the shelters.
Mayor de Blasio said he's working with Governor Cuomo to reinstate a subsidy of that kind. He also plans to bring back priority referrals for public housing and Section 8 vouchers. That sits well with some shelter residents, like Pamela Coley, 49, who is staying at a shelter in Harlem with her 23-year-old son.
“I hope our new Mayor … give us a voucher so we can all get up out of here,” she said. “This is not home.”
All the changes de Blasio plans to make were a part of the Bloomberg administration’s homeless policy at one point. Next to losing funding, another reason the administration decided to eliminate them was to disincentivize people from entering the shelter system to get rental subsidies or avoid long wait lists for public housing apartments.
Some experts, like Howard Husock, the vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Pamela Coley (Mirela Iverac/WNYC) Institute, still worry that bringing back those policies could have that effect.
“There was a reason that the previous administration thought there was reason for concern,” he said. “We have to be careful that we’re not going to create incentives for some to try to in effect jump the line.”
Advocates, on the other hand, said they're satisfied with the proposed changes. After fighting bitterly with Bloomberg, and before him with Mayors Giuliani and Koch, Patrick Markee, of the Coalition for the Homeless, described the Mayor’s moves as “common-sense and compassionate,” adding he expects to see the first results in a year.
“Hopefully we’ll start beginning to stem the tide of rising homelessness,” he said.