Homeless figures blemish mayor's record

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am

New York

With less than 18 months left of his term, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on his way to becoming one of the most successful mayors in the city's history. At least that's what the numbers are suggesting. New York's public high school graduation rate has jumped to a record high, it is ranked as the safest big city in the country, and the mayor's approval rating has been above 70 per cent for several years. And, according to a poll, if he was allowed to stand again for the office next year (he can't because of term limits) he would probably win easily.

However, there is one factor that may tarnish Mr Bloomberg's report card, and that is his high profile campaign to tackle the city's homeless problem. Four years ago he said he expected to reduce the homeless population by two-thirds by the time he left office, and largely eliminate the problem within 10 years. At that time, Mr Bloomberg said: 'We are too strong and too smart and too compassionate a city to surrender to the scourge of homelessness. We won't do it. We won't allow it.'

But since then, Mr Bloomberg's homeless programme has triggered some doubts and in recent months some increasingly vocal criticism. In March, New York magazine declared: 'Homelessness is the single biggest failure of the Bloomberg administration, which has tried a radical new policy that's made an intractable problem worse.'

Earlier this month, the assertion was backed up by a report released by the Independent Budget Office, which found that although spending on shelters has increased by 19 per cent and spending on prevention programmes has gone up 15 per cent since 2004, the number of families living in shelters is actually up. The 8,884 families registered in shelters is 136 more than four years ago and almost double Mr Bloomberg's target. The number of single adults in shelters has dropped 17 per cent to 6,976, but the overall population in shelters, 34,467, only represents a 5 per cent drop from four years ago.

The report pointed out that the city had not produced an annual progress report on the campaign since 2005. Councillor Bill de Blasio, who requested the report, is planning to hold a hearing next month to find out what went wrong.

However, Mr de Blasio did give the mayor credit for wanting to tackle the homeless problem. 'Rarely does a mayor take a hard challenge for himself like this,' said Mr de Blasio. 'But it seems the plan doesn't work. Now we are heading into a recession, this is the last best chance to fix it.'

But to Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organisation, the flaws are clear.

Mr Markee said Mr Bloomberg's plan relied too much on providing homeless people with housing grants for short periods, in the hope that they will find ways to pay their own rent when the grants expire.

But instead of getting their independence, many people go back into a shelter. 'If somebody was a diabetic, and they need to take insulin over the long term, you won't say we'll only give you a year's worth of insulin and after that no matter what your health condition is, we are cutting you off,' said Mr Markee. 'That's essentially what the city's policy does. If you want call it tough love, that's just rhetoric.'

The tide is against Mr Bloomberg.

The economy is worsening, unemployment rising, the city's budget is under a lot of pressure and the worst of the US housing crisis may not yet have hit New York City.

'In the 2001 recession, we had working class people coming to our office and say I never thought I'd find myself in an office called Coalition for the Homeless, but now I need your help,' said Mr Markee. 'And we are seeing that now.'

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