The race is on to become the next leader of New York City, with 22 declared candidates so far to succeed outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio. One of the biggest challenges facing the city is a historic crisis of homelessness, driven by a chronic lack of affordable housing and compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Homelessness in New York City has now reached levels not seen since the Great Depression almost a century ago. Over 57,000 people in New York City—including over 18,300 children—sleep each night in a shelter. More than twice that total slept in a shelter at least once last year, representing a 48 percent in just 10 years. These figures don’t reflect the additional scores of people sleeping on the city’s streets, in its subways and in public parks. Black and Brown New Yorkers are more likely to be homeless than their white counterparts.
For the first time in history, homeless New Yorkers and their allies held a public forum for mayoral candidates on February 4. Co-hosts of the Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative and advocate Shams DaBaron, AKA Da Homeless Hero, questioned 10 candidates on how they would address the housing crisis if elected in November. They also aired video questions recorded by unhoused New Yorkers.
The 10 candidates who participated were: Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough president; Shaun Donovan, former federal housing and urban development secretary; Kathryn Garcia, former city sanitation director; Raymond McGuire, former vice chair of Citigroup; Carlos Menchaca, New York City councilmember for the 38th District; Dianne Morales, CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods; Scott Stringer, city comptroller; Loree Sutton, former city veteran services director; Joycelyn Taylor, CEO of TaylorMade Contracting; and Maya Wiley, New School professor. Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidater, was invited but could not attend due to sickness.
A condensed overview of some of the main themes discussed is as follows.
“I became homeless after I was illegally evicted from my apartment after my landlord refused to remove toxic black mold,” said Fannie Lou Dianne, one of the many impacted people who submitted questions. “What is the connection between systemic racism and the current housing and homelessness crisis?”
Not all candidates quite hit the mark in diagnosing the racism inherent in homelessness. Kathryn Garcia boasted about promoting the first Latino deputy commissioner in her department. Loree Sutton’s answer waxed poetic about her time serving in the Army, which she dubbed “the most diverse institution” on Earth.
The awkwardness was dispelled by Maya Wiley, who shared a story about growing up in a Black neighborhood with her childhood friend Charlene. “Her mother was a grocery store cashier,” she said. “And one day I could not find Charlene. When the rent was raised, her mother couldn’t pay it. They disappeared from my life, and I don’t know where they went. It is very likely they became homeless … That is what systemic racism is.”
“I am a victim of the NYPD’s [homeless] diversion unit,” said Da Homeless Hero to the candidates. “They told me they would help me but I ended up in handcuffs. They took me to a police station and made me take off my sneakers, and threatened to give me a ticket unless I entered the shelter system. The trauma from that experience—I don’t want to speak to it.”
Candidates varied widely on the question of whether to end police involvement in homelessness. Both Sutton and Garcia again differentiated themselves from Wiley, urging that police should be considered as one approach to addressing homelessness, though not necessarily the first. Wiley stressed the need to invest instead in a mental health and homeless crisis intervention team that doesn’t involve police at all.
Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer, was also unwilling to commit to fully ending the policing of homelessness. “What I am saying is NYPD should be a last resort. But in a situation like what happened in Chinatown where a homeless individual assaulted and killed four people, the police should be involved … I want clarity before I say ‘yes’ to something.”
“We moved people into hotels because congregate shelters were not COVID-safe,” said Larry, who has been homeless for over two years. “But in my experience, congregate shelters are not safe or healthy, period. Will your administration commit to end these shelters?”
All candidates acknowledged the failures of the city’s shelter system, which even in pre-pandemic times forced homeless people to live in overcrowded conditions and to share inadequately provided facilities like restrooms. Scott Stringer spoke of his previous work investigating the city’s shelters, where he saw rat and mice infestations and dangerous conditions for children.
But candidates differed on whether they’d be willing to end the system outright, and on what timeline. Some, like Sutton and Garcia, endorsed reforming the shelters to make them safer, and supported improving homeless outreach to move more people off the streets into shelters.
“I want to end the shelter system period, and move towards permanent housing for everyone,” said Dianne Morales, in contrast. “That means places where people can live with dignity … If we move our investments in shelters into subsidized housing, that’s one pathway. If we have flexible zoning and take over vacant apartments and storefronts, we find we have enough space already to do this.”
“What does the future look like for unsheltered homeless who are now living in a hotel like myself?” asked Ashley in a video statement. “And what does the future look like for those who are still street and subway homeless?”
“With the $3 billion we spend every year on homelessness, we need to move to a ‘housing first’ model,” said Carlos Menchaca. “We’re talking about converting non-union hotels and commercial spaces to permanent housing, and bringing more apartments onto the market.”
“If the rent moratorium is lifted, you’re going to face a crisis like never before,” said Da Homeless Hero. “There are people who have never experienced homelessness that might find themselves in a shelter. What will you do for them?”
“The government has asked people to stay home, and now those people need to see a return on their investment,” said Joycelyn Taylor. “One thing we can do is provide grants to landlords with the option that they have to forgive tenants’ rent.”
“We have to win the battle on canceling rent and keeping the moratorium alive even past COVID,” Menchaca continued. “Government has to step in and at the city level, we can build out universal basic income programs to ensure people have what they need so they can pay for their housing, school supplies, healthcare and transportation.”