New York frets over homeless 'explosion'

Homeless people sleeping near Penn Station on Dec 21, 2015, in New York City.
Homeless people sleeping near Penn Station on Dec 21, 2015, in New York City. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - It is America's biggest city, home to world-famous sights from the Empire State Building to Broadway. For many it is synonymous with the American Dream.

But that is only one face of New York.

The other is the estimated 75,000 people, according to US Department of Housing and Urban Development figures, who are homeless in the Big Apple.

The Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit organisation, says that in recent years homelessness in the city has hit its highest levels since the 1930s Great Depression.

New York City Hall counts its numbers slightly differently, but either way, the homelessness issue is a growing embarrassment for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who stands accused by some of underestimating the scale of the problem.

Gilbert Taylor, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, became the latest high-ranking official to pay the price for failing to get a grip on what many New Yorkers say is a growing legion of homeless people in the city. Another official resigned in September.

"It is a problem that now goes back in this city, 30 and 40 years," de Blasio said, defending his record on the homeless and warning that "this will be a long fight, this is a challenge that will not be solved easily."

He added: "More and more of our homeless are homeless for economic reasons, not because of substance abuse or mental health problems."

De Blasio, who called for a thorough review, highlighted the efforts of his administration to get people off the streets and into their own homes - a severe challenge in a city where wages have failed to keep pace with some of the highest rental prices in the world.

New York is legally required to provide housing for those without it.

City hall initiatives include a long-term plan to build apartments for the homeless - New York is legally required to provide housing for those without it - while in the near term there are additional shelter beds, longer hours for drop-in centers and expanded outreach programs, among a raft of measures.

De Blasio pointed out that homelessness is by no means unique to New York and said that other cities across the United States, notably San Francisco and Los Angeles, have higher proportions of homeless.

But de Blasio's critics point out that while across the United States the number of homeless is falling - from 647,258 in 2007 to 564,708 this year, according to a recent study by Department of Housing and Urban Development - New York appears to be going in the opposite direction.

Advocates say that New York's homeless problem is something of a hidden scourge.

An estimated 3,000-4,000 people sleep rough in parks, train or subway stations, or on sidewalks, according to official figures. But there are tens of thousands of others - among them children of homeless families - in temporary residences and shelters, city officials say.

New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton last month said the situation "has exploded over the last two years" and suggested that de Blasio, in office since January 2014, had initially underestimated the scale of the problem.

"There's a lot of folks who are in shelter by day, who you never see because they go to work. There's a lot of folks who are in shelter by day, who you never see because they're kids who go to school," said de Blasio.

"But there are folks who are in shelter, and the typical practice has been to ask them to leave during the day and come back at night, and if they don't have a productive place to go, it's not surprising they're on the street - and for a lot of people, that raises a concern." Another concern are the conditions that homeless families find themselves in.

On Monday(Dec 21), New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer detailed the plight of families in shelters, in a highly critical official report.

"Over 23,000 homeless children in our city slept in nightmare conditions last night, many of them surrounded by peeling paint, some feeling the chill from broken windows, and others sharing space with vermin," he said, hitting out at New York's Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

Stringer, an independent elected official who oversees the functioning of municipal services, said that just 14 staff oversee 12,500 homeless families in shelters.