Governor Kathy Hochul delivers remarks with Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Director Steven Dettelbach and New York City Mayor Eric Adams ahead of the Interstate Task Force on Illegal Guns Meeting in Lower Manhattan Wednesday August 24, 2022. Photo credit: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Politicking. As a housing crisis intensifies in NYC, the homeless become public enemy number one on both sides of the aisle

Homelessness and public safety concerns were major talking points during New York’s state and city elections. The ramifications for the unhoused continue to unfold.

Amongst a city set ablaze with surging violent crime and rising costs paired with inflation, New York City’s left-leaning ideologies towards the displaced have started to change. The November 8 elections showed the most recent indication in a close call between governor-elect Kathy Hochul and Republican opponent Rep. Lee Zeldin (52.9% to 47.1%). 

Tensions peaked at the only gubernatorial debate held on October 25. During a contentious back-and-forth, Rep. Zeldin alleged inefficient governance and bribery. His major issues with the current Administration were rooted in excessive criminal activity and a faltering state economy. On the other hand, Gov. Hochul emphasized the erosion of reproductive rights and pointed out her opponent’s ties to former president Donald Trump.

For one reason or another, the notion of unhoused people being synonymized with violent crime sky-rocketed to the top of public concerns. Instead of being treated as two separate issues, both have been consistently mentioned in tandem. Particularly, Republicans think that state Democrats should take a harder stance as public safety anxieties balloon. 

Rep. Zeldin and other state conservatives placed blame on Gov. Hochul’s “soft” approach to crime. While on the campaign trail this summer, a shooting incident near his family amplified his outrage. He spoke of Gov. Hochul’s end to cash bail and sending minors to juvenile detention centers versus adult facilities as “pro-criminal” laws rather than criminal justice reform.

This election cycle, GOP members used the tactic of elevated fear mongering that pointed to crime and homelessness. Albeit, their targeted issues disproportionately occur in certain NYC neighborhoods, such as poor, Black and Brown communities. Subsequently, a dramatic shift in political discourse flipped the victims of generational iniquities to villains in campaign talking points. Ultimately, the most vulnerable were turned into political props. 

“Politicians on all sides attempt to use these kinds of attention-grabbing crises to deflect from analysis of the deep, fundamental crises in U.S. society,” expressed NYU Law’s Research, Education and Advocacy to Combat Homelessness (NYU REACH) Board to Ark Republic. 

Rather than citing the city’s housing failures as an issue caused by the unhoused or migrants, the problem is that “both of these groups are suffering from a failed housing system,” emphasized NYU REACH.

In fact, displaced persons represent a small percentage of those actually committing violent crimes. On the contrary, they are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Finding data to directly reflect the aforementioned is difficult because NYC police often leave housing status off of reports. That said, there were a total of 1,250 homeless shelter arrests for misdemeanors and felonies, with the latter totaling 433 arrests. On the other hand, there have been a total of 39,742 city-wide arrests for major felonies so far in 2022. Hence, one percent of those taken into custody are homeless. 

The political strategy of tethering unhoused persons to being the main culprits disrupting public safety, dehumanizes the displaced.  Consequently, it increases city administrators’ neglect in developing initiatives. Moreover, it runs the risk of lessening the chances of allotting the funding needed to adequately address a housing crisis that has led to a tidal wave of implications, especially post-COVID.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams rides the Subway back to City Hall from Harlem on Monday, May 23, 2022. Photo credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

A present and immediate danger?

A recent expansion of a joint state-and-city initiative to amp up public safety measures in the underground MTA system, led to the governor emphasizing more “Cops, Cameras, and Care.” Meaning, the City would have additional MTA and NYPD officers on trains and station platforms to effectively crack down on subway crime. NYC Mayor Eric Adams described the strategy as a multi-agency effort to reform the city’s “broken mental health and housing systems.” 

Pivoting from a milder approach, Mayor Adams ordered subway sweeps and the dismantling of street encampments. Occurring just one month prior to elections, it was an effort to remove people from the city’s subway system. When he toured the subways earlier this year, he claimed to see homeless people everywhere, which left him feeling “unsafe.” Subtly, the messaging associated the homeless with subway crimes. All of which justified the change in Mayor Adams’ tone regarding the population, and subsequently, in the City’s public safety policies. 

Courting by both ends of the political spectrum, housing advocate and NYC resident Shams DaBaron believes the homeless are traditionally invisible, voiceless, and ignored people who are considered “subhuman…animal[s].” For him, “minimiz[ing their] collective power” is effective political engagement. In other words, the unhoused maintain some form of agency by disengaging with politics because politicians tend to use them. 

In the city’s previous administration, DaBaron criticized Bill De Blasio’s treatment of unhoused people. When Mayor Adams entered into his position earlier this year, he sat down with DaBaron on several occasions to talk about city plans. Before the new MTA safety measures were released, a New Yorker article reported that DaBaron read the documents and even took some of the city’s displaced to City Hall to speak with the mayor. 

“[Politicians’] . . . laws, their policies [are] all codified to keep us in this [subservient condition],” DaBaron expressed to Ark Republic. His opinion of the current Administration now hangs in the balance.

The Optics

The focus on the displaced is odd considering NYC’s homeless population makes up an insignificant percentage in the most populous city in the U.S. Estimately, there are 8.5 million New Yorkers living across the five boroughs, according to the U.S. Census

Of that, there were 60,252 displaced adults and children in the City’s municipal shelter system on a daily basis, according to a September 2022 report by the Coalition for the Homeless. In sum, a little more than half of one percent or .65 percent of New York City residents are homeless. Notwithstanding, The Bowery Mission proclaims another approximate 3,400 unsheltered are living in the subways, streets, and parks. 

Plus, The Coalition for the Homeless purports that Black and Latino residents disproportionately represent those most impacted by housing instability. DaBarron thinks that homelessness, poverty, and other related issues of these populations are compounded and ignored by design. “There’s no real desire for [politicians] to lift us up out of poverty and put us in a situation where we can access decent quality housing,” lamented the advocate.

He continued, “We were supposed to stay in tenements, in slums, and the opportunities of advancement were given to others who were able to benefit from our free labor over 400-plus years.”

Post-George Floyd and BLM protests, DeBaron suggests that the media used Black and Brown people as dog whistles. Fundamentally, the framing by mainstream news escalated racial tensions. Even more, DeBaron avows that especially during the pandemic, the press and politicians would say “‘we have to do something about the homeless,’ as though all homeless people are out there engaged in [illegal, obstructive] behaviors,” that created a “climate… [where] anti-homeless means anti-Black.” 

Indeed, 56 percent of the NYC homeless population are Black and roughly 32 percent are Latino, versus the seven percent who are white. Thus, it is no coincidence that Blacks and Latinos, who make up a majority of the homeless population, are overwhelmingly associated with violent crimes.

“What they tried to do was paint a picture that [homelessness] is a public safety issue when, in fact, it’s more of a public health issue,” contends DeBarron, who has dealt with homelessness for the better part of forty years. The South Bronx native explains that the media used words such as “sex offenders … criminals … drug addicts … [and] vermin” to describe displaced persons.

Notably, most homeless are single adults and families in several housing conundrums: living on the street, seeking intermittent housing at congregate shelters, or those who are staying with relatives or friends. This year alone, they have experienced a rise of violent attacks. For instance, the three stabbings of homeless men by Trevon Murphy. In another attack, the five shootings of displaced persons by Gerald Brevard III which led to one murder. 

Yet, Gov. Hochul and Mayor Adams remain mum in proposing legislation following the violent attacks on the homeless with as much vigor as their subway plan. 

To worsen matters, the tail end of the pandemic saw the end of the CARES Act, a federal emergency funding for low-income residents. Under the temporary order, an eviction moratorium protected those experiencing financial hardship from March 2020 to January 2022. For the homeless, these temporary protections were the only thing keeping people off of the streets or in the universally-detested congregate shelters. As a result, curtailing the budget begot the deluge of New Yorkers back into an ill-prepared City system.

No room in the budget

Truly, Mayor Adams inherited a fractured housing system that has become a mainstay of social ills for NYC mayors. Evidenced by the previous leadership of DeBlasio and Michael Bloomberg, city and state officials have long been aware of empirical research specifying the needs of homeless populations. Added to frustrations, the matter gets deprioritized regularly when it comes to the city budget. 

“The problem in NYC housing is a fundamental lack of truly affordable housing, and the root cause of that problem is capitalism—a system that sees housing as a tool for profit and transforms homes into vehicles for investment,” said NYU REACH. “This is not a system that sees human beings as fundamentally valuable or deserving of the human right that is the right to shelter and good, safe homes.” 

The Coalition for the Homeless explained in their 2022 Executive Summary, that once people become homeless, they “languish” in shelters for extended periods of time. Because prior administrations did not create sustainable housing initiatives, the unhoused must fight to attain affordable housing or similar resources in the most fragile moments.

Earlier this year, Mayor Adams’ preliminary 2022 fiscal budget cut $615 million from Homeless Services. In the end, the Department of Buildings and the Department of Homeless Services—both who rely on city help to fund family shelters—were gravely impacted. With the new budget, the departments will be expected to operate at a fifth of its previous operating budget and 131 vacant positions.

Included with budget cuts over the next few years, the Adams Administration revised the budget in April to include an additional $171 million to accommodate 1,400 more homeless beds. To trim spending, City Hall sent a notice urging all city departments to cut expenses by three percent, or more than $157 million last month. Yet again, leaving the displaced in housing limbo. 

In an already dire situation, the mayor announced on November 15 that the city would be entering into a volatile economic period. To prepare, more changes to the budget were offered which included assisting 24,000-plus migrants who arrived in the city over the last several months. Also, plans were given to clean up some of the most neglected areas of the city. 

While Mayor Adams insisted a plan was in place for the homeless crisis, the dearth in services shows an unclear path. Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney for the Homeless Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society in New York, holds firm that Mayor Adams’s understaffing and court issues magnify his unsuccessful dealings with homelessness. Goldfein tells The Ark, unlike the previous administrations, they simply did not care. 

There is no surprise that shelters are overflowing, poorly funded, and malnourished. Still, it seems the issues are persisting or getting worse. What is more, the surge of crime committed against the homeless seems to be swept into the general crime rate climb. 

“You have 10,000-plus sweeps conducted and only a couple hundred people have come into shelter as a result of that. That tells you, it’s not working,” Goldfein insists. “We have seen that it is much better to offer people their own space, then they will come in. But their city is not creating enough of that space, and that is why their outreach efforts don’t work. You can do outreach, but if you don’t have anything to offer anybody, then they’re not going to respond.”

This story is part four of Politicking, a 4-part series that is part of a fellowship funded by Center for Community Media at the Newmark J-School.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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