Tough Love for City's Homeless: Pay Rent or Get Out!

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A homeless woman eats dinner (it looks like "Sheba" brand cat food, doesn't it?)

Image: orphaned.

I awoke this morning at 5am, as usual, and one of the first things I heard on the morning news was Mayor Bloomberg, one of the richest men in the world, saying that the city is charging rent for the homeless to stay in a shelter. Blinking in the darkness, I thought I was listening to the Onion news report instead of NPR. Sure, I heard that Bloomberg was considering this, but never thought he was cruel enough to actually enact it.


According to the interview, this new policy is actually based on a 1997 state law that has not been enforced until last week. It is unclear at to why it has taken the city so long to claim income from the homeless.

The rent that will be charged varies based on family size and the type of shelter used, but would probably not exceed 50 percent of a family's income, according to a state official. However, already there are exceptions to this. For example, Martha Gonzalez, who is 49 and lives with her 19-year-old son in a rundown shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, said she was informed last week that she owes $1,099 in monthly rent on her $1,700 monthly income as a security guard in Midtown. She said she planned to contest the rent demand in court.

That doesn't sound like 50% to me, even by NYC's supposedly excellent "no child left behind" public school math standards.

"The policy is poorly conceived, but even more alarmingly, it's being poorly executed," remarked Steven Banks, the attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society. "What is happening is that we have seen cases of families being unilaterally told, without any notice of how the rent was calculated, that they must pay certain amounts of rent or leave the shelter. We've already had a case of a survivor of domestic violence who was actually locked out of her room."

"Families have been told to pay up or get out," Banks surmised.

Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said the new policy will affect about at least 2,000 of the more than 9,000 families living in New York City shelters. Currently, more than 500 families have been notified that they must begin paying rent on 1 May.

Interestingly, this rent requirement has been planned since 2007, after a state audit that forced NYC to pay $2.4 million for housing aid -- aid that should have been covered by homeless families with income.

Officials argued that homeless people with income should be expected to pay for a portion of their shelter costs, which would motivate them to get out of the shelter system and back into their housing.

"I think it's hard to argue that families that can contribute to their shelter cost shouldn't," said Robert V. Hess, the city's commissioner of homeless services. "I don't see this playing out in an adverse way. Our objective is not for families to remain in shelter. Our objective is to move families back into their own homes and into the community."

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, it costs $36,000 per year to shelter a family in NYC.

The city claims they are demanding rent only from those who can afford to pay it.

In turn, homeless people who are employed argue that they are trying to save enough money to get out of the shelter system and into their own housing, and thus, they cannot afford to pay rent.

However, a single mother living in a Manhattan shelter said she got a letter a few weeks ago saying she had to pay $336 rent out of the $800 she makes each month as a cashier. Vanessa Dacosta makes $8.40 an hour at Sbarro. But Dacosta already pays nearly $100 a week on child care for her 2-year-old (this is a bargain).

"It's not right," Dacosta told the Times. "I pay my baby sitter, I buy diapers, and I'm trying to save money so I can get out of here. I don't want to be in the shelter forever."

"It's going to make families stay in shelter longer because they'll have fewer financial resources," observed Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst of the Coalition for the Homeless. He referred to the policy as "impractical," arguing that most working people who live in homeless shelters earn low wages and would be better off saving for a place of their own.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, 80,000 apartments with a monthly rent of $1,000 or less, and more than 55,000 with a monthly rent under $800, "disappeared" between 2005 and 2008. Additionally, there are only 300,000 Section 8 housing vouchers available, and there are 130,600 families in New York City on the waiting list for one of these prized vouchers. An additional 231,000 families are on the waiting list for New York City public housing.

Mayor Bloomberg is the 8th richest person in the United States. He earned much of his fortune through his company, Bloomberg, LLP, which advises developers and bankers on how to maximize real estate profits and obtain low-cost, tax-free loans.


Coalition for the Homeless.

Urban Justice.


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Wow. What a load of crap. That's friggin ridiculous. I agree with the homeless people - how on earth is this supposed to help them get back into the housing system?

I'm not even going to go into how I think the state should take care of its own citizens. I'm just going to talk about this in market terms.

The problem is, as always, the problem of the missing capital. Social mobility is always restricted by a lack of capital. In developing (I hate that word) countries, that was part of the reason microcredit was supposed to work. It allowed the poor a tiny bit of capital, enough for them to build up a business, pay off their loan, and make a little bit of money without being dependent on moneylenders etc.

Here, in first-world America, the problem is still the same. In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich does a good job of showing how difficult it is for working (not unemployed!) people to pay the deposit on an apartment with their measly salary (even when they work two jobs!).

How can taking more money away from people who can't afford to rent an apartment possibly help them rent an apartment even earlier?

If you really want to help them, you could set up a savings fund or something of the like, and have them meet up with financial counselors to figure out how much they can realistically save every month. Then they could set a goal for when they could go rent out their own apartments. Don't

If, on the other hand, your real motive is to cut costs because of the state of the economy, there are so many better places to make cuts that won't put people out on the streets. For starters, cut down the incomes of those who aren't living below the (completely arbitrary) poverty line. Or how about those government workers who would still be making more than a living wage even if you cut off a whole 3/4 of their income. For example, mayors?

well, i agree with everything you say (and i have been homeless twice, so i KNOW how hard it is to get back into real housing) but i must point out that Bloomsberg works for a salary of $1 per year.

Ouch. As if life in this city weren't rough enough already...

Two words: Debtor's prison.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

I can see the logic, but only if you live in the sort of socialist hell where people get paid enough welfare that they can live on it: charging for accommodation engenders responsibility.

I'm not convinced the logic is valid, and still less that New York is that sort of socialist hell.

... [Bloomberg] works for a salary of $1 per year.

There is a large and scary sense in which "populists" attacking officeholders' pay level boost the interests of those preferring that government positions be either occupied by or dependent upon the wealthy & powerful.

We might be much better off paying high salaries to elected (& appointed) officials while demanding very strict controls on favors accepted during and after their governmental tenures.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

... [Bloomberg] works for a salary of $1 per year.

So what? Like she said, he's the 8th richest person in the country. Taking his salary would probably cost him. This way he gets to impress people.

... [Bloomberg] works for a salary of $1 per year.

On that salary, how can he afford rent?

At 8.40 an hour and making 800 per month, that means that in a short month, say February where theres 4 weeks, that means if she only works Monday-Friday, she's working less than five hours a day. Working a "full day", i.e. 9-5 with an unpaid, hour long lunch break (7 hrs) would net her $1176. She already is paying for child care, so what is she doing in the additional 2-2:15 hours per day?