Single adults surge into homeless shelters as permanent housing construction lags

The number of single adults in New York City shelters climbed sharply in the last year, marking the fourth straight year of increases, according to the recently released 2011 Mayor’s Management Report.

In the 2011 fiscal year, 20,615 single adults entered the shelter system.The total represented an increase of more than a thousand from the previous fiscal year, and a four-year increase of roughly 3,000 since 2007. The average number of single adults in shelters each day also spiked, from 7,167 in 2010 to 8,367 in 2011.

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the increase was driven by both the economic downturn and what he described as the inadequacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration’s response to the needs of homeless adults.

“The city has failed to make the necessary investments in the long term housing-based solutions to this problem,” Markee said. “Right now the city’s singular approach to the problem is to expand the shelter system.”

Permanent supportive housing provides apartments and social services to individuals with disabilities or substance abuse problems, or to youth who have recently aged out of foster care. It targets the single adults at greatest risk of entering shelters and it is an approach that Markee says “everyone from the George W. Bush Administration to the Coalition for the Homeless agree is the solution to homelessness for people with disabilities.”

He added that the city’s failure to provide sufficient resources for this approach meant that many of those hit hardest by the recession were cycling through the shelter system rather than finding permanent homes.

New York City’s Department of Homeless Services did not respond to repeated inquiries on the rise of the shelter population.

The Bloomberg Administration has made significant investments in permanent supportive housing. In 2005, it pledged jointly with New York State to spend $1 billion over ten years to develop 9,000 new units of supportive housing.

Diane Louard-Michel of the New York City director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which advocates and finances the development of permanent supportive housing, said the investment represented an historic commitment to supportive housing. But she noted that development of those units is lagging and that current demand is significantly greater than the available supply. “The units are not coming on line as quickly as we’d like,” she said. “The average project takes 50 percent longer to twice as long as it did in early 2000s, when we had cheap and ready land and much lower costs.”

Louard-Michel said that while about 60 percent of the ten-year time period allotted for building the new units had elapsed, only about 30 percent of the promised units were available.

Louard-Michel said it was unlikely that the growing shelter population is attributable to the decrease in homeless people sleeping on the streets of New York City. The January 2011 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate survey found that the number of unsheltered homeless individuals declined by 463 from 2010 to 2011, and by 1,107 in the four-year period since 2007, leaving 2,648 unsheltered individuals in New York City. Many of those who have left the streets have ended up in living situations other than homeless shelters, including supportive housing.

Both Louard-Michel and Markee agreed that the problem of homelessness was getting worse.

“It’s an incredibly troubling trend,” Markee said, “and it doesn’t seem to be reversing itself.”

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