Homeless Families Surge

New York’s flush times have been getting a lot of attention recently: record bonuses on Wall Street, a continuing low crime rate, vigorous development of previously neglected neighborhoods, and two New York politicians leading the pack in the race for the White House.

But that’s only part of the picture. It was reported last week that the number of homeless families in the city is at its highest level since records began being kept in 1982. This shocking, and frankly shameful, fact indicates that the buoyancy of the local economy has not lifted all boats, and that something needs to be done before things get even worse.

Fortunately the Bloomberg administration is taking the new numbers seriously. Two and a half years ago, City Hall announced a bold five-year plan to reduce the city’s homeless population by two-thirds. Some elements of that plan—such as treating the homeless with greater respect and dignity—have started to show success, as families are no longer sleeping overnight on benches in grimy city-agency offices as they await shelter and housing assignments. And there’s been a decline since 2004 in the number of single homeless men and women.

But the current number of homeless families—9,250—is 2,000 above the five-year plan’s stated goal for 2007. Housing that many families in shelters is costing New York taxpayers $260 million annually. And in the past year alone, there’s been a 23 percent rise in families as part of the shelter population, while the number of families assigned permanent housing has dropped 11 percent.

When so many families are homeless, of course, the impact is felt most severely on the youngest members of those families. Visit a soup kitchen these days and you will see highchairs. Statistics have shown that roughly 500,000 New York City kids still go to bed hungry every night. That’s over 25 percent of our city’s children—a fact that should give every New Yorker pause.

Whenever bad news is announced, finger-pointing follows. Some advocates for the homeless are accusing the Bloomberg administration of being too aggressive in its attempts to prevent long-term dependency on housing subsidies, and of operating behind closed doors.

But unlike, say, the current administration in Washington, Mr. Bloomberg is not deaf to criticism, nor is he content to pass the buck on to the next Mayor. In a refreshing example of candor, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Homeless Services, Robert Hess, says he understands that the five-year plan clearly has shortcomings and needs to be revamped to address the troubling new information on families. Rather than trying to hide or spin their mistakes, City Hall officials are trying to learn from them. And you can be sure that Michael Bloomberg does not want history to judge him as a Mayor who saved the schools but abandoned the city’s neediest families.

Spitzer Versus Suburbs: City Schools at Stake

It would be an exaggeration to say that in state politics, there are really just two issues: school funding, and everything else. Yes, it’s an exaggeration, all right—but only a slight one.

Albany delivers billions of dollars in state aid to schools according to a complex formula in which New York City traditionally receives slightly more than 38 percent of the total. This year, Governor Eliot Spitzer wants to increase state school spending by about $1.4 billion, to more than $19 billion overall. However, he has proposed a change in the way Albany would distribute the new spending, with New York City getting about 46 percent of the new money.

Republicans in the State Senate, most of them from suburban districts, would sooner swallow thumbtacks than agree to a school-spending formula that is so biased in the city’s favor. They have proposed, in turn, their own formula, under which the city would get about 39 percent of the new spending—a 1 percent increase. It will be up to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Mr. Spitzer to figure this one out.

But what cannot be forgotten is the simple fact that New York City’s schoolchildren are disproportionately poor relative to the rest of the state—especially when compared with students in the affluent suburbs of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties. Their needs are greater, and more expensive.

What’s more, they’ve been cheated for years. That was the gist of a State Court of Appeals ruling in 2003. The judges said that Albany was failing to live up to the State Constitution’s mandate to provide city children with a sound education. It ordered the state to pay billions more in aid to city schools.

Money, of course, is no guarantee of satisfactory test results and a lasting learning experience. But the city’s advocates ask only that state spending be divided up in a just and fair manner, with a recognition that although New York City has only 36.5 percent of the state’s public-school students, its schools face challenges that are nonexistent in many suburban schools.

Mr. Spitzer’s new formula, in which the city would get nearly half of new school spending in the fiscal year beginning April 1, is a welcome response to the complex needs of 1.1 million schoolchildren. The reaction in the suburbs, while predictable, is disappointing all the same. It’s striking that there seems to be no respect for the law in the State Senate. Meanwhile, nobody will ever say that the students of Scarsdale or Rye or Garden City are being denied a sound education because of inequitable funding.

In the end, Mr. Spitzer’s formula no doubt will be tweaked a bit. It’s hard to imagine that the city will get the full allotment that the Governor has proposed. But there’s no question that Mr. Spitzer has taken a step in the right direction. Suburban legislators have to stop their stonewalling and realize that whatever they think of the city, they cannot deny that its children have been poorly served in the past, and now is the time to do right by them.