The growth of tent settlements in California and elsewhere is one of the saddest developments in this season of sadness. As President Barack Obama recently observed, “It is not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.” Here in New York City successive mayors since the Koch administration have wrestled with this difficult and seemingly intractable problem. The website of the NYC Department of Homeless Services’ posts a “Daily Homeless Census”, and on March 24 it logged 35,107 New Yorkers without a home. This number included 8,092 families with children and 6,865 single adults. According to the City, 2,328 individuals living in New York City are without shelter, a drop from 3,306 a year ago and 4,395 individuals in 2005.
While the decrease is positive, this data still means that about 7% of New York City’s homeless are without shelter on an average night. New York does a better job of sheltering its homeless than many other places – the City contracts with more than 150 non-profit providers of shelter and other services for homeless people, and since the early 1980’s New York State’s courts have maintained that all New Yorkers have the legal right to shelter. Yet, homelessness remains a horror for adults and a disaster for children and families.
For a number of years I have been on the Board of Directors of Homes for the Homeless, an amazing organization founded in 1986 by Hartz Group Chairman Leonard N. Stern. Homes for the Homeless is a public-private partnership between city government, private business, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Since 1987, my good friend and Columbia colleague Dr. Ralph Nunez has served as President and CEO of Homes for the Homeless. Each year, the organization provides shelter for about 1,000 families and 2,500 children. In addition to a place to sleep, “Homes” provides meals, after-school day care, adult education, summer camps and other services designed to help homeless families escape poverty. For about 20 years Dr. Nunez taught quantitative analysis to public policy students at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. In addition to working to help homeless families survive, he has worked to analyze and understand the causes and effects of homelessness. To do that, he and his colleagues began a small think-tank called the Institute for Children and Poverty. According to the Institute’s website:
-More than 1.35 million children from 600,000 families are homeless in America, and available shelter and housing for homeless families is decreasing.
-Overcoming homelessness is almost impossible without steady employment, and more than two-thirds of homeless parents nationwide are unemployed.
-Homeless children have less of a chance of succeeding in school. Frequent school transfers are the most significant barrier to the academic success of homeless students.
-Homeless families are more vulnerable to serious health issues. Mental health, tuberculosis and HIV are far more common than in the general public.
-Homeless parents and their children are more likely to have experienced violence. One out of three homeless teens have witnessed a stabbing, shooting, rape, or murder in their communities.
-Homeless parents and their children are more likely to be separated from each other. In fact, 34% of school-aged homeless children have lived apart from their families. More than 60% of children placed in foster care come from formerly homeless families.
As the new Hoovervilles springing up on the West Coast indicate, homelessness is a symptom of poverty and the lack of low-cost housing. As President Obama indicated, we have a responsibility to help our neighbors who do not have the means to help themselves. One difference in New York City, when compared to some other American cities, is that homeless people are more difficult to ignore here. While many homeless are “invisible,” many are not. This is a city of mass and walking transit. Most people can’t simply hide up high behind the wheel of their SUV and drive to the mall. The responsibility for our neighbors here is not simply an abstraction – we see real human beings on our walk to work.
When I think about taking responsibility for our neighbors and building a community, I have to think about Leonard Stern, the wealthy and powerful business leader who founded Homes for the Homeless and then recruited Ralph Nunez to run it. Theirs is an inspiring partnership comprised of Stern’s strategic business sense and Nunez’s deep understanding of city politics and organizational management. Homes for the Homeless is not perfect, but it is an impressive organization. It shows what can be done, and it has made a material and significant difference in thousands of lives. If you are interested in their story, check out this video and you’ll see what I mean.
I believe that we will come out of these difficult economic times, renewed and reminded of what matters. If you see a homeless child given a place to sleep and a chance to overcome the poverty trap, you can’t help but be motivated. That motivation is the source of the hope I feel for the future.