As the ranks of the homeless swell in New York City, the administration is scrambling to find places for new shelters. In response to the crisis, 10 new shelters have been opened, even in some wealthier areas. Homelessness is a problem in many cities throughout the U.S., as well as other countries throughout the world, including Canada. However, in New York City the situation has been escalating into a crisis as there are far fewer shelter spaces than those seeking shelter.
At the last count, every night in New York City 46,000 people sought shelter. While the response of Mayor Bloomberg has been to open the new shelters, some of the shelters are in wealthier areas. This development does not please some of those close to the shelters in those areas. Gwynne Rivers, who has three children, lives near a shelter on the Upper West Side. She says, "It sort of felt almost like a bomb landing. We just have lots of concerns about safety. And no one really seemed to care about what we thought." Those living adjacent to the homeless shelters worry about crime and drug use increasing in the area.
The recent count of 46,000 per night seeking shelter is the highest ever recorded. A recent census report found New York City has 14 percent of the homeless people in the U.S. Los Angeles, which has the second most homeless, has only 3 percent of the U.S. total. There is a lack of affordable housing in New York and the gap between rich and poor is one of the largest in the U.S.
Unlike many other U.S. cities, New York is actually required by law to provide shelter for every person seeking it. In order to deal with the crisis, the city has had to use emergency powers and bypass normal community approval processes. A shelter opened just in August on the Upper West Side, shoulder to shoulder with apartments occupied by wealthy New Yorkers. The shelter is right across the street from an elementary school, P.S. 75, that has a playground. Jen Zunt, who has a fifth grader at the school, complained: "There definitely seem to be more people hanging around the street corners, at the subway stops, panhandling. There's not enough supervision. And these are going to be people who have mental health issues, possibly."
Parents complain about homeless men urinating in doorways and loitering by the school. Local parents are seeking more security in the area, and many don't let their children walk to and from school alone. Zunt continued: "We all have kids walking to the park to play soccer. I have a 14-year-old daughter who goes on her own to school and goes to chorus. And, you know, that's really scary."
Mayor Bloomberg, himself part of the “one percent,” said the homeless population in New York is exploding because conditions in New York shelters are much improved. City officials claim that homeless from all over the country are flooding in to New York. In April, Bloomberg said to reporters: "We have made our shelter system so much better that, unfortunately, when people are in it—or fortunately, depending on what your objective is—it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before."
Shelter residents in some areas such as 95th Street would take issue with Bloomberg's rosy description of their situation. Residents complain that some apartments are infested with roaches, bedbugs and mice. Added to that, people knock on doors in the middle of the night looking for drugs. Police regularly visit the shelter to break up fights and screaming matches that keep them awake.
Bloomberg is facing a constant battle with residents in wealthy areas where shelters have been placed. Bloomberg's problems are partly of his own making. He ended a subsidy program that allowed homeless people to obtain subsidies if they rented rooms or apartments. Bloomberg ended the program after New York State cut off its portion of the subsidy. There are huge waiting lists for public housing and federal rent subsidies. Bloomberg stopped putting homeless families at the top of these lists.
Getting out of the system becomes more and more difficult. Shawn Joell, an unemployed homeless Army veteran, who lives in the 95th Street shelter, said: "It's just once you're in the system, it's a struggle to get back on your feet. A lot of people are in dire need of housing and help."
The situation is made worse by an almost 9.9 percent unemployment rate in the city. A resident of the Upper West Side shelter, Abraham Sepulveda, was able to land a job in a local supermarket. Even with the job, he is struggling to save money since the shelter has no cooking facilities. He ends up eating out quite often. He feels as if he is just treading water and not getting anywhere.
Apparently, rich people who have contact with poorer people and who do not live in protected enclaves where they do not see how poor people live have less empathy or appreciation for problems of those in poverty. However, it seems when it comes to shelters for the homeless the "not in my back yard" reaction is first and foremost among the wealthy.