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Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg last month vowed to cut homelessness in half by 2025, if elected — doubling spending to $6 billion and guaranteeing rent vouchers for the “extremely poor.”
“Mike will make homelessness a national priority,” his website promises.
Bloomberg’s Mike 2020 approach to solving the homeless crisis, however, stands in contrast to his words and deeds during his 2002-to-2013 stint as New York City’s mayor.
He promised to end chronic homelessness in the city and reduce the shelter population by two-thirds within five years. After an initial dip during his first term, homelessness ultimately rose by 71% on Bloomberg’s watch — from 31,000 people in shelters to 53,000.
Along the way, Bloomberg proposed putting the homeless on a mothballed cruise ship. He handed them one-way plane tickets out of town. For a time, he charged those with jobs rent to stay in city shelters.
As mayor, Bloomberg derided the requirement that anyone who seeks shelter in New York City must be provided a bed by musing someone could fly into JFK on a private jet and snag a bed.
He claimed the “pleasurable” conditions of city shelters were inspiring the homeless to stay longer. He cut off federal rent vouchers because he said they were encouraging people to become voluntarily homeless.
Now Bloomberg sees vouchers as a potent tool to tackle a “national emergency” as he pledges to “ensure every American has a stable roof over their head.”
Against this backdrop, THE CITY examined Bloomberg’s mayoral record on homelessness.
‘City of Opportunity’
When Bloomberg arrived at City Hall in January 2002, the number of people in shelters had been rising for more than a year from 20,000 to 31,000. At the time, Bloomberg continued the Giuliani administration policy of giving the homeless priority for federal rent vouchers and public housing.
But as the numbers grew, Bloomberg began explorng unusual tactics – including placing the homeless on an old cruise ship, an idea his then-23-year-old daughter, Emma, suggested. Then-Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Linda Gibbs flew to the Bahamas to check out two retired vessels.
“If you think about a cruise ship, it’s exactly what you need,” he said when word of the proposal leaked in November 2002. “Rooms with bathrooms that are safe, that we can afford, in a neighborhood we can use.”
The much-mocked plan was ultimately dropped. By June 2003, the number of homeless reached 38,000.
In 2004, the shelter population began to drop for the first time since 1996. That spring, Gibbs announced plans to close Manhattan’s huge 850-bed 30th Street Men’s Shelter, which was falling apart.
By Jan. 11, 2005, the date of Bloomberg’s State of the City address, the homeless census had dropped from 38,000 to 36,000.
“We pledged some six months ago to eliminate chronic homelessness in this city within the next five years — and we’re going to do it,” said Bloomberg, standing below a map of New York emblazoned “City of Opportunity.” At the time, he faced his first re-election bid.
Later that year, Bloomberg ended giving homeless families priority for federal rent vouchers known as Section 8 and for open apartments in city Housing Authority buildings.
The mayor decided the program was actually encouraging people to voluntarily become homeless to get a voucher or a NYCHA apartment, according to Victor Bach, a housing expert at the non-profit Community Service Society.
“One of the major reasons the Bloomberg administration gave for changing the old system of giving homeless families preference for some housing programs was that it acted as a perverse incentive for families to go into the shelter system,” Bach said.
A Loss of ‘Advantage’
Within a year, the homeless shelter population began to climb.
Bloomberg tried to stem the tide, starting with a plan to replace the reliance on Section 8 and NYCHA with a new program called Advantage.
Funded with state and city money, Advantage provided temporary rent subsidies to families. Unlike Section 8, the subsidies terminated after two years and, in some cases, one year.
Meanwhile, the shelter numbers kept going up. In July 2007, with the homeless census at 34,000, Bloomberg began giving people without homes one-way tickets on buses, trains and planes out of New York City.
He defended the program, saying, “It saves the taxpayers of New York City an enormous amount of money.”
By January 2010, New York City had more than 39,000 shelter residents. That spring, homeless men started showing up at the Coalition for the Homeless outreach centers, saying they were being charged rent for shelter.
In response, then-state Sen. Tom Duane and Assemblymember Keith Wright, both Manhattan Democrats, sponsored a bill barring the Department of Homeless Services from charging the homeless rent.
Bloomberg backed off the plan by that June, and announced at a news conference that instead, homeless people who work would have to set aside some earnings in savings accounts.
After talking to reporters, Bloomberg turned to then-Coalition for the Homeless leader Mary Brosnahan, and snapped, “The problem is these people need to learn now to save,” she recalled.
“I was appalled by this comment. He was just completely in denial about any structural forces that were in place,” she told THE CITY. “He was completely unable to grasp the multiple pressures of the housing market affordability, the labor market and how people that are on the lowest rung of the housing ladder need a hand up — not just directions to try harder.”
In June 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo cut off the state’s contribution to Advantage, and Bloomberg followed suit, killing the program. Hundreds of formerly homeless families wound up back in shelters.
Within a year, the shelter population rose from 38,000 to 44,000.
In December 2011, Bloomberg began requiring single adults to prove they couldn’t find shelter elsewhere before they could be accepted into city facilities. The City Council sued to stop this approach and won.
A Rise in Rhetoric
During his third and final term, Bloomberg made a series of statements that critics said essentially blamed the homeless for their predicament.
“In his mind, it was all personal responsibility,” Brosnahan said.
At an August 2012 news conference in Queens, Bloomberg tried to explain why homeless individuals were staying longer in shelters: “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.”
At a February 2013 news conference, he was asked about reports the city was turning homeless people away from shelters.
He replied, “Nobody sleeps on the streets of New York City” — apparently unaware of a recent federal count that tallied 3,200 people sleeping on sidewalks and in subways citywide.
And on his weekly radio show on March 8, 2013, he ripped the city’s requirement that anyone seeking shelter must be offered a bed.
“You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter,” he said. “That’s what the law is. I didn’t write the law.”
In his last weeks at City Hall, Bloomberg defended his homeless policies following a New York Times series on the dangerous and decrepit conditions a little homeless girl named Dasani faced in a city-run shelter in Brooklyn.
“This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works,” he said. “Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.”
“New York City has done more than any city to help the homeless,” insisted Bloomberg, who criticized reporters for not understanding that Dasani’s living conditions weren’t so bad compared to those in other countries.
“I think one of the problems is a lot of journalists have never looked around the world,” he said, addressing one Politico reporter, “Your smirk shows you haven’t been outside the country and don’t know what poverty means elsewheres.”
In December 2013, Bloomberg’s final month at City Hall, the number of homeless people staying in city-run shelters had risen to a then-record high of 53,173. The number of family members in shelters rose 81%, from 23,196 to 42,004 on his watch.
The current number of homeless people in city shelters currently stands at 63,000, including those housed at the notorious 30th Street facility, New York’s largest shelter.
A spokesperson for Bloomberg’s presidential campaign did not respond to a list of questions about his homeless policies as mayor.
(Bloomberg Philanthropies is a funder of THE CITY)
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