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Homelessness in New York City

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There are various ways to define homelessness. According to section 330(h)(5)(A) of the US Constitution, a homeless person is one who does not have housing (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). As such, homelessness can be described living in places that only provide temporary residence to an individual or a group of people. In New York City, homelessness continues to be a persistent and a highly visible public issue. In 2013, the number of people who spent the night in city shelters hit levels that had not been seen since the Great Depression. Homeless families and children made up 78% of this population. Coincidentally, around 30% of all homeless people suffer from at least one mental condition, while 70% are involved in the use of drugs. By 2015, New York City was spending close to $1 billion on homeless shelters (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). These statistics prove that there is a serious problem with current service delivery and homelessness prevention methods. The main objective of this paper is to offer concrete solutions to the perennial problem of homelessness in New York City.


The current status of homelessness in New York City can be traced back to two significant historical events: the deinstitutionalization movement and the collapse of the single-resident occupancy housing market (Durham, 2010). The deinstitutionalization movement, which started in New York State in the 1950s, oversaw the discharge of numerous psychiatric patients from health care facilities into the general community. This policy was supported by emerging psychopharmacological studies and developments that advocated for less restrictive and community-based approaches to treatment. Over the next few years, public opinion shifted against inpatient treatment thereby strengthening the deinstitutionalization movement, Mainstream media which depicted the abhorrent conditions of hospitals was primarily responsible for this change in opinion.

Following the deinstitutionalization movement, the number of resident patients in psychiatric centers across New York State decreased by 68% between 1965 and 1979 (Durham, 2010). Moreover, inadequate follow-up services meant that individuals who were released from these centers were left without any community support or treatment. With inadequate monitoring services and limited resources, the patients were forced to seek housing in cheap, single-resident occupancy (SRO) units. From 1955 to 1975, changes in New York City housing regulations and restrictive zoning ordinances prevented the development of new SROs (Durham, 2010). Moreover, property tax and gentrification policies financially incentivized people who owned SRO buildings to convert SRO units into expensive cooperatives, rental-housing, and condominiums. This turn of events led to the decline of SRO housing which went on for several decades thereby limiting the access to affordable housing.


The deinstitutionalization movement and the collapse of the single-resident occupancy housing market may have laid the foundation for homelessness to flourish in New York City. However, other factors have served to perpetuate this problem. Apart from expensive housing and low wages, the main factor that enhances the level of homelessness in New York City is its own housing policies. Apparently, these policies tend to favor people who are homeless over poor people living in private housing. Homeless people in New York City tend to receive numerous financial reliefs which might actually incentivize them to remain homeless (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). Being homeless in New York City no longer means sleeping in the subway or living on the street. The city now has a legal obligation to provide shelter to any person or family that claims to have no home. This obligation is met by placing such individuals in hotels, public shelters, or public housing.

The benefits of becoming homeless include the access to cheap, subsidized housing and the ability to have more disposable income. Since 1984, the city has prioritized homeless families when it comes to providing city-owned houses to the public (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). Currently, over 200,000 families are applying for these subsidized houses at any one time (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). Most of the time, these families have to wait for years before being considered. Being homeless in New York City also gives one the chance of receiving public grants of up to $500 per month (Groton, 2013). These subsidies effectively increase one’s disposable income. Homeless families in the city also get to receive transport allowances and cheap meals that are provided by the shelters. These factors tend to incentivize New Yorkers to declare homelessness to benefit from the city’s generosity.

Consequences of Homelessness

Homelessness has grave consequences on the homeless families, children and the state at large. Homeless families, in particular, face a host of challenges in addition to acquiring and maintaining housing. Homeless parents, particularly the mothers, are at a higher risk of suffering from domestic violence than housed mothers. Other consequences include food insecurity, mental illnesses, substance abuse, poor health and higher HIV/AIDS prevalence (Groton, 2013). This paper examines the short-term and long-term impacts of homelessness on families and children.

Many studies have linked domestic violence with homelessness. These studies further demonstrate that homeless mothers have a higher risk of experiencing violence from their intimate lovers than their married counterparts with adequate housing. Also, the research shows that these mothers are six times more likely to suffer abuse when compared to single homeless females. Domestic violence has dire effects on women and children across New York, and this issue is exacerbated by gender inequality and other disparities such as financial inequality. Available data shows that about 1.5 million kids experience different forms of domestic violence which have long-term adverse effects such as sexual abuse, substance use, mental illness and physical abuse (Groton, 2013).

Food insecurity is another consequence of homelessness. Food insecurity can be defined as inadequate or limited access to sustainable, nutritious foods. Homeless families are exposed to poverty due to low incomes and inadequate housing and food insecurity (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). Although there is insufficient information on the state of food security among the homeless, statistics demonstrate a high prevalence of food insecurity among the homeless in New York. Food insecurity has serious consequences on child health and physical development. Children from homeless families demonstrate developmental delays, poor mental health, and behavioral issues such as depression, aggression, and anxiety. Also, food insecurity among homeless pregnant women resulted in the birth of low birth weight children and increased infant mortality rates.

Data has shown that parents with kids under the age of 4 years are at a higher risk of developing a mental illness due to their socioeconomic status (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). For instance, about one-third mothers from poor backgrounds are more likely to show signs and symptoms of depression than mothers from high-income households. However, this issue is further exacerbated by the state of homelessness where stats show that homeless mothers have higher chances of suffering from mental instability than their housed counterparts. On the other hand, mental sickness increases individuals’ vulnerability to physical health issues, abuse, leading to an impairment of families to implement risk reduction strategies and practice self-care.

Moreover, homelessness contributes to high rates of substance use and abuse among the affected individuals. Research shows that about 41% homeless mothers are likely to experience a higher lifetime rate of drug addiction than housed women (Coalition for the Homeless, 2015). Substance abuse further leads these women into contracting sexually transmitted illnesses, anemia, and cardiac conditions. Moreover, homeless parents often abuse drugs as a coping mechanism leading to adverse effects on their children. Research shows that about two-thirds of child welfare issues can be attributed to parental substance abuse.


New York has continued to experience a rise in the number of homeless individuals in the past decade. Hence, the focus of public awareness and policy implementation is to contain the growing number of homeless people within the state. One of the recommendations is that the city should seek to stabilize the homeless individuals within the shelter system and streamline preventive measures such as building new shelters for the homeless (Groton, 2013). Another recommendation is that the administration should expand anti-eviction strategies like legal policies and emergency rental aid to protect families from being evicted from their apartments.

Another recommendation is that New York administration should partner with other stakeholders such as the state and the private sector in designing and implementing programs to combat homelessness. Also, the administration can partner with social workers, health professionals, and psychologists to assist victims of sexual abuse and other health conditions to transit to the shelter system (Groton, 2013). These partners could be technology partners to document the numbers of homeless people and those that have found shelters. Such data is important in connecting people to various shelters thus reducing the homeless population in New York.

Finally, it is also recommended that the State of New York should implement strict policies and laws on rental assistance programs. Research shows that many individuals who get housing through housing subsidies tend to be homeless after some time. Therefore, it is recommended that the state implements strict eligibility criteria before assisting people that claim to be homeless.


For people who are chronically homeless with no steady income, it is important for the city to provide them with decent housing. However, a significant portion of New Yorkers who seek shelter has an income that sustains them. In fact, they might be seeking shelter just to increase their disposable income which they can then use to fund other activities. As such, New York City authorities need to become extra-vigilant when evaluating people in need of shelter. More focus should be placed on the financial position of the applicants to avoid granting homes to people who, in real sense, can afford private housing. Strict policies will drastically reduce the number of homeless people in New York City.


Coalition for the Homeless. (2015). New York City Homelessness: The Basic Facts. Retrieved from:
Durham, M. (2010). The impact of deinstitutionalization on the current treatment of the mentally ill. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 12, 117-131.
Groton, D. (2013). Are housing first programs effective? A research note. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 40, 51-63.