Out, but not up: Homelessness in the age of Bloomberg

The fact is that I still have yet to dig up any actual hard numbers on just how many folks graduate from WEP assignments into a stable job. But there is this, from the Brookings Institution: “A primary motivation for the use of work experience programs is to impose a reciprocal obligation on those receiving welfare, rather than to increase future employment and earnings.”

What is clear is that the effort to deal with homelessness has been a volatile science experiment for the city across several administrations. Mayors Koch and Dinkins took stabs at it, and of course Rudolph Giuliani had his own special way of dealing with the dispossessed. But there had been no great, sweeping success stories when Bloomberg started his reign.

As one of America’s most generous philanthropists, he was confident in his ability to hit a home run with the homelessness problem. (A popular Bloomberg quote, after my own heart: "I am a big believer in giving it all away and have always said that the best financial planning ends with bouncing the check to the undertaker.")

How is it that Bloomberg, too, seems to have failed at cracking the homeless code after nearly a decade of trying? Is that even a fair assessment?

It depends on who you ask.

The Coalition has its numbers and charts with which to hang the administration. But agencies with a less obviously adversarial relationship with the city, like Common Ground, report some success.

Not coincidentally, Common Ground, whose beautiful apartment buildings I’ve visited a few times, is the kind of organization Bloomberg wants the shelter system to give way to. It provides outreach and support tailored to the individual, at a fraction of the cost that city shelters, jails and hospitals spend on a stray citizen.

This prompts a question: what makes the half-assed, cattle-car manner of processing homeless people in the city system so expensive? Why do fortress-like shelters such as Bellevue have a surplus of cops and security guards on hand but a skeleton crew for maintenance and a medical capability that amounts to “call 9-1-1”?

The place is filthy and crawling with vermin. This is probably just indicative of a belief on the part of Bloomberg that the city shelters are on their way out. But the messy reality is that for the time being, human beings still live there.

Last winter, I was at Open Door, the drop-in shelter behind Port Authority bus terminal, in its last hours of operation. The place had usually been packed when I'd been there in the past, but this night the crowd of folks sleeping on metal folding chairs was pretty thin. The warning had already come down weeks prior. People had already staked out new places to squat.

I later saw some of the former Open Door regulars sleeping in train cars and subway platforms, in the Metro North waiting room at Grand Central Terminal, and cat-napping in the Mid-Manhattan Library. I knew what this was about: A lot of folks preferred the come-and- go of the drop-ins, which Bloomberg had taken away, to the regimented squalor of the city shelters. How many times had I heard caseworkers invoke notorious shelters as a threat? (“Would you rather be on Wards Island? Bedford and Atlantic? Pamoja House?”)

Threats and punitive measures keep the needy in line, but bright alternatives like Common Ground or the now-86’d Advantage Program are rarely mentioned down here.

There is an invisible but sharp dividing line between clients the system deems worthy of serious investment and those it writes off as lost causes.

That is what I consider the true, enduring obstacle to “ending homelessness” (as Common Ground ambitiously describes its mandate): The goal isn’t to bring everybody up but to sort everybody out. In that sense, perhaps Bloomberg’s most successful program thus far is that offer of a one-way ticket out of New York.

“It saves the taxpayers of New York an enormous amount of money,” he told the Times in 2009.

It’s a sentiment that the bodega clerk and the blue-collar Joe who made fun of my “Obama card” could heartily agree with.

Steven Boone is a film critic who has been writing for Capital about his experiences with homelessness. His previous installments are here.