As Mayor de Blasio’s tenure at Gracie Mansion winds down, homelessness — a key campaign issue against which he swore to fight a “blood and guts” war — remains as bad as it ever was. Combined with the rise in street crime, open drug use and the return of prostitution, the number of people living on the street in Manhattan — almost all of whom are seriously mentally ill — stands as the signature policy failure of the de Blasio administration.
Take a walk from the Village to Midtown. On Eighth Street and University, a woman, hopelessly alcoholic, lives on the sidewalk, surrounded by a hodgepodge of possessions and reading James Patterson novels. On Fifth Avenue, a deranged barefoot man camps out in front of the Church of the Ascension, endlessly hollering imprecations at passersby, or at no one.
On Sixth, a middle-aged transgender woman “rejected by family” (so her sign reads) maintains a pile of old office furniture and other detritus. Over the summer, the Sanitation Department hauled her stuff away; it’s all back now.
Heading uptown, nearly every block is inhabited by someone sleeping, “nodding” or pacing and muttering aggressively. Penn Station has devolved into asylum territory, with derelicts and lunatics gibbering madly and using walkways as latrines. The subway system has turned into a rolling annex of the Department of Homeless Services.
The mayor, as usual, is happy to assign blame — and accept credit — where it isn’t due. Sure, he acknowledges that his management of homelessness failed to “see the whole picture” and “missed pieces of the problem entirely.” But, at the same time, de Blasio has blamed the pandemic for “exposing inequalities” in the system, effectively giving himself a pass on conditions that actually worsened under his rule.
The mayor has even congratulated New York City for not having sprawling tent cities, insisting that our vaunted “right to shelter” spares us from the fate of Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of people camp out on a permanent basis. In fact, New York is perversely blessed with a bitter winter, which encourages all but the most stubborn street cases to seek warmer climes.
The “right to shelter” was established by the famous 1981 Callahan v. Carey case, in which the city consented to provide every homeless man (women and children were included in succeeding suits) with a place to live on an emergency basis. Callahan is the basis of our present shelter system, which houses about 50,000 New Yorkers every night. It’s also the cornerstone of the vast personal wealth that some corrupt and connected social-service providers like Jack Brown of CORE Services Group have sucked from the taxpayer.
The person most responsible for enforcing and extending Callahan over the decades was Steven Banks, who, as the head of the Legal Aid Society, sued the city dozens of times. De Blasio appointed Banks head of the Human Resources Administration in 2014, and added Homeless Services to his portfolio in 2016 — a classic case of letting a hen guard the henhouse.
Now, presumptive mayor Eric Adams has signaled his intention to keep Steven Banks on when he takes office in 2022. This would be a terrible choice. Banks has overseen extensive provider corruption and mismanagement, a risible expansion of “outreach” staff whose job is to advertise the availability of services as timidly as possible to homeless people who know full well they exist, and an explosion in spending.
As mayor, Adams will have to come up with bold measure to do something about the problem. “Upzoning wealthy neighborhoods,” to build “affordable housing” — his primary homelessness-related campaign pledge — may play well among his class-warrior base but is an unserious policy when it comes to dealing with an entrenched, mentally ill street homeless population. New York City demands a real response and needs it now.
Seth Barron is the author of “The Last Days of New York: A Reporter’s True Tale.”
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