Can’t ‘defund’ our way out of homeless crisis

A core tenet of defund ideology holds that nothing that law enforcement does ever “works,” whereas everything that’s done in the social services is wildly successful.

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander has applied this thinking to Mayor Adams’ effort to clean up homeless encampments. 

In a new report, Lander recommends that, because relatively few of the encampment-dwellers targeted by the Adams program accepted services, the “counterproductive sweeps” should be abandoned. Instead, the city should scale up efforts to provide no-strings-attached permanent housing, in accord with the philosophy known as “Housing First.”

New Yorkers envious of the sprawling tent cities now common in other big metro areas and who wonder “why we can’t have more of that here?” will hail the Lander report as a welcome contribution.

Reduce public disorder

When cities dismantle encampments, they do so not to immediately transform the lives of everyone on the street. Their main goal is to reduce public disorder. 

Judged by that standard, the Adams program is by no means a failure. Lander’s own analysis notes that encampments had not returned to most of the sites cleaned up by city workers.

Homeless and mentally ill garbage and recyclable collector parks his 3 cart caravan on Fifth Ave. and West 13th St. in the Village.
Lander’s analysis notes that encampments had not returned to most of the sites cleaned up by city workers.
Helayne Seidman

New York’s street homeless population, who have high rates of untreated serious mental illness and substance abuse, are the hardest of the hard core. To be unsheltered in New York City makes you “service resistant” practically by definition, for it means that you have almost certainly declined your right to shelter. 

Most cities have no right to shelter, and the few that do have a far less generous one than New York. 

Instead, the local street population opts to live in public spaces, to the detriment of other New Yorkers.

But Lander thinks New York is overly harsh toward the street homeless. In making this argument, Lander stakes out a position not only more progressive than Mayor Adams’, but that of Bill de Blasio.

For all his shortcomings on mental health and homelessness, de Blasio held the line on encampments, far more so than his progressive peers leading other major cities.

The comptroller strangely suggests that New York is insufficiently committed to Housing First. Housing First and permanent supportive housing were essentially invented in New York. 

New York is host to 36,000 units of permanent supportive housing, far and away the most of any US city. 

Eric Adams
Mayor Eric Adams has focused on targeting homeless encampments and getting people into permanent housing and treatment.
Steve Sands/NewYorkNewswire/Bauer-Griffin/Shutterstock

Police part of solution

At present, city government is working its way through Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to add 15,000 units to the stock, and state government is working its way through Andrew Cuomo’s Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative, many of whose 20,000 units will be developed in the city.

Permanent supportive housing is an essential intervention for a segment of the homeless population. However, it does not deserve the panacea status progressives often give it.

To put this in terms a comptroller might understand, it’s as difficult for a city to house its way out of homelessness as to grow its way out of its debt. A city with excessive debt needs a healthy economy but also the discipline to make cuts. Housing for the homeless programs are long-term commitments — both the Cuomo and de Blasio programs envisioned 15-year horizons (Mayor Adams thinks he can accelerate the city program’s progress by a couple of years). 

What’s the plan in the meantime? Let everyone pitch tents on the sidewalk when they refuse to go to the shelter that has been offered them?

A balanced approach to homelessness involves long-term, intermediate-term and short-term remedies. It will involve permanent housing and temporary shelter. 

It will also involve law enforcement.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor of City Journal, and author of “Homelessness in America” (Rowman & Littlefield 2022).

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