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53,615 people spent the night in a New York City homeless shelter one evening this past January.  The state of homelessness in the city is becoming an increasing problem.  Homeless advocates have noted that in recent years, the statistics are changing: more families that had never been homeless are now staying in shelters, the number of children in shelters increased by 8%, and the average stays for families are now over a year.  With the advent of a new mayor, these advocates have been pushing for Bill de Blasio to make changes more advantageous to this population than his predecessor, who in fact ended an old policy of giving Section 8 vouchers to homeless people in 2005.  To date, Mayor de Blasio has promised to change the “Tale of Two Cities” that is New York, and recently removed more than 400 children from two homeless shelters where extremely poor conditions were documented.

A child's mattress in the Auburn Family Residence in Brooklyn

A child’s mattress in the Auburn Family Residence in Brooklyn

The upswing in the homeless population has many causes, one of which is the decreasing availability of public housing.  In Contemporary Urban Planning John M. Levy explains that though Urban Renewal officially ended in 1973 and with it the massive slum clearances and major demolition of public housing, eminent domain continues, particularly affecting low-income people and their homes.  Wide-scale community development targets blighted areas, and economic revitalization for the “public good” tends to occur without concerted relocation efforts for displaced people, often leaving them to deal with the inconsistencies of the voucher system.  However, many landlords do not accept vouchers or charge more than they cover, and frequently vouchers only provide enough assistance for persons to relocate to housing of the same poor quality.  With the number of public housing units declining, more low-income people are finding themselves in homeless shelters.

A second major force increasing the homeless population was the 2008 housing crash. In the years leading up to the economic crisis, people were buying homes that they couldn’t afford due to predatory lending practices.  A “This American Life” report details the increasingly lax oversight on the loans, like not having to pay a down payment nor document income or even assets.  Further, the lack of accountability in the chain of command as loans were being securitized and moving farther from their points of origin meant that no one was watching as the bubble grew—everyone simply assumed prices would continue to rise.  When it suddenly burst, as interest payments went up and it became clear that the people could not actually afford the loans, homes went into foreclosure and many were evicted, leading to increased homelessness.

The presence of a large number of homeless people suggests great social inequality, the lack of ability to provide a fundamental right.  However, a recent study by the Brookings Institution suggests that inequality tends to locate itself in cities of more general prosperity—is this simply a natural inclination of economic growth, and should it be?

Inequality and income in selected US cities

Inequality and income in selected US cities

If cities are focused on economic development (and can clearly do well despite high levels of inequality), where’s the incentive to notice the people sleeping on the street corner? A series on a homeless youth by the New York Times labels her an “Invisible Child,” and the only way to begin to address this inequality is to make these children and adults visible once again.