Homeless numbers have reached historic levels, shelters are mushrooming throughout the city, homeless-related expenditures have gone through the roof and for the first time in three decades, there is no rental assistance or other housing program available to help shelter residents move into more permanent housing.

With more than 48,000 people sleeping in the city's homeless shelters every night, and no end to the crisis in sight, homelessness certainly has been a topic of discussion among the candidates for mayor.

But while most candidates advocate a return to familiar strategies designed to help shelter residents move into their own apartment as quickly as possible, some experts hope to convince the next mayor to do the opposite: revamp the shelters, and stop offering housing to people who end up there.

Variations on 'housing first'

The strategy of offering homeless people a path to permanent housing is also known as rapid re-housing, or housing first.

Iain De Jong, who teaches urban planning and homelessness at York University, explains that the philosophy behind rapid rehousing is that housing stability is a first step toward a return to normalcy and self-sufficiency. The help usually comes in the form of financial assistance that helps homeless families pay rent, along with case management and a wide range of optional services to help them become independent on the long run.

New York City shelter residents used to be put on a priority list for public housing units and Section 8 vouchers. Under both programs, families pay only 30 percent of their income toward rent, with the federal government paying the rest.

When the mayor in 2004 unveiled his five-year plan to cut the homelessness population by two thirds, he discontinued the link between shelters and federal housing benefits, arguing that it incentivized people to enter the shelter system.

The city then developed a series of programs to replace the federal benefits. The first was Housing Stability Plus (HSP), a five-year rental subsidy, which required participants to be on welfare, and therefore discouraged them from working full time. Within three years, amid stark criticism, the program was phased out.

Then came Advantage, a rental-subsidy program that only lasted for up to two years. Advantage tenants had to work a minimum number of hours in exchange for rental assistance. In 2011, Governor Cuomo deemed the program inefficient and withdrew state funding.The city soon discontinued it.

Now, the lack of any exit-ramp from the shelter system is believed to be one reason shelter numbers have climbed in the past year. That's why many mayoral hopefuls want to reintroduce rental assistance programs to bring relief to the overcrowded shelter system and ease its financial burden on taxpayers.

Seeing perverse incentives

But the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH), a New York-based nonprofit research organization that studies the impact of poverty on families, is arguing the opposite. ICPH released a policy brief last week questioning the efficiency of rapid-rehousing under the Bloomberg administration. The document is being released along with a 46-page election primer on New York City’s homeless families designed to educate mayoral hopefuls about city policy over the past 30 years.

"By offering rental subsidies to sheltered families, government actually stimulated homelessness," the report reads.

"Rapid re-housing is a failure. It doesn't work," Ralph da Costa Nuñez, the head of the Institute, tells City Limits. "From my experience, every time we came up with a new [housing] program, they came," says Nuñez, who believes such housing initiatives are drawing people into the shelter system and leads those who leave the shelters to return.

"You can't take a homeless family, put it in a house and tell them: 'Now you've got to work'," Nuñez adds, arguing that the one-fits-all approach for rapid rehousing cannot address the wide range of needs that different families have. Those who are not ready for independence – for reasons including a lack of education or mental-health issues – will eventually turn up at the shelter again. According to the report, these needs should be addressed before moving in to independent living.

Under ICPH's plan for a reorganized shelter system, the specific needs of each family would be assessed in Tier I shelters for up to 30 days. Families would then be redirected to one of two types of shelter – one for those with short term needs (say, someone who lost a job) and the other for those who have deeper-rooted issues. The short-term, Tier II shelters would welcome families whose heads already have high-school diplomas and other resources, and offer a social support similar to those already available in shelters, for up to a year. Tier III shelters would offer longer and more intense assistance, like job training, domestic violence recovery or day-care for single mothers.

"As in any crisis situation, homelessness resources should be triaged to meet different levels of need," Nuñez says.

Questioning the evidence

ICPH's rejection of rapid-rehousing finds opposition among some advocates and academia. Some feel that blaming the increase in shelter population on transitional housing programs ignores the impact of the poor job market.

"It's very strange that the phrase 'Great Recession' is entirely omitted," says economist and Columbia University professor Brendan O'Flaherty, who has spent many years applying economic theory to homeless issues. O'Flaherty's research has shown that it is almost impossible to achieve a definitive answer to the question of whether the provision of housing encourages homelessness. He does believe that while it appears housing subsidies do bring some people into the system, that cost is offset by the money saved once they are placed into permanent housing.   

Nan Roman, the president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, insists that there is no national data available to support the theory that rapid re-housing policies increase the chances that homeless families will return to shelters once their housing subsidy ends. On the contrary, looking at data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as her own, Roman says rapidly re-housed families are less likely to return to homelessness.