Controversy has gripped Central Brooklyn and the City following Mayor de Blasio’s February proposal to build 90 homeless shelters in neighborhoods across New York. Officials have argued that we must build new shelters to counter an epidemic of homelessness; activists have moved to block some sites, arguing that their communities, such as my own, already host more than their fair share.
I hear both sides but also see a way forward: by embracing a transparent process for locating shelters, we can meet this historic crisis as one city, united in compassion. Now more than ever, we have to find common ground to overcome common challenges. This problem will only get worse as President Trump, with an astonishing lack of humanity, promises to slash what dwindling federal funds remain to house the homeless.
Fundamentally, I support opening new shelters because I was raised according to simple rules of compassion and service. When my father arrived in the United States from war-torn Uganda, he was a poor refugee 8,000 miles away from his birthplace. Setting aside his modest means, he was a generous person and had a penchant for helping others in need. When I was about six years old, my father invited a homeless man into our home and helped him get back on his feet. My parents made it clear to me that helping others is the greatest moral obligation.
However, it is more than just the right thing to do to invest in new shelters. For three key reasons, it is also smart policy. First, we just need to put roofs over these folks: the level of homelessness in our city is truly historic by any measure. About 60,000 people—largely families with children—are sleeping in municipal shelters each night. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the city’s homeless population is at its largest since the Great Depression.
Second, building new shelters, while costly, is cheaper than the alternative. Today, the city is forced to house many people in low-quality hotels and in “clusters” of private housing. Even though this temporary housing can be dangerous and unsanitary, the City has to spend on the order of $400,000 a day on these rooms. Third, we will be able to ensure that folks living in the new shelters have access to the supportive services that they need to get back on their feet. These services are easier to provide in shelters than in hotels and clusters, where residents are largely left on their own.
I’ve yet to hear a New Yorker say that we shouldn’t help our homeless neighbors but there is a real issue of fairness that needs to be addressed. Activists and residents have protested specific new sites, arguing that shelters are being concentrated in communities that are less well off. To date, this certainly seems to be the case: of the five shelters that have been identified so far, three of them are in the Crown Heights area, which is already saturated. In fact, a judge recently postponed the opening of one shelter due to legal complaints that its location violated the “Fair Share” provision of the City Charter.
Aside from the issue of basic fairness, concentrating poverty is also a bad idea. There is certainly something to be said for keeping homeless families close to neighborhoods where they had last lived in private housing. This reduces commutes and allows children, especially, to maintain their usual routines at the school and with the friends that they know. Unfortunately, City Councilman Brad Lander was all too right when he warned the New York Times that these arguments could prove “be a smoke screen for keeping an over-concentration [of shelters] in poor communities of color.” By distributing shelters more widely, we could achieve not only a fairer share but also provide shelter residents with greater access to economic and social opportunity.
Fortunately, the administration and the Department of Homeless Services can reconcile the issues of policy and fairness by releasing their plans for siting the other 85 shelters. Without this crucial information, it’s impossible to say whether a particular shelter’s location is fair or justified. I applaud the Mayor for announcing an ambitious plan; now his agencies need to execute it transparently. That will allow communities to make sound judgments about the best and fairest way to help New York’s most vulnerable.
Adem Bunkeddeko is a resident of Crown Heights and a member of Brooklyn Community Board 8