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is Homelessness Increasing in NYC?

is Homelessness Increasing in NYC?



Sleeping, homeless children in early 20th-century New York City taken by Jacob Riis. Jacob Riis (1849-1914) –

Despite Mayor Adams’ various initiatives addressing homelessness, the number of people without shelter in New York City ballooned almost 18% in a single year.

Tonight around 50,000 people will sleep in New York City’s homeless shelters each night.[1] 

Including over 18,000+ single adults, 15,000+ children, and 15,000+ adults in families.

The yearly Homeless Outreach Population Estimate survey revealed 4,042 individuals living on the streets or in the subway system, a noticeable increase from 3,439 the previous year. This rise occurs even as the Adams administration has actively sought to mitigate the crisis through law enforcement measures, clean-up operations, and outreach programs. The situation now mirrors levels seen before the pandemic, a period during which then-Mayor Bill de Blasio faced frequent criticism for insufficient efforts to alleviate homelessness.

“Over this past year, our agency has responded to a massive humanitarian crisis while ensuring that we are effectively delivering on our mission to address homelessness in New York City,” said Social Services Commissioner Molly Wasow Park

Homelessness in New York City has been a persistent issue for decades, but the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified the crisis. The focus here is particularly on Manhattan, a borough marked by stark contrasts between affluence and poverty.

Historical Perspective

The history of homelessness in New York City is a tale that stretches back into the city’s early years, and it has seen many different phases. Danish journalist Jacob Riis was among the first to document the plight of New York’s homeless in the late 19th century, utilizing photography as a powerful tool to convey the harsh realities in neighborhoods like the Bowery. The Bowery Mission, one of the first shelters in the city, has its roots in this period.

In the era of the Great Depression, so-called “Hoovervilles” emerged as encampments for the homeless in cities around the U.S., named sarcastically after President Herbert Hoover.

Police with batons confront demonstrators armed with bricks and clubs. A policeman and a demonstrator wrestle over a US flag.

Bonus Army marchers confront the police.

In New York City, these makeshift communities appeared in locations like the then-empty Central Park Reservoir and Riverside Park. They were disbanded as the economic situation improved.

For many years, the homeless demographic remained relatively consistent: predominantly white, male, and often dealing with health issues, substance abuse, or both. Many of these individuals were concentrated in places like the Bowery and often found themselves sleeping in cheap hotels or even police stations until public drunkenness was decriminalized in 1966.

However, the landscape of homelessness began changing dramatically in the 1980s!


During a time that many remember as economically prosperous for New York City, the profile of the homeless population diversified to include younger people and families. According to Eric Hirsch, a historian of homelessness, these newer groups were less tied to substance abuse issues and more driven by economic hardships.

Multiple theories attempt to explain the increase in homelessness during the 1980s. One common explanation points to the release of mentally ill patients from large state institutions. However, this process was largely completed by 1975.

Another argument involves the crack epidemic. But, this mainly impacted single adults! And did not result in a long-lasting increase in family homelessness.

Brendan O’Flaherty, an economist at Columbia University, offers a different perspective!

According to his research, the root cause of the modern surge in homelessness is the rise in income inequality and its subsequent effect on the housing market.

O’Flaherty argues that as income inequality grew and the middle class shrank, affordable housing options that were previously accessible to the middle class became out of reach for poorer individuals. This squeeze on affordable housing, according to him, was instrumental in driving the modern face of homelessness.

The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is 57% higher than it was a decade ago.

Moreover, the phenomenon isn’t restricted to a single demographic!

Including families with children, single adults, and subsets of populations grappling with mental illness and substance abuse.

The driving factors behind the issue in Manhattan have been complex. However, the main contributors include:

  • High Living Costs: Manhattan has one of the highest costs of living in the country.
  • Gentrification: Older, more affordable neighborhoods have seen increasing rents and property values.
  • Lack of Affordable Housing: Only a limited number of affordable housing options are available.
  • Stagnant Wages: Despite rising costs, incomes have not kept pace.
  • Inadequate Mental Health Services: The city has struggled to provide enough comprehensive mental health services.

Relocation Programs

An estimated 10,000 homeless individuals moved from shelters to empty hotels in Manhattan neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side, Midtown, and Chelsea. While it helped in decongesting shelters, it led to community debates about safety and property values.

Statistical Overview

  • Sheltered Homelessness: A May 2020 report noted a slight decrease in sheltered homelessness, attributing it to people avoiding shelters due to COVID-19 fears.
  • Street Homelessness: There was an anecdotal increase in street homelessness, especially in Manhattan neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, Chelsea, and the Financial District.
  • HOPE Count: This annual survey became canceled in 2020. As a result, making it challenging to offer a statistical comparison for street homelessness before and after the onset of the pandemic.

Policy Responses and Their Efficacy

Project Roomkey

This initiative successfully placed thousands of homeless individuals in empty hotels. However, became met with community resistance. Yet now, these same unhappy locals face illegal immigrants in these same hotels.

Outreach Programs

While outreach teams were effective to some extent, there’s criticism that much of the help offered was short-term and didn’t address the root issues leading to homelessness.

Rent Relief Programs

While well-intentioned, these became criticized for their bureaucratic complexity. Thus, making it difficult for many eligible individuals to benefit from the available aid.

In conclusion, despite some policy initiatives showing promise. The lack of long-term solutions continues to hinder effective resolution of the issue.

It is clear that urgent and comprehensive measures are needed to address homelessness. Particularly in Manhattan, where the crisis appears most visible.

is Homelessness Increasing in NYC?


is Homelessness Increasing in NYC?