Homeless in the Homes of Others

The number of homeless people is steadily increasing in residential areas due to the New York City government’s inaction in assisting them.

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By Stefanie Chen

Why does my neighborhood not feel like home anymore? Instead of welcoming waves of next door neighbors, homeless strangers wander the sidewalks, and fear is what resides in residential areas. The growing population of homeless people due to the government’s failure to deal with the cause has led more of these individuals to move into residential neighborhoods.

Of more than 8.3 million people in New York City, one in 106 is homeless. This number steadily increases each year. The 2021 State of Homelessness Report found more than a 30 percent increase in the number of unsheltered, homeless people from 2015, when there were 88,250 people, ranging from youth to veterans, living unsheltered. This number jumped to 91,271 people without a permanent residence in 2020. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers have skyrocketed due to an increase in unemployed individuals. New York remains the American city with the largest number of people experiencing homelessness, even though substantial numbers of the hidden homeless are unaccounted for.

New York City’s government has been trying to solve this problem for years. The Department of Homeless Services, which takes in several different groups of homeless people, such as formerly incarcerated people and wartime veterans, has 45,833 people living in shelters as of November 29, 2021. The institution also works alongside the Homelessness Prevention Administration and the NYC Housing Authority to prevent homelessness and assist families and individuals with maintaining their current housing.

However, New York City’s numerous efforts in preventing and managing homelessness are completely inefficient. While some unhoused people are being pushed into shelters or government-run housing, others remain on the streets or move into residential areas. Though Mayor Bill De Blasio stated that it was supposedly rare for such incidents to occur in New York City since encampments in these areas are prohibited, nearly 2,400 homeless citizens still sleep on the streets, on the subways, or in other public or residential spaces. One building located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan has recently been turned into a makeshift shelter for the rising numbers of homeless individuals from the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has been pushing homeless people into residential buildings, effectively decreasing the residential community that tenants previously had. One tenant reported fistfights in the hallways and constant screaming throughout the day. Another commented that they were constantly being glared at and threatened, making them unwilling to leave the complex unless they had to.

The growing amount of homeless hotels in the area has led to complaints from homeowners about situations such as increased drug use, homeless encampments and harassment of residents. Middle Village, another residential neighborhood in Queens, has been receiving plans from the government to relocate more homeless people into the area. President of the neighborhood association Robert Holden stated in 2016 that the new shelter uses the neighborhood as a prison yard. He also claimed that the incoming 220 new residents include those with mental illnesses, drug addictions and even criminal sentences. These people encroach on the dominion of householders, which could pose many potential issues for both homeowners and homeless individuals. The impending intrusion introduces safety concerns to residents: blocked public spaces and threats and assaults of passerby. At the same time, these vagrants are without a safe place to stay with the retaliation of these residents and the fundamental conditions of their living areas. Encampments that serve as temporary living spaces for these unhoused people cause obstructions in neighborhoods; they are unsanitary and lack many basic amenities such as bathrooms and proper places to sleep.

Other issues that have been left unnoticed by New York City’s government, such as the refusal of homeless people to enter shelters, further direct homeless people to more residential communities. While some shelters offer adequate living conditions, others are big warehouses of humans that lack concern for living conditions. One such example is the HELP USA Meyer Mental Health Shelter. When COVID-19 first struck, many there died from the virus. Others became incredibly sick due to the lack of ventilation. One occupant of the shelter claimed that windows were sealed shut in his ward, combining with the lack of air conditioning to make the shelter unbearable in the summer. Furthermore, people were squished into the shelter with little room separating them from one another, making it almost impossible to stay safe from the virus.

Another cause is the criteria of being accepted into certain homeless shelters. Some shelter services require a drug treatment program submission as a prerequisite for admission. Though the government is trying to create more shelters for homeless people to live in, it doesn’t matter if they do not want to live in them in the first place.

Mental illness is also a major factor in why people remain on the streets. A 2015 survey found that 564,708 people were homeless every night, and estimated that at least 25 percent and 45 percent of these individuals are seriously mentally ill and have any mental illness, respectively. Even in volunteer agencies and rehabilitation centers, these numbers are limited, and acceptance into these programs is not guaranteed. Mental disorders can impair a person’s ability to be resourceful or rational, which may be another reason why mentally ill homeless are declining the shelter of housing centers. They may not recognize the necessity of rehabilitation and an adequate place to live.

Swift change is necessary for both the growing populace of people experiencing homelessness and average citizens. The government should lessen the criteria of being accepted into rehabilitation centers for mentally ill homeless people to increase the number willing to go into shelters. Homeless people often have insufficient or a complete lack of healthcare due to the absence of resources and facilities necessary for the provision of health care services. As a result, homeless individuals commonly don’t understand or seek medical assistance for their disorders, leaving them unassisted with their illnesses. Softening the healthcare restrictions will increase the number of homeless people willing to go to these rehabilitation centers and eventually find proper housing at shelters.

We can also improve the conditions of homeless shelters to incentivize shelters over the street. The government commonly turns a blind eye to the inadequate conditions of some shelters, which means that for conditions to improve, the government has to be made fully aware of the issue. We can create a coordinated approach as a community, including through protests, speeches and programs, that openly confront the government about the conditions of its shelters.

The problem of homelessness in New York City can be changed. Whether it’s through societal activism or letting the government know its flaws, your neighborhood can soon be yours again and past vagrants can, hopefully, create their own neighborhood.