Housing the Homeless

New York City is battling a homelessness crisis, but during these times of crisis, creativity and innovation can produce feasible, effective solutions.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Christina Jiang

Every day, I rush off the 2 or 3 uptown train, down the steep steps, and into Penn Station, trying my best to catch the 4:46 p.m. or 5:29 p.m. train to Great Neck. A busker dressed as Marie Antoinette plays the cello in an attempt to make some money. Drippings from the ceiling slowly trickle down, forming small, murky puddles on the ground. A man holding a briefcase races to catch the train to Long Beach. The crowds that once packed the station when I was a freshman have returned.

Penn Station is bustling again, but recently, I’ve noticed something new: a sharp uptick in the number of police officers. This increased presence can be attributed to Mayor Eric Adams’s latest effort to aggressively curb the number of homeless people who shelter regularly in the MTA subway system. There will be a zero-tolerance policy for people sleeping in subway cars or stations and for those who violate the MTA’s rules of conduct, which include unruly behavior and loitering in a station for over an hour.

Adams’s plan is a response to the spike in violent crime in the subway. The rates of violent crime per million weekday passengers have increased from 2019, and felony assaults have risen almost 25 percent. The most serious crimes have increased five percent from the previous year, including murders, which have been on the rise since 2018. As a result of these incidents, public perception of the subway has shifted negatively: it’s riskier than it was before. Nearly two years after the coronavirus caused New Yorkers to abandon the MTA subway system, ridership has finally reached half of its pre-pandemic levels. However, it is still unlikely for the remaining half of riders to return. Many are avoiding the subway because they fear becoming victims of crime.

Like crime, homelessness in New York City has drastically increased. There were 48,691 homeless people sleeping each night in New York City’s main municipal shelter system as of December 2021, but this number doesn’t capture the full scope of homelessness in NYC, as it excludes people in other facilities. For example, 107,510 different homeless adults and children slept in the NYC Department of Homeless Services shelter system in 2021.

“People tell me about their fear of using the system. And we’re going to ensure that fear is not New York’s reality,” Adams said when introducing his new plan. Not only does his plan entail training NYPD officers to enforce already existing conduct rules, but it also has initiatives for connecting homeless people, especially those who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, to both housing and mental health services. Additionally, his plan aims to increase the availability of safe haven beds and stabilization beds.

While Adams may have the right intentions, his plan does not outline a concrete solution for tackling homelessness. Once people are removed from subways, where are they supposed to go? New York City currently faces a shortage of housing options that are affordable to those who reside in the subway.

Mayor Adams should follow what other cities have done to help address homelessness: create tiny house communities, which consist of small, shed-like buildings. In comparison to other solutions, including homeless shelters and housing projects, building tiny home villages is much more feasible because these structures require a short amount of time to assemble and are much cheaper. A single village can be completed in less than six months and costs between $100 thousand and $500 thousand. Providing homeless people with a house where they are safe and sheltered, and have access to utilities like water, electricity, and sanitation will help alleviate homelessness. Forcing homeless people into the freezing cold and criminalizing them does not.

Most of the tiny home villages in LA are operated by a nonprofit named Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission. Their tiny house communities have sprung up in places ranging from North Hollywood to Highland Park. Each of their homes has two beds and provides 64 square feet of floor space, heat, furniture, and air conditioning.

In Seattle, similar projects have been undertaken. The Low Income Housing Institute is the main operator for the tiny home villages in Seattle, and they constructed 10 villages throughout the city in less than two years. Each house offers 96 square feet of floor space, electricity, locking doors, and furniture. New York City could follow the examples set by these projects.

Tiny house communities are an interim solution: they will not decrease evictions, improve the mental health infrastructure, nor provide people with higher wages in this country. However, in times of crisis like the present, they present a unique possibility for innovation and creativity to flourish, helping to spark change and provide tangible solutions. The pandemic revealed the shortcomings in New York City, but it does not have to stay this way. As New York City continues to recover from the pandemic, it has the opportunity to build back better and do more to support its most vulnerable communities.