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Keep homelessness on the radar

As the number of homeless families on LI

As the number of homeless families on LI has declined, the length of stay in shelters is higher due to  the lack of affordable housing. Credit: Getty Images/Kinga Krzeminska

The pandemic has had a profound effect on homelessness on Long Island. In Suffolk and Nassau counties, according to the latest data from the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, homelessness among families is down 35% as of June 1, compared with March 2020, when the crisis began. The decline was most pronounced in Nassau, which saw the number of homeless families dip 41%, while it was down 32% in Suffolk. Homelessness among single men and women stayed about the same, with only a 2% decrease.

Shelters are well below capacity today, even after Suffolk closed 26 of them and Nassau five since the pandemic began. The reason is simple. Fewer homeless people are entering the system because of the moratorium on evictions. And yet, while the number of homeless families has declined, the length of stay in shelters is higher because of the lack of affordable housing. This should deliver a wake-up call to politicians, advocates and citizens because it suggests that the current approach to homelessness is wasteful and damaging to those it serves.

Shelters have played an indispensable role in bringing security and stability to homeless families by replacing the often dangerous and unsupervised "welfare motels." Shelters, however, have not reduced the level of homelessness over the 40 years since the phenomenon began.

In a recent interview, the head of the largest provider of shelters for homeless families in New York City, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, stated the case for more of the same. She noted that the average daily cost of family shelter at her nonprofit agency, Women in Need, has risen to $200, or $73,000 per year per family, which is similar to Long Island’s cost. However, she argued that shelters need more resources, not fewer. To "solve" homelessness, she said, there is a need for more than just the case managers, security guards, housing specialists, three meals a day, cleaning services and caseworkers currently provided. They need therapists to address child trauma and job training specialists to improve self-sufficiency.

But that’s not what the research shows. According to the HUD Family Options Study, which followed 2,300 families from 2008 to 2016, the best outcomes came from quickly moving families out of shelter using permanent housing subsidies such as Section 8.

Tax money should be directed where it is most effective, which is moving the homeless out of shelters as quickly as possible with subsidies. Homeless people in shelters who need mental health services may receive them by fostering links with outside agencies, a policy that Suffolk County Department of Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre recently implemented.

While subsidies work on the demand side of the problem, homelessness will never be solved without changes in zoning to increase the supply of affordable housing. The "exclusionary zoning" of suburbs like Long Island — minimum lot sizes, bans on multifamily housing, and onerous parking requirements — have sharply restricted the supply of affordable housing.

In celebration of Juneteenth, the Biden administration released a statement charting a "new path forward" to counteract the discriminatory effects of exclusionary zoning. Its American Jobs Plan includes funding that would incentivize communities to eliminate exclusionary zoning, while the Justice Department established a new civil rights team on Long Island to combat housing and other discrimination.

This guest essay reflects the views of Alexander Roberts, the founder and former CEO of Community Housing Innovations.