We talk often about affordable housing on Long Island. Mostly, we think of young workers still living with their parents, or older adults who no longer want their sprawling homes. Rarely do we think of the Long Islanders who are homeless.
But we must. There are about 3,800 Long Islanders who don’t have a permanent place to live. Half are children. Most are living in shelters, but as many as 300 are now on the streets, according to estimates from the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, which does a once-a-year count. At the start of 2014, there were fewer than 3,000 homeless people, and 64 on the streets. Amid a worsening problem, the funds and attention aren’t sufficient.
Because these figures are estimates, Long Island must develop a better understanding of the problem itself. The region also needs an easier path to emergency housing and more permanent solutions — including housing with support systems and job counseling and training.
Making homelessness a priority starts with the counties, where officials couldn’t precisely say how many homeless or shelter beds they had until they researched it. Families without homes and others living on the streets with mental illness or addictions must become important enough that statistics are tracked and understood. Then, it must be simpler for those who need emergency housing to get it. Advocates say that in Nassau, in particular, it’s too complex to get into the system and sometimes there are no shelter beds available. Nassau officials say they must abide by eligibility standards, such as financial requirements, and that people sometimes are placed in motels when shelter beds aren’t available. It’s time to think differently. Homelessness is at a critical level. Doing things the same way isn’t good enough. Outreach efforts must expand, and new ideas must be tried.
The real answer lies in transitioning people off the streets, out of the shelters, and into appropriate permanent housing. Nassau officials say they have a dedicated case manager to help individuals and families specifically with that process. Suffolk, which has 2,800 homeless people, has started to treat each population differently, with sober homes for recovering addicts, specific housing for those with mental illness, and separate efforts geared at young adults. With proper oversight and resources, that strategy makes sense.
The state, meanwhile, must earmark funds for new supportive housing. Long Island needs 3,000 units, advocates say. There have been small successes, like Liberty Village in Amityville, which provides 60 units of housing for formerly homeless veterans, but it’s not enough. It’s critical that the state meet the need.
A particularly acute Long Island problem could actually become a solution by turning over a number of zombie homes to nonprofits, which can rehab them for the formerly homeless. Suffolk has done a bit of this, through its program for homeless veterans. Nassau could use a percentage of its land bank for the homeless.
Homelessness isn’t just a problem somewhere else. It’s here, now. Long Island can and must do more.