The holiday season presents a time to reflect, to take stock of what we’re grateful for and to reassess how we’re shaping the world around us.
It gives us an opportunity to renew our commitment to helping the most marginalized group of people in our state: the homeless. It’s a commitment that many of us share, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. We are on the cusp of some solutions to the problem of homelessness, but we aren’t there yet.
With cold weather upon us, nonprofit organizations and government agencies will struggle once again to provide some type of housing for New York State’s homeless population. Some will escape the winter unharmed. Others might freeze. But it will be one more winter spent scrambling to address an out-of-control problem.
And this winter will be different because the homeless crisis is getting worse. According to federal data, this year more than 86,000 New Yorkers lack housing on any given night — up from 80,590 in 2014. The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless reports that 6,200 Long Islanders were homeless last year, almost 2,700 of them are younger than 18.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Nearly a year ago, Cuomo made a historic promise to create 20,000 homes for the most vulnerable homeless New Yorkers over the next 15 years. Sadly, this promise has fallen short because the state budget passed by the State Legislature and signed by Cuomo this spring required a memorandum of understanding to be signed by the governor and legislative leaders before releasing funds for the first 6,000 units. Nearly six months after the end of the legislative session, there’s no memorandum in sight.
This failure is unconscionable from every point of view, certainly from a moral one. Widespread homelessness in the land of plenty is beyond shameful — especially when a solution is a stroke of a pen away.
But it’s just as intolerable from a purely fiscal standpoint. What people don’t realize is that homelessness is not just a blot on our society’s conscience; it’s enormously expensive as chronically homeless people with challenges cycle endlessly among the most expensive publicly funded crisis-intervention resources.
Supportive housing, meanwhile, doesn’t just provide our most vulnerable brothers and sisters with respectful housing and the support they need to get their lives back on track; it actually saves money. Placing homeless people in supportive housing saves the state $10,100 a year per tenant, on average.
For New York to make real gains in ending homelessness, Cuomo needs to keep the promise he made to provide 20,000 units of supportive housing. That means he and legislative leaders should finalize and sign the five-year memorandum of understanding to provide funding for the first 6,000 units. Additionally, they should agree on a long-term commitment to ensure that his vision of 20,000 homes is realized after Cuomo and our current administration are gone.
Without a written agreement and a long-term funding plan, these homes won’t be built, and New Yorkers will continue to suffer from difficult winters. We know the solution, and it’s an opportunity for New York to reassert itself as the moral leader this country needs. After an especially cynical and negative presidential campaign, Cuomo can show that leadership.
For the sake of New Yorkers struggling with homelessness; for the sake of overtaxed agencies, nonprofits and faith groups struggling to provide services against the odds; and for the sake of our future as a moral leader, get this vital housing built.
The Rev. Frank Pizzarelli is executive director, founder and chief executive of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.