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Blass: Towns are neglecting the homeless

Unless Long Island recognizes the dire needs of

Unless Long Island recognizes the dire needs of this population, homeless families and individuals will not only be here to stay, but they will increase. Photo Credit: Tribune Media Services / Donna Grethen

It's happening across Long Island and in most states, and it surprises planners, politicians and the public: Homeless shelters are becoming the new affordable housing.

That's because "affordable" or "workforce" housing -- defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as rental units costing 30 percent or less of a renter's income -- never got off the ground on Long Island.

Affordable housing has never been more necessary. HUD reports that, from 2007 until 2010, homeless families in America increased by an astonishing 20 percent. According to data from the Department of Social Services in Suffolk County, the increase was comparable in Suffolk. As of last month, Suffolk was sheltering 871 adults and 1,021 children. Most of this population has never before sought any form of government assistance.

Suffolk's Department of Social Services, by law, provides emergency shelter for homeless people, but we do not stop there. For many years, our goal has been to transition them out of homelessness and into permanent housing. We link them to job training, educational assistance and employment, and help those who need to escape from domestic violence. This approach has moved 30 to 40 Suffolk homeless families each month into permanent housing for several years.

But it is harder than ever for homeless families and individuals to find their way out of local shelters and into affordable housing, so shelters have become home for more and more of the nation's poor. According to HUD, nearly 42 percent of low-cost rental units nationwide are now occupied by higher-income renters who involuntarily left their higher-cost housing because of foreclosures or evictions during the recession and difficult economic times that followed.

On Long Island, the single greatest impediment to affordable housing is zoning laws. Zoning is controlled by towns, which establish boards or other entities to determine which types of buildings (such as businesses, homeless shelters or apartments) will be placed in different areas of the community. Resident input is often considered at some point during this process.

Most Long Island communities have closed the door to workforce housing of any kind. And then residents of these communities muster spirited opposition to siting shelters in their midst. Their objections stem from a misunderstanding and prejudice about who is homeless. Yet while some residents go to public hearings to speak out against having shelters nearby, other neighbors bring unsolicited donations of food and clothing.

These conflicting reactions to those who have fallen upon hard times underlie the lack of interest in establishing affordable, workforce housing.

Unless Long Island recognizes the dire needs of this population, homeless families and individuals will not only be here to stay, but they will increase. With the struggling economy and the expected rise in real estate costs, the poor are priced out of the market. And as if this system weren't flawed enough, it also forces taxpayers to shoulder the cost of affordable housing -- through the county's funding of shelters -- though it could and should be assumed by operation of the free market, through the supply and demand of the affordable housing market -- if there were one.

Add to this the disheartening reality that most policy-makers and developers shy away from affordable housing simply because they can, and we are left with no other option: The working poor and the newly destitute, when they become homeless, will by and large find affordable housing only where we are obligated to shelter them. How senseless! From both a humanistic and economic perspective, we can and should do more.

Changing our attitudes about who is homeless and who needs affordable housing is a critical place to start.

Gregory J. Blass served 31/2 years as commissioner of Suffolk County's Department of Social Services and 21/2 years before that as its chief deputy.