By Julia Stern
New York City, New York
On February 4, more than four months before the mayoral primary on June 22, a virtual forum took place in which homeless New Yorkers interviewed ten mayoral candidates about their plans to combat homelessness in New York City. The event was coordinated by Upper West Side Open Hearts, an organization created to support shelter residents and people living in temporary hotel shelters on the Upper West Side. The event featured ten candidates: Carlos Menchaca, Dianne Morales, Eric Adams, Joycelyn Taylor, Kathryn Garcia, Loree Sutton, Maya Wiley, Ray McGuire, Scott Stringer and Shaun Donovan. Andrew Yang was also expected but unable to attend after he tested positive for COVID-19.
This was the first event where mayoral candidates responded directly to the concerns of people experiencing houselessness in New York City. Shams “Da Homeless Hero'' DaBaron, an advocate for the homeless who stayed at the Lucerne temporary shelter, and Corinne Low, cofounder of the Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative, mediated the discussion. DaBaron introduced the forum: “Today, you’re not talking over us, you’re not talking about us, you’re talking with us. Never in our history has that happened for any campaign.”
As DaBaron said at the start of the forum, whoever becomes mayor of New York City will influence how the rest of the country deals with homelessness. As of 2019, New York City is the city with the most homeless people in the United States. According to the Bowery Mission, one in every 106 New Yorkers is homeless, and the issue has been exacerbated by COVID-19, as another 50,000 people are now at risk of eviction.
Sutton spoke about her work promoting equal opportunity in the Army, and her contribution to reducing the homeless veteran population by 90%. Sutton said she would collaborate with people on the frontlines to advocate for federal comprehensive immigration reform.
Wiley connected homelessness to the intersection of eviction, affordability and jobs without justice, all facets of systemic racism. Wiley mentioned her dedication to providing trauma services and dismantling this system with her 30 years of experience as a civil rights attorney. Wiley also highlighted her work founding the nonprofit Center for Social Inclusion, a political advocacy organization aiming to address racism through systemic reform. Wiley said that the $3 billion spent on homeless shelters should go to supportive housing first, and hotels that were casualties of the pandemic should be transformed into affordable housing. Wiley also introduced her plan called New Deal New York, which invests $10 billion in creating jobs, has local targeting for hiring, helps people get jobs to pay for housing and uses capital construction money to make sure that infrastructure solves community issues. Wiley also mentioned the participatory Justice Fund, which would provide $18 million for communities with gun violence, so communities can say what they want to do with the money.
Garcia said she planned to increase the rent subsidy to combat homelessness and invest in young people.
Garcia, Sutton and Wiley all said they would use city funds to ensure rent subsidies and voucher programs applied to undocumented people, and they would aim to eliminate the time people spend in shelters before moving to permanent housing.
Candidates mostly agreed that they would support eliminating NYPD participation in outreach to homeless New Yorkers or people in a mental health crisis. Sutton said she would team police with peer-to-peer counselors.
Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President who had served as a police officer for 22 years, spoke about how his personal experience growing up in a working-class family led him to recognize the importance of treating unhoused people with respect.
Morales said, “Unless we recognize the racism inherently connected to that, we’re not going to go anywhere. Everything else is just a band-aid.” Morales committed to guaranteeing housing for all and said she would address the systemic issues that cause homelessness and reinvent the traditional framework. Morales cited her experience in community work over the past fifteen years to guarantee she could work directly with homeless people and eliminate the shelter system entirely. To do so, Morales advocated for moving investments into the shelter system into subsidized housing, flexible zoning and repurposing vacant spaces.
Donovan committed to ending the congregate shelter system within his first year in office, creating a rental plan to prevent homelessness in the first place and changing the shelter system to move to a lower-barrier, private room model.
Stringer criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for making affordable housing inaccessible to the people it was intended to serve and planned to create low-income housing for people currently in the shelter system. Stringer said his housing plan is to take the vacant properties the city owns and give them to community-based organizations, and he would set aside 50% of developments for affordable housing for homeless families. He said he is committed to universal affordable housing, with 15% of that housing going directly towards homeless individuals.
Taylor spoke about increasing flexibility and allowing more people to have access to affordable housing. Taylor said, “We need to put the business of homelessness out of business.” She advocated for getting people into permanent stable housing and committed to taking money from capital projects to create affordable housing based on the demographics and income of households. Taylor talked about the importance of gaining the trust of people who might be weary of homeless outreach programs.
Menchaca spoke about the importance of viewing housing as a human right and providing a universal basic income. In his first 100 days, Menchaca said the city needs to raise vouchers and make them accessible to undocumented immigrants, use capitol funding to build permanent funding and make sure shelters have WiFi, among other necessities. He also advocated for prioritizing those who need housing urgently rather than relying on the housing lottery. Moreover, Menchaca supported moving towards a housing-first model, converting non-union hotels and commercial spaces into permanent housing and bringing people into supportive services rather than relying on the NYPD.
McGuire began by acknowledging that the issue of homelessness is systemic and has not been treated with appropriate urgency. He advocated for raising and acknowledging vouchers, cutting through bureaucracy, getting the homeless into a workforce program to give them training for jobs, providing affordable childcare so that previously homeless people can rejoin the workforce and replacing the housing lottery with available options in housing stock. McGuire also advocated for limiting homeless people’s interactions with the criminal justice system. Taylor, McGuire and Menchaca all advocated for canceling rent.
The mediator consistently challenged the mayoral candidates to go beyond political promises and used his personal experience to explain distrust of government management that has contributed to the ongoing homelessness crisis. He said, “The policies that are in place only commodify us and create a system that perpetuates homelessness, poverty, dependence and mental illness.” He also critiqued plans that focused on getting people in shelters jobs rather than first prioritizing teaching skills like budgeting and providing basic necessities like mental health services.