Where Have All The Homeless People Gone?

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By Palash R. Ghosh | January 14, 2012 9:11 AM EST

Having lived in New York City for the past two decades, one of the most dramatic changes I have witnessed over that span is the (apparent) “disappearance” of homeless people.

In 1989-1990, when I first arrived in Gotham, homelessness was a grim and acute reality of life. Everywhere, it seemed, they assembled, on street-corners, parks, outside restaurants, churches and grocery stores, and especially at tourist centers and transportation terminals like Penn Station and Grand Central Station.

At the time, we were told by the pundits that part of the problem was caused by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s who decided to cut funding for many mental health facilities – an act that allegedly forced the release of many mentally ill people onto the streets.

Also, it was claimed that rising rents and property values in large cities was also pushing more and more people into the cold, cruel outdoors. This was certainly not just a New York phenomenon, as it was happening across the country.

But in the 1990s, something strange and wondrous happened -- homelessness seemed to have been reduced, and virtually eliminated, at least in Manhattan. Granted, in a city as crowded as New York -- as in any metropolis -- there will always be beggars and the indigent here and there.

However, at least from my naked eye, there are very few homeless people left – despite the fact that the economy has tanked in the past few years and the overall population has increased.

So, where did all the homeless people go?

Some claimed that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “get tough” policies on homelessness (as well as upon the notorious squeegee men and other nuisance-makers) was the answer. Indeed, police were instructed to enforce punishment on “quality of life” transgressions, including even mundane “crimes” as littering and jaywalking.

However, the police could not have locked up every homeless person and kept them indefinitely incarcerated. So, what became of them?

I went looking at the latest report from the New York City Department of Homeless Services (yes there is such a thing) from 2011.

I found some interesting tidbits from the survey:

*The politically acceptable term for homeless is “unsheltered” (although I will use the more popular “homeless”)

*There were an estimated 2,648 “unsheltered” people in New York City last year, a 15 percent decline from 2010, and an astonishing 40 percent plunge from 2005. (This translated into 1,747 fewer homeless New Yorkers over the past six years).

*Between 2010 and 2011, the largest drops in the homeless population were recorded in Brooklyn (down 43 percent), Bronx (34 percent) and Manhattan (31 percent). However, homeless people “living in subways” increased by 18 percent over that year.
*Between 2005 and 2011, the decline in homelessness was even more dramatic -- down 80 percent in The Bronx, 70 percent in Queens, 59 percent in Brooklyn and 56 percent in Manhattan. However, the homeless population living in subways jumped by 51 percent over that time.

*Despite its large overall population, New York City has one of the lowest ratio of homeless persons among major U.S. cities. According to the report, for 2010, only 1 out of 3,087 people in New York City were homeless. (This figure is comparable to ratios found in Chicago and Boston). By contrast, a shocking 1 in 243 people in Los Angles were homeless (translating to almost 16.000 people).

Still, the report did not explain why homelessness has decreased so dramatically. Even if we accept the data from the survey to be accurate, we must ask where the homeless went.

My guess is that many simply moved to the suburbs to escape police harassment, while others were “forced” into shelters. Thus, it wasn’t that homelessness was “solved” in New York City, it was simply “transferred” into other areas to become someone else’s problem.

Of course, gentrification in New York (which has accelerated in the past 15 years) clearly must have played a part in this scenario.

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