New York City Struggles To Keep Up With High Homeless Numbers The number of people sleeping in New York's shelters has been slow to fall after hitting a record high of 59,000 last year. Advocates for the homeless say more New Yorkers are living on the streets.

New York City Struggles To Keep Up With High Homeless Numbers

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(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stop homelessness. Stop homelessness.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In New York City recently, advocates for the homeless rallied on the steps of City Hall. Homelessness in New York reached an all-time high last December. Fifty-nine-thousand people were sleeping in the city's shelters. That official count has dipped slightly in recent months, but more people may be living on the streets. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports that officials are struggling to keep up.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Eight months after homelessness hit a record in New York, you can still see the need of the city's most vulnerable in Tompkins Square Park.

MARIO CORNEJO: Good morning. Two pizzas?

WANG: Mario Cornejo helps serve a free meal to a long line of hungry people. He's been volunteering here with a group called Food for Life since 2008.

CORNEJO: It used to be just a small pot before. Now it's a big pot and, you know, bigger salad containers, more trays of cake.

WANG: And because it's summer, he says he's seen more homeless people lounging in the park and lining up for lunch.

CORNEJO: Some do live in shelters. Some live on the streets. We're going through difficult times.

WANG: It's been hard for both homeless families and those living alone, but single adults are mainly driving the recent increases in New York shelters, according to Mary Brosnahan. She leads the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, and says there are likely more homeless people living on the streets than the city's official count of about 3,000.

MARY BROSNAHAN: The numbers just keep going up and up and up. And that's what people are having a very palpable sense - when you're out on the street. There are just many more homeless single adults than we've ever seen before.

WANG: Many advocates, like Brosnahan, say homelessness is so high today because of policies under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who cut a rent-subsidy program for homeless families after state funding dried up. Judith Goldiner of The Legal Aid Society of New York says that New York's real estate market squeezes out many low-income families and makes homelessness especially hard to solve.

JUDITH GOLDINER: You really have to help people find an apartment because finding an apartment in New York City, even for people who are not homeless, is just an incredibly difficult process.

WANG: New York's current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has beefed up funding to help more families find permanent housing and pay for rent, plus provide support for mentally ill people living on the streets, as New York's Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor explains.

GILBERT TAYLOR: The goal is to improve outcomes for all the clients that we serve, and that's what we're pushing forward to do. I believe that our work will speak for itself.

WANG: Still, the city's 3-1-1 line has been receiving more complaints about homeless people, and the mayor has come under fire from New York Post editorials, warning that a, quote, "surging vagrant population could make the city menacing and unlivable." Political science professor Christina Greer of Fordham University says it's a problem of perception.

CHRISTINA GREER: When people think about homeless - especially homeless men - in the street, they think about someone who is outside when it's dark and susceptible to, you know, committing crimes. So this is coded language that I think is being used to signal that this particular administration is not keeping the city safe.

WANG: New York's overall crime rate is down, but almost half of voters in a recent poll by Quinnipiac University said that crime is a very serious problem and that quality of life has gotten worse in the city.

GREER: And if New Yorkers feel that the city is less safe, if they feel that homelessness and petty crimes and violent crimes all go hand in hand, then we're looking at a one-term mayor.

WANG: Mayor de Blasio still has a couple years to clamp down on homeless numbers before he's up for re-election. But back in Tompkins Square Park, 35-year-old Ronald Davis is under a shorter timeline. He says he's been homeless in New York for about three years.

RONALD DAVIS: You see people sleep by the church. You see some people sleep up in these areas here. Like, you might be walking and it's dark, and somebody's sleeping there.

WANG: Davis says he spent some nights near the park, but he doesn't want to do it anymore and says he recently checked into a transitional housing program.

DAVIS: I can't sleep in the streets, you know, that's tearing me up, you know - the bugs, the filth, the sweat, cops messing with you. It's just too much.

WANG: Too much for Davis and for thousands of homeless New Yorkers. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

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