Homeless in Midtown: The View from Mainchance

Homeless in Midtown: The View from Mainchance

The face of homelessness in New York City is changing, but the underlying problem remains the same: the failure to build affordable housing.

Advocates help pack people’s belongings before the NYPD and Department of Sanitation clear a homeless encampment near Tompkins Square Park in April 2022. (Stephanie Keith /Getty Images)

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not to be questioned.

        —Maya Angelou

Alice M. speaks with some difficulty due to an early childhood brain injury. She worked with counselors at Mainchance—a New York City center for homeless adults where I volunteer as chair of the board—for four years before securing a studio in supportive housing with a Catholic agency in Queens. Proud of her childhood in Harlem, she has been in and out of institutional settings for most of her life. Her last bout of homelessness on the street lasted four years. For three years she slept in respite beds in churches and synagogues connected to Mainchance. She found employment in a sheltered workshop, established a bank account, and saved money while awaiting her eventual placement. Her face lights up when she talks about the kitchenette in her new residence.

Mainchance counselors help about 300 homeless adults like Alice find permanent housing every year. A nonprofit agency located a few blocks from Grand Central Station and funded largely by the city, Mainchance is open 24/7 and serves three meals a day to anyone who comes through the door. There are showers, medical attention, and extensive counseling services, but no sleeping facilities; people sleep overnight in chairs. When the agency can verify their identities and eligibility, they are referred directly to housing or to other facilities, including our respite site partners (usually churches and synagogues whose volunteers offer a small number of beds in settings that contrast with the more crowded arrangements in larger congregate shelters). For every fortunate Alice, with her studio and kitchenette, there are five eligible people waiting somewhere in the system or on the streets. As of late March 2023, there were over 71,000 individuals in New York City shelters, including nearly 14,000 families with children. The city’s homeless population is now the highest it has been since the Great Depression.

The crisis has three components: a crisis of mental healthcare, a housing crisis, and a deepening political crisis. The latter has a national and a local aspect: red-state demagogues have sent indigent migrants to our streets and shelters, while New Yorkers reject the placement of homeless agencies and supportive housing in their neighborhoods. While the crisis worsens, the burden on unsung agency caregivers grows heavier—as do New Yorkers’ desires for something to be done.

Eric Adams won the 2021 mayoral election in this context. He has directed police and outreach workers to remove over 1,000 homeless sleepers from trains and from thirty encampments in subway stations and tunnels. On November 29, 2022, he issued a controversial plan for involuntary mental health treatment and hospitalization for individuals who have been determined to pose a threat to others—a broad definition that includes “unawareness or delusional misapprehension of surroundings” and “delusional misapprehension of physical condition or health.” It offers scant guidance to police, mental health workers, and hospital administrators who are already overwhelmed and lack adequate resources.

The mayor’s plan also calls for substantial increases in supportive housing for homeless people who need continuing care and more drop-in centers at the end of the subway lines. These efforts have faced inevitable budget constraints and NIMBY protests at raucous community meetings. (We are no strangers to these problems at Mainchance; we are in our third midtown Manhattan location, a four-story townhouse and former squash club, since our creation in 1982. Changes in location require contentious public hearings, and our contract with the city and lease with the landlord is renewable every four years.)

Reactions to the mayor’s approach to subway sleepers are often sharply divided and passionate. His supporters see it as necessary tough love. His critics deride it as hurried and cruel. There is some merit to both positions—many homeless people do need mental health services, yet coercive methods often do more harm than good. But this debate overlooks the larger challenges that any mayoral administration faces in dealing with the issue of homelessness.

Homelessness in New York City, and throughout the nation, is first and foremost a consequence of a market failure to produce affordable housing, especially in metropolitan centers experiencing gentrification. A second component of the present crisis is the lack of housing where homeless individuals and families with special needs can be supported in their efforts to rebuild their lives with help from professionals. Meanwhile, thousands of children and adults languish in shelters, in desperate need of both an accelerated eligibility process for access to housing and more affordable and subsidized housing to be built. A third issue preventing progress in creating supportive housing programs and homeless care facilities is local NIMBY protest. I have seen each of these issues play out in the lives of homeless individuals who have come through Mainchance.

Before he came to Mainchance, Manuel G. lived for four years in a small encampment on an abandoned railroad spur in Rego Park, Queens. He had been a victim of political violence in his home country, El Salvador. Mainchance social workers helped him establish his case for asylum, which led, after another three years, to a permanent housing placement. During all his years of homelessness, Manuel was working off the books in the back of restaurants and sending money to his family in Central America. He recounted thinking he would probably die of exposure or from violence before he would ever be able to find a place of his own.

The Adams administration is moving to accelerate the asylum and housing eligibility processes for migrants like Manuel. Once granted asylum, they can join the “qualified” immigrant population, which, according to the Department of Homeland Security, includes “lawful permanent residents” (people with green cards), refugees, and people granted asylum.

Whether they are citizens or permanent residents, individuals are only eligible for supportive housing if they are homeless and have a serious and persistent mental health condition (including substance abuse). Some programs require proof that they have been homeless for at least a year, or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years, and have a disability. This is insufficient: people who are homeless should be eligible for immediate emergency housing, as homeless advocates demand. The Adams administration is moving at least symbolically in that direction with a modest, eighty-person pilot program.

Earnestine F. is a single woman with a college degree in her late fifties. She has lived in midtown all her life but was evicted from her apartment after she lost a job. She spent a short time on the streets, confused and depressed. Then she enrolled at Mainchance and started staying at one of the church beds while getting on her feet. It took three years, but she now has a small, rent-subsidized studio in a high rise that she can afford. “It’s like getting a new life,” she says.

Like Earnestine, the majority of homeless people have not spent years living on the streets. The vast majority spend their nights in shelters. The city has over 400 contracts with providers of shelter service for the homeless. In contrast to Los Angeles or Seattle—cities with higher proportions of their homeless populations living rough—New York has a legal obligation to provide shelter for all comers.

New York is the birthplace of modern homeless advocacy groups, most notably the Coalition for the Homeless, formed in the late 1970s by housing advocate and organizer Ellen Baxter, medical anthropologist Kim Hopper, and social justice lawyer Robert Hayes. In the landmark 1979 Callahan v. Carey decision, the New York Supreme Court agreed with the Coalition’s argument that the plaintiff, Robert Callahan, a homeless alcoholic, had a “right to shelter.” The judge held that under the state constitution, “the Bowery derelicts are entitled to Board and lodging,” and that the city had not made adequate provision for housing “all of the destitute and homeless alcoholics, addicts, mentally impaired derelicts, flotsam and jetsam, and others during the winter months.” A 1982 consent decree determined how this unique right would actually work. The city and state agreed to provide decent emergency shelter for homeless men (and later women) in New York City and to set basic municipal shelter standards. Yet as coalition cofounder Robert Hayes said in a recent interview:

Shelter is no solution. It’s a Band-Aid. We brought the right to shelter because I could not find a legal basis to bring a right to housing. We think of housing as a reasonably permanent, secure, safe abode. Where we can raise families and grow old. Shelter by design is to save lives from tonight’s weather and other dangers. Shelter should be temporary and short term.

With the city’s worsening affordable housing shortage, and evictions resuming after a pause implemented during the pandemic, families are living in shelters longer before finding a housing placement. Families with children spent an average of 534 days, or nearly a year and a half, in Department of Homeless Services shelters during the fiscal year ending in June 2022. That’s up from 414 days in the 2017 fiscal year. How long families stay in the shelters will be a key metric in judging the effectiveness of Adams’s efforts to create new units of affordable and supportive housing.

In its plans to address homelessness, the Adams administration promised to secure 15,000 new subsidized and supported housing units by 2028. The Coalition for the Homeless demands tens of thousands more. In his 2023 State of the City Address, Adams highlighted his efforts to spur a rezoning effort in midtown to allow commercial space to be converted for residential use. If the hope is to bring more affordable units and supportive housing programs where they are sorely needed, early evidence is not encouraging: the city’s first two conversions are luxury buildings that offer no affordable apartments. The administration’s parallel efforts to convert vacant hotel rooms to housing units, backed by a $200 million commitment of state funds, has become mired in legal wrangling and unresolved zoning issues. Meanwhile, the shelter population swells, in part with homeless adults who were chased from the subways and encampments.

Advocacy groups have long had a simple demand: housing first. Let homeless families and adults into housing quickly so they can sort out their lives. Keep them out of the shelter system where they languish. Bring people off the streets by offering them immediate, private accommodations. While this is an ambitious demand, it is not utopian. During the postwar decades, New York and the federal government produced over 300,000 apartments in public housing estates throughout the city. In the current political climate, a New Deal for housing the homeless seems unlikely. That just makes the need to enforce supportive housing quotas and to spend existing resources effectively even more urgent.

We on the left can push the Adams administration to deliver on its initiatives. But we also need to actively oppose NIMBYism directed at proposed homeless programs. Neighborhood opposition to the location of homeless shelters and other programs is too often loud, one-sided, and persuasive. We need to organize and show up at community meetings with like-minded neighbors to say “Yes in My Backyard” to new programs and new accommodations for homeless families and individuals, if we believe they have merit. In the meantime, agencies like Mainchance will help accommodate the immediate needs of homeless people who appear at their doors.

In November, Adams closed a temporary tent city on Randall’s Island. Hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers were suddenly housed in low-occupancy midtown hotels. Mainchance Director Brady Crain called me to say that the line at our kitchen was crowded with Venezuelan migrants bused from Texas. At Mainchance in midtown, the face of homelessness is always changing and yet always the same.

William Kornblum is chairman of the board of Mainchance Drop-In Center, where he has served in a voluntary capacity for over thirty years. He is professor emeritus at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a specialist in community studies. His most recent books are Marseille, Port to Port (Columbia University Press, 2022) and International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train (Columbia, 2017), co-authored with Stéphane Tonnelat. He joined the Dissent editorial board in 1974.