NYC to add dozens of homeless shelters

NEW YORK (AP) -- New York City would open about 90 new homeless shelters in five years under a plan unveiled Tuesday, sharply increasing shelters but winding down a practice of putting up some of the city's near-record number of homeless people in hotels and private apartments.

The $300 million plan marks Mayor Bill de Blasio's latest effort to deal with a stubborn surge in homelessness in the last decade.

With roughly 60,000 homeless people now spending their nights in shelters and thousands more on the streets, city officials say increasing shelters will provide more services, better conditions and potentially higher prospects of moving on than the hotel rooms and apartments that now make up part of the shelter system.

Yet even if everything in the plan comes to pass, the homeless shelter population would drop only by a projected 2,500 people by 2021.

"Is it everything we want it to be? No. It's an honest goal," said the Democratic mayor, who emphasized that his plan would aim to keep people as close as possible to the neighborhoods they called home.

It's not immediately clear where the city would seek to put 90 new shelters, while also expanding 30 existing ones. New shelters, and plans for them, have encountered neighborhood resistance in the past. There are currently nearly 300.

The plan would add $300 million to the city's $89.6 billion, 10-year capital budget, officials said. But since the city would stand to save money on hotels and apartments while spending money on new shelters, budget director Dean Fuleihan said the plan would mainly reallocate, not necessarily add to, the annual operating budget for homelessness services, which stands at $1.3 billion this year; de Blasio has proposed to raise it to $2.3 billion next year.

The overall city operating budget is over $84 billion this year.

The city would end its use of hotel rooms to shelter the homeless by 2023 and its similar use of private apartments, some of which have been slammed for poor conditions, by 2021. The apartment deadline was pushed back from an earlier date of 2018 after officials concluded it would only end up boosting the pricey use of hotels.

The shelter population has jumped by about 70 percent in a decade in New York City, which is required by decades-old legal agreements to provide shelter to everyone seeking it.

While the federal government said in 2015 that homelessness had declined on a national level in the previous five years, it has increased in recent years in some places, for reasons likely including rents rising ahead of incomes. Los Angeles and Hawaii recently declared homelessness a state of emergency in 2015.

In 2013, the nightly number of people in shelter in New York topped 50,000 for the first time since record-keeping began in the 1980s, though then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg had promised to reduce homelessness by two-thirds.

But the number has risen over 10 percent since de Blasio took office in 2014, hitting a recent peak of over 60,700 last fall. The issue has been particularly thorny for a mayor whose campaign emphasized affordable housing and reducing income inequality.  

Administration officials have said the number of homeless would be higher without various initiatives they've launched or furthered, including rental assistance, legal aid for tenants fighting eviction and a program called HomeStat, which tasks workers with making repeated daily contact with the homeless. Some 690 people have come into shelter and stayed off the street in a year, de Blasio said.