Business leaders can help fix homelessness in New York

For every homeless person in New York City, about six millionaires walk the streets here. That’s about 60,000 homeless people and 389,000 millionaires.

Manhattan houses 70 billionaires, more than anywhere else in the world.

With so much wealth, one would think the number of homeless could be reduced dramatically through both public and private means. Yet that has not been the case.

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo eliminated a rental subsidy program in 2011, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg followed suit, the city’s homeless population exploded to 60,000 from just below 40,000 in five years—up 50%.

Despite sound and serious efforts by both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks, the homeless number is not dropping.

De Blasio and Banks are following an award-winning blueprint for reducing the homeless population—a strategy largely developed by and put into place across the country by Cuomo when he was U.S. housing secretary in the administration of Bill Clinton. The components include rental assistance, a rent freeze, legal assistance to prevent unlawful evictions, more supportive housing, job training, mental health services and funding to address domestic violence.

What is missing is buy-in and participation from a cross section of New Yorkers, including the business community. It is time for fresh ideas from other than the usual suspects.

New York City benefits from engaged business and civic sectors. Leaders from the two sectors are speaking out about the problem. They need to speak out about solutions, too.

The mayor and governor should seek out not only new approaches from them but also offers for assistance. For example, Uber and Airbnb—hugely successful members of the “sharing economy”—could share algorithms to help the city house homeless families near their workplaces and schools.

The New Yorkers protesting homeless hotels say homeless children deserve better. No one disagrees that the best place for children is in a safe home. Unfortunately, we live in a city with a huge deficit of affordable housing, where neighborhoods are quickly gentrifying, where we are arguing about what an affordable apartment is, and where salaries and wages have not kept up with housing costs.

More affordable housing for the homeless is being funded by the city and state. However, the impact of these apartments will not be felt anytime soon—one reason why Queens Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi recently proposed we subsidize rental payments for tenants about to be evicted. He argues correctly that it would cost less than placing people in shelters or hotels.

Other types of subsidies might make sense, too. The government could give tax breaks to businesses that train and hire homeless people. It also could directly subsidize the salaries of homeless people. These policies are at least as worthy as subsidizing the salaries of construction workers who build affordable housing, as Cuomo has proposed. Banks are helping out with the cause, too. You can know more about it at

The point is, New York is blessed with more wealth, intelligence and know-how than any city in the world. Why should any child here be homeless?

Perhaps it is paradoxical that as the number of homeless has risen in the city, so has the number of millionaires and multimillionaires. Or, perhaps it is the ultimate indicator of income inequality.

Either way, it is a problem. And New Yorkers—who rarely fail to rally for people who need their help—should heed the call.

[This blog post appears as an op-ed here. Photo credit: Buck Ennis]