NEW YORK — Declaring his intention to make chronic homelessness "effectively extinct" in New York over the next five years, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has announced plans to shift the city's focus from crisis management to finding long-term solutions.
The ambitious blueprint outlined last week called for reducing by two-thirds the city's homeless population. The city's shelters are used by 38,000 people each night.
Bloomberg's plan is based largely on the premise that the city has relied on shelters as its primary way to deal with homelessness, and that what was designed as a safety net has become costly, semipermanent housing for too many people.
His proposal calls for building thousands of new housing units, identifying and helping thousands of chronically homeless who suffer from substance abuse and mental illness, and preventing homelessness before it occurs.
"City government has created the most comprehensive, extensive and expensive shelter system in the world," Bloomberg said in an address to the Assn. for a Better New York, whose members include prominent business and civic leaders.
"In the last decade alone, we have spent $4.6 billion on building and maintaining a network of emergency shelters, through which more than 416,000 homeless men, women and children have passed," he said.
"Yet we must also be honest with ourselves. Our best efforts have not accomplished all that we would wish. And the evidence is all around us."
Homeless advocates praised the tone and ambition of the mayor's speech. But they cautioned that concrete details were still to be spelled out, and warned that the timeframe for achieving the change could be too narrow.
"This document is written in budget-neutral language," said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. "Clearly, that is not the way the real world works. You have to make the upfront investment.
"It will take a lot of time to get this housing together. It raises many concerns when you say you reduce the shelter population by two-thirds," she added. "We cannot help but wonder if they are going to resort to punitive measures to make that reduction a reality -- meaning throwing people back out."
Sullivan said the political climate in Washington could not be ignored, because the Bush administration was working to make huge cuts in the federal program that helped indigent people rent apartments.
Statistics cited by the mayor showed that a typical homeless family in the city spent about 11 months in the shelter system.
"Our own policies needlessly encourage entry and prolong dependence on shelters. That has created a growing burden on our city budget," Bloomberg said. The city's annual budget for the Department of Homeless Services has grown from almost $400 million to $700 million in the last five years.
Bloomberg said shelters would be made more inviting for people who needed them the most as a first step toward housing, where additional counseling or therapy could then take place.
As part of the strategy to prevent homelessness, the city will work with grass-roots organizations, landlords and tenant associations to keep people from losing their homes. There will be greater reliance on mediation between landlords and tenants as an alternative to eviction.
Focus also will be placed on helping former prisoners, patients leaving public hospitals and young people "aging out" of foster care who are at risk of becoming homeless. Quickly moving people who enter shelters into permanent housing also will be a major priority, as will be reallocation of resources.
"Money and manpower now used to manage homelessness will instead be devoted to ending it," Bloomberg said. "Currently, for every dollar spent by the city on prevention, three and a half dollars are spent on shelter.
"Over the next five years, that will change," he said.
"There's an oft-quoted Robert Frost poem that says: 'Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.' For too long, when New Yorkers in need had to go somewhere," Bloomberg said, "the only place that would take them in was a shelter."