Thomas J. Main's Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to De Blasio

Reviewed by Ariel Eisenberg

Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio  By Thomas J. Main NYU Press (2016), 288 pg.

Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio
By Thomas J. Main
NYU Press (2016), 288 pg.

In the conclusion to Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio, Thomas J. Main writes that he, like many housed New Yorkers, first became aware of homelessness in the early 1980s when he encountered homeless people in the city’s public places. It is the visibility of the homeless – the ubiquitous presence of people living on sidewalks, in parks, and in transportation terminals – that has made them the focus of so much attention in New York City, from the late 1970s to the present day. The conundrum, as Main presents it, is that, despite the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who experience homelessness yearly, and the millions more who encounter homeless people daily, “homelessness politics in the city has mostly been made on behalf of the homeless, not by them” (202). While this analysis diminishes the role that housed New Yorkers and homeless people themselves played in shaping the city’s response to homelessness, Main seeks here to examine the growth of the city’s vast homeless services apparatus. As his book demonstrates, many of the most dramatic initiatives were the work of a relatively small number of actors, almost all of whom were legal advocates and elected or appointed government officials.

There is much to criticize about New York City’s sprawling, often inefficient, and ideologically inconsistent system. But Main’s goal is to examine its remarkable development over the past thirty-five years. Although conventional wisdom holds that urban politics is characterized by inertia, homelessness policy has demonstrated “nonincremental change” characterized by relatively rapid shifts as leaders tried to create policy to address the growing crisis of homelessness.

Tried is key: The story of homelessness policy in New York City is a story of experimentation, disagreement, and backtracking, along with change. Especially after 1981, when Mayor Edward I. Koch signed the consent decree, obligating the city to provide shelter to all men who needed it, administrators scrambled to create emergency shelter for thousands of people. Bonnie Stone, who was deputy administrator for the Human Resources Administration under Koch in the early 1980s, recounted to Main, “Our mode was emergency…It was buying thousands of sheets and thousands of beds and hiring staff and opening up places…We opened up anything we could find, any building we could get control of” (30). It wasn’t enough. Demands for shelter continued to rise, along with legal challenges brought by the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society over the state of shelters and countless other issues. The city also had to contend with community groups that were resistant to the idea of placing large, congregate shelters in their neighborhoods, and squabbles with the state government over who bore the most responsibility for sheltering and aiding the homeless.

Logistics aside, the rising demand for shelter provoked thornier questions, including whether or not the expanding emergency shelter system was creating a “perverse incentive” for people to declare themselves homeless. The legal entitlement to shelter, critics argued, was not reducing homelessness because it was instead motivating more poor New Yorkers to enter the shelters to escape undesirable housing situations or in the hopes of being placed in permanent affordable housing. Main himself and other conservative scholars asserted the veracity of this theory, and it was accepted -– to different degrees, at different times -– by members of every administration from Koch to Bloomberg, and affected everything from the comfort level of shelters to the availability of subsidized permanent housing for poor families. To his benefit, Main acknowledges at several points in Homelessness in New York City that the perverse incentive theory has since been disproven. The fact that it intermittently guided homelessness policy even after it had been refuted demonstrates that while change may have been nonincremental, it often contradicted applied knowledge.

Main identifies three major, overlapping phases of homelessness policy in New York City: Entitlement (1980s), paternalism (1990s), and post-paternalism (2000s). The entitlement phase began with the signing of the aforementioned consent decree, which government officials and legal advocates interpreted as guaranteeing men (and later, women and children) the right to shelter. The move to paternalism followed, spurred by the burgeoning idea that homelessness was caused not simply by economic inequality, but by homeless people’s “underlying problems.” Under paternalism, the municipal government attempted to establish that shelter was a “mutual responsibility,” with homeless people fulfilling tasks including searching for jobs and undergoing treatment for drug use, alcoholism, and mental illness in exchange for shelter. However, city officials found that many chronically homeless people turned down shelter rather than accept it under those terms; innovators like Samuel Tsemberis –- who had worked for the city’s Health and Hospitals’ Corporation before founding the nonprofit Pathways to Housing –- found that offering homeless people housing with no stipulations (known as the “Housing First” model) ultimately produced better outcomes. This led to the post-paternalism phase, in which Michael Bloomberg’s administration developed Housing First initiatives and expanded efforts to prevent evictions and subsidize permanent housing for at-risk people. These efforts were initially successful, but Bloomberg -– swayed by the perverse incentive theory -– ultimately withdrew a great deal of funding for permanent housing. Coupled with the state’s defunding of the Advantage housing program and the inadequacy of city and state efforts to create supportive housing for mentally ill homeless people, the result was that homelessness subsequently rose once again throughout New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected in 2013, is still dealing with the fallout from this setback, and Main devotes a short but important chapter to analyze his first years in office.

Main has done extensive research for this book, including in-depth interviews with many of the key creators and executors of homelessness policy in New York City. He also provides a close examination of many issues and eventsthat cumulatively demonstrate “nonincremental” change in homelessness policy over the course of five mayoral administrations. “Nonincremental” change doesn’t always mean wise change, but Main largely refrains from conferring judgment, and instead narrates policy decisions as they happened and explains the logic behind them. As he notes about this authorial approach, “Whether or not homelessness should be a mystery to us now, many policy actors of the seventies, eighties, and nineties at least thought homelessness was a mystery” (12).

Some aspects of homelessness were elusive to policymakers; but Main’s approach skirts important analysis. Even if policymakers created policy by trial-and-error, ideology was clearly a significant factor in their approach. From legal advocates’ work to establish New Yorkers’ right to shelter, to policymakers continuous reliance on the “perverse incentive” theory to explain skyrocketing homeless populations, ideology informed policymakers’ understandings of homelessness and how to solve it. The perverse incentive theory is a case in point. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1981 on the popularity of his assertion that poor people – and particularly poor women of color – were taking advantage of a bloated welfare state. During this time in New York City, African Americans were the fastest-growing group of homeless people, and families comprised of women with children soon exceeded single men as the largest group within this demographic. By ignoring this context, Main misses the chance to demonstrate the connection between homelessness and other pressing social issues of the time, as well as the shifting political winds of late-twentieth century urban policy. Homelessness and how to alleviate it may have indeed seemed a mystery to policymakers, but to decontextualize their policy decisions so fully is to treat them as if they were made in a social and political vacuum, which they surely were not.

Main’s decision not to venture into overt analysis of the ideologies governing policymakers’ choices or the historical context in which they created these policies makes for a read that is at times frustrating in its limitations. At the time Main was putting the final edits on his book in 2015, New York City was sheltering over 59,000 people. Since then, the shelter population has grown to over 62,000. There have long been more homeless people in New York City than in any other city in the United States, even as it and the State have created a vast infrastructure of shelters and services that far surpass the effort or expense put forth by any other U.S. city. How did we get here? Main doesn’t really answer that question. He briefly dismisses the idea that homelessness is caused solely by structural inequality, but simultaneously presents a system that, despite its rapid expansion, has failed to stem the tide of homelessness in one of the wealthiest (and most expensive) cities in the world.

Homelessness in New York City will be an invaluable resource to scholars (including this one) studying contemporary homelessness and urban policy. Main provides an in-depth narrative of important moments of policymaking, showing the significant cumulative impact of seemingly-minute events. It could for that reason also be instructive to current policymakers hoping to parse the complexities of the city’s homeless services system. While Main by design doesn’t provide many answers, he provides a crucial and much-needed springboard for further discussion.


Ariel Eisenberg is Assistant Professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. Her article "'A Shelter Can Tip the Scales Sometimes': Disinvestment, Gentrification, and the Neighborhood Politics of Homelessness in 1980s New York City" will appear in the April 2017 issue of the Journal of Urban History. Her manuscript, "Save Our Streets and Shelter Our Homeless": The Origins of the Homeless Crisis in Urban America, is forthcoming on the University of North Carolina Press.