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Economic Pulse

Homelessness in New York City is being compounded by inflation, high rents

David Brancaccio and Jarrett Dang Sep 2, 2022
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Inflation and high rent prices in New York City are contributing the city's ongoing homelessness crisis. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Economic Pulse

Homelessness in New York City is being compounded by inflation, high rents

David Brancaccio and Jarrett Dang Sep 2, 2022
Heard on:
Inflation and high rent prices in New York City are contributing the city's ongoing homelessness crisis. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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In America’s most populated city, rising prices for housing and inflation in other areas are worsening conditions for people already on the economic fringe.

New York City already has the country’s largest number of people experiencing homelessness at 80,000. Most of them aren’t on the street, but rather staying in a vast network of shelters like those operated by The Bowery Mission, a faith-based organization that has been helping the city’s homeless for over a century.

“Those jolts to the economy, they’re impacting real people’s lives and putting them on one side of homelessness or the other,” said James Winans, CEO of the Bowery Mission. “I think when your housing is unstable, and your employment is unstable, it just follows that any increase in the day-to-day cost of living is going to impact everyone, including those most on the margins.”

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio visited The Bowery Mission’s shelter location in Tribeca, Manhattan, to get Winans’ perspective on how people experiencing homelessness are feeling in this increasingly ‘weird’ economy.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:

David Brancaccio: Rents went back up when pandemic eased, you must see the effects of this.

James Winans: Well, absolutely. And the folks that the Bowery Mission serves are on the edge all the time. You know, we serve folks who are experiencing homelessness. But we also experience people who are quite unstable themselves and could very easily slide into homelessness. And so any jolt to the economy is felt right at our front doors.

Brancaccio: Another part of the tragedy here is that it didn’t work in reverse. When rents fell in some places in earlier pandemic, it’s not like your burden was eased.

Winans: No, in fact, we were serving a number of people who were housed prior to New York City shutting down in 2020. We were serving primarily folks who were experiencing homelessness on the streets. Every time we opened up for a meal, we would see 250 people come into our dining hall and eat with us, on average, and within a couple of weeks of New York City shutting down, we were serving twice as many meals. And as we talked to people on the line, we realize these were folks who had been working at a restaurant or a hotel or a construction site for cash. And that place was shut down. And so now, the rent burden was so much greater, and they were trying to figure out how to make ends meet.

Brancaccio: So the facility I’m talking to you in today, actually people can spend the night?

Winans: Yes, yes. Today we’re at our Tribeca location. And we have three floors of dormitory-style housing.

Brancaccio: And people come in later in the day, sort of before dinnertime.

Winans: That’s right, women will start coming in around three o’clock this afternoon, and then men around five o’clock prior to dinner.

Brancaccio: So here we are late summer 2022. From what you see, which direction is it going? Are you seeing people in more distress, or because lockdown has eased, less distress?

Winans: I think people are definitely in more distress. I think we’re seeing more mental health challenges, perhaps than we ever have. Drug overdose challenges, literal drug overdoses than we have prior to the pandemic. And so those things are quite marked. And in terms of the numbers, it’s actually a really hard time to understand what’s going on. I think we’re all observing more street homelessness, and so more folks are experiencing homelessness on the streets. And yet the shelter numbers right now are down for individuals, up for families. Quite, quite confusing, but I think it reflects that those jolts to the economy, they’re impacting real people’s lives and putting them on one side of homelessness or the other.

Brancaccio: Up for families. That’s interesting information. That would be someone probably who’s lost a job, you know, the breadwinner losing a job and then losing a place.

Winans: There’s so many different things that lead people to homelessness. I heard someone say, you know, if I’m asked, “What’s the solution for homelessness,” it’s a little bit like asking, “What’s the solution for illness?” So if somebody walks into a hospital and says, “I’m ill, I’m sick,” we’re going to ask a lot of questions, right? We’re going to say, “What are your symptoms? How long have you been experiencing these symptoms? What have you been trying to deal with your symptoms, maybe we’re going to conduct a few tests.” Homelessness is the same thing. It really requires us to get below the label of homeless and say, “Well, you know, what’s going on in your life? And beyond the challenges of the trouble in your life? What are your hopes and dreams? And where do you want to go from here?” And so we’re always trying to build relationships to understand what’s really beneath that label: homeless.

Brancaccio: Yeah, because the statistics say that there’s still a labor shortage and that hiring is supposedly brisk right now. Yet, families in need coming in here, you’re seeing that it’s sadly very busy this summer?

Winans: Yes, mhm.

Brancaccio: You think inflation is playing out in in the calculus here and things are getting much more expensive?

Winans: Well, I think when your housing is unstable, and your employment is unstable, it just follows that any increase in the day-to-day cost of living is going to impact everyone, including those most on the margins.

Brancaccio: You must depend on volunteers. You were a volunteer here, yourself, many moons ago, you’ve told me. What about the availability of them here in 2022?

Winans: Well thankfully, we are seeing more and more people willing to come out and volunteer with us.

Brancaccio: Do you think it’s the visibility of the street homelessness?

Winans: I think that has motivated a lot of people. You know, I think a lot of people are asking the question, “What can I do to help?” And you know, what I always say is, don’t try to do that as an individual. You’ll probably find that a frustrating experience, but how can you be in community with others to help? And The Bowery Mission is a place where you can come in and do that to serve together and an organization that’s been at this for quite some time.

Brancaccio: Your books have to work. How’s it going with air conditioning costs, and then in a few months, you’re gonna have some probably pretty high heating bills.

Winans: Well, when there’s inflation or a downturn in the economy for The Bowery Mission, it’s a bit of a double-whammy, right. We see more people at our front doors, we see more need that we are seeking to respond to. At the same time, donations tend to go down a bit. We rely entirely on private donations to do the work here at The Bowery Mission. And so, at the same time we see needs increase, we actually see our resources decrease, and that’s always quite a squeeze.

Brancaccio: Oh, I should understand that better. I mean, you what you’re saying is during inflationary times when people are seeing their household budget stressed, they might have less ability to write a check to you.

Winans: People are always making decisions. The Bowery mission has 55,000 people who’ve given to us in the last year. Many of them are not that far away from homelessness themselves or struggling to make ends meet. Maybe they’ve had a disruption in their health life or their work life or something like that. And so, so people are making decisions between their charitable dollar and their grocery bill and their rent.

Brancaccio: I suppose batten down the hatches for this next winter, because I can’t imagine the need is going to go down if we fall into proper recession. But it’ll make it harder for people to write the checks to you. I mean, you’ve probably done this long enough. You’ve probably seen some downturns like were you working here in 2008 and 2009?

Winans: I was, I was, and so we took a lot of care in our expenses to tighten things wherever we could. And we were able to ride that downturn. But we’re anticipating there may be another one right here on the horizon.

Brancaccio: So what’d you say, 55,000 people give?

Winans: Yes, and so The Bowery Mission is a story of a lot of small gifts adding up.

Brancaccio: So not like five Wall Street tycoons. It’s the opposite of that.

Winans: It’s the opposite of that. Now we do have significant donors who give an outsized amount, but The Bowery Mission has always been a story of the generosity of lots and lots of New Yorkers being pulled together to meet the needs for our neighbors who are most in need.

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