Lunch for the homeless at the Bowery Mission (Photo: Ilyse Liffreing)

Lunch for the homeless at the Bowery Mission (Photo: Ilyse Liffreing)

Governor Andrew Cuomo began the year with a pretty progressive State of the State on Wednesday. In the annual speech, Cuomo called for 12 weeks of paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage, and emphasized the importance of reducing CO2 emissions. Looks like New York is safe from Trumpkins, Cruzinators and the like, for now anyway.

One of the most surprising announcements was a five-year plan to inject $20 billion into affordable and supportive housing across the state, both of which are in crisis-mode shortage. (Surprising, perhaps, considering that the de Blasio administration blamed Cuomo’s 2011 rental assistance budget cuts for the spike in homelessness.) Over the next 15 years, $10.4 billion will be committed toward creating 20,000 supportive housing units to help shelter the homeless.

The city’s homelessness problem has proven to be notoriously intractable– and over the past few years we’ve seen a barrage of media highlighting different gaps in the city’s approach, from the corruption of for-profit shelters and cluster homes to a portrayal of the crisis through the personal experience of children who grow up in the shelter system.

And recently, New York City has been reeling from evidence that homeless services have not improved since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office on a platform to salve the city’s inequality gap. In fact, things may have worsened– last year saw 59,000 people sleeping in shelters, a record high since the Great Depression.

We’ve noticed the effects of this just down the block at the Bowery Mission with their struggle to keep a sufficiently stocked food pantry.”The media and government are responding to an increase in homelessness that The Bowery Mission has been experiencing for some time now,” said James Winans, the chief development officer of the Bowery Mission, referring to Cuomo’s proposal. “We have served record numbers in our emergency shelter each of the past two winters – often more than 200 people overnight. Temperatures may be milder this year, but when you are homeless on the streets, there is no such thing as a ‘mild winter.'”

Indeed, as DNAinfo reported in November, 311 calls related to homelessness have increased significantly in the East Village and Lower East Side since 2010. Compounding the sense of distress, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Homeless Services resigned in December, seemingly out of his depth on tackling the scale of the problem.

Ever since, de Blasio has been furiously announcing measures to combat homelessness, including plans to put an end to problematic cluster housing and add 15,000 new units of supportive housing, as well as introduce a new system to track the homeless in real time.

“So, what is a supportive apartment in real terms? It means much more than a roof over someone’s head,” the Mayor said on Tuesday when he announced a new task force to guide his supportive housing initiative. “It is a much deeper concept than that, because with a supportive apartment comes real support; counseling, social services; the helping hand in all its forms; people who are going to stick with you every step of the way.”

In the face of widespread criticism of the Mayor for the continuing homeless, Council Member Stephen Levin penned an op-ed that appeared in the Daily News just prior to Cuomo’s speech. In the piece, Levin expressed his support for de Blasio’s “many efforts” to combat homelessness, including doubling the number of drop-in centers, initiating shelter repairs, investing in legal assistance for low-income renters, and focusing on linking survivors of domestic violence with the city’s rental assistance programs.

“New York City under de Blasio has heavily invested in giving the least fortunate among us a fighting chance to get back on their feet,” Levin wrote. “We respectfully ask the state to do the same.”

Wednesday’s announcement seems to indicate that Cuomo, too, is stepping up the momentum on housing (and perhaps honing in on his political rival’s turf?) The state will begin an audit of shelters statewide, planning to close those deemed unsafe or place them under qualified non-profit management. 

Margaret Chin greeted Cuomo’s announcement with enthusiasm. “This $20 billion housing plan promises to make a real and lasting difference in thousands of New Yorkers’  lives,” she said in a press release. “As a Council Member representing a district with a high number of ‘hidden homeless,’ I hope that some of these badly needed funds are used to get struggling members of our community, many of whom are seniors, into permanent and affordable homes.”

Apparently that rental assistance program Cuomo cut isn’t back on the table though?