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What New York City’s Next Mayor Can Do to Solve the Homelessness Crisis

Creating a commission and a new deputy mayor of housing will give directly impacted people a much-needed voice in government—and help ensure a right to housing for all.

A homeless person in New York City on Feb. 23.Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

When New York City lawmakers talk about homelessness, it is clear that few of them know this city as I do. But how can they? 

They’ve never slept on its park benches. They’ve never been handcuffed by the NYPD simply for changing subway lines at 4 in the morning. They’ve never joined a gym, just for a consistent shower. And they have not raised a child as a single father while bouncing from shelter to shelter. I have done all of this and more. I know this city only as a person who has been homeless while Black can.

The elected officials who run my life have never taken the time to listen to me or the tens of thousands of New Yorkers with similar experiences. Meanwhile, recent violent attacks against homeless men and women have shaken the community. And when tourists stopped coming and the white-collar workers stayed home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we became visible in a way that we never have before. I’ve seen this firsthand during my fight against the city just to remain sheltered at the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side. 

But the city will soon have the opportunity to elect a new mayor who will listen to us—and who can ensure a right to housing for all.

In my work as an advocate, I have fought hard for New Yorkers’ right to secure shelter, but I’ve learned that a right to housing is essential. United for Housing—a coalition of more than 90 organizations, including some of New York City’s leading housing advocacy groups—agrees. The group has released an ambitious policy blueprint for the next mayor that would be transformative for the city’s homeless community.

In addition to calling for $200 million in direct rental assistance for the lowest-income New Yorkers and funding for thousands of new units of low-income housing per year, the blueprint calls for something radical: treating homelessness and housing as two sides of the same coin. A new deputy mayor could coordinate the city’s housing policy to serve extremely low-income and unhoused New Yorkers, creating operational efficiency that ensures all of the city’s agencies work in concert with one another.

The next mayor must also create a commission on homelessness that includes directly affected New Yorkers, as well as those who are currently housing insecure. These New Yorkers can share their lived experiences with all city agencies, which would create a clearer understanding of the issues and help elected officials without lived experience maximize the positive effect of policy decisions and increase exposure for a population that is too often left out.

To truly end homelessness, it is imperative that New Yorkers like me have a seat at the table, a voice in the discussion and a hand in decision making. Legislators in Albany recently approved a $212 billion budget that includes many important relief measures, including $2.35 billion in rental assistance for vulnerable people—but its impact is still too limited. It is a Band-Aid that stops the bleeding but does not seal the wound and a missed opportunity to utilize an unprecedented $12.6 billion in federal aid to rethink the way we approach homelessness. If those of us with lived experience were at the table, we would have fought to break New York out of the politics as usual mentality.

The city’s homelessness crisis is a failure of imagination. Despite the challenges I have faced in my life, I am a lifelong student. One of my favorite stories is a hallmark of Western philosophy: Plato’s allegory of the cave. In that story, prisoners chained in a dark cave only see shadows on the wall from the light behind them. Yet, because it is all they’ve known, they believe it to be reality.

New York City is trapped inside a cave of its own making. When we discuss homelessness, we stick to the same old solutions that do not work and lose sight of the simple fact that what we need most are safe, affordable places to call home with the services we need to thrive.

New Yorkers like me know that best. And it is only by following our wisdom and guidance that the city will step outside our cave and into the light.

Shams DaBaron is a hip-hop pioneer, writer, and filmmaker directly impacted by homelessness. You can follow him on Twitter at @Homeless_Hero.