Homelessness is a Policy Choice 

Written by Mimi Elias, LIFT-NY Coach 

As a coach at LIFT-New York and a candidate for a master’s in social work at Columbia University, my inclination toward the field of social work is intimate and personal, stemming from a familial history of instability that has been profoundly painful to undo. I was born in California in 1994 via c-section, a form of major surgery that some women must undergo to birth their children. It is an open wound that traverses several layers of skin, and it takes weeks to heal post-partum. When my mother left the hospital, I was not taken to a loving home, let alone a house. We arrived at a small camper van greeted by my two siblings who were both under the age of 10. Nearly 30 years later, this reality remains true for far too many families and children across the country, a reality that does not need to continue in our lifetime.   

It is estimated that nearly 1.3 million children (about the population of New Hampshire)  below the age of six dealt with homelessness or housing instability in the United States between 2018 and 2019.1 Although all stages of child development are critical, the first few years a child is alive serves as a foundation for the remainder of their time on Earth. A study from Harvard University found that an infant creates roughly 1 million new neural connections per second during the first few years of their development.2 One of the most important aspects of this growth stems from healthy attachments to their parents. Without safe and secure housing, the ability of a parent to remain grounded and not overrun with feelings of stress becomes elusive as survival takes precedent over everything else.  

A prevailing myth regarding homelessness is that it is due to housing shortages. But many of the underlying causes, such as inequality or poor policy decisions, are overlooked in the discussion. For example, despite the estimated 600,000 people experiencing houselessness at any given moment in the country, census data revealed that in 2020 there were 16 million vacant homes across the nation. 34 This means that for every 1 person in need of a single living unit, there were 27 empty homes in the United States. In 2022, New York Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a plan to build over 15,000 units by the year 2030, yet there are roughly 955,437 vacant housing units across the state.56  There is no “shortage” of housing, there is no need to keep families on the streets when bone-chilling winters blow below 40 degrees or summers blaze longer every year due to climatic change.  

The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the housing market became apparent in 2023 when the median national rent soared by 14% over a one-year period to $1,876 a month, and in New York City this average skyrocketed by 30% to $5,058.7 This effect can be attributed to the prevalence in remote work which gave the liberty to employees across various sectors to relocate away from worksites, offsetting housing prices nationwide.8 For the average person residing in the United States working at the federal minimum wage, they would have to work well beyond 40 hours per week to afford rent alone, a number that increases if dependents are added into the equation. It is time we realized that homelessness is not a choice made by those experiencing homelessness, but rather a reflection of choices made by those in positions of power which are then exacerbated by injustices within our system. Taxes, zoning, institutional discrimination, and other public policies are among the issues that create many of these inequities. One of the parents I coach shared she had successfully worked towards her goal of saving $5,000 for their family over several months. Unfortunately, due to her building being sold, she was then faced with a 30-day eviction notice that forced her to spend her entire savings on the downpayment and broker fees involved with the move. This left the member reeling with feelings of defeat; savings are critical in providing families with an added level of security and peace of mind.  

It is also important to elevate the impact of the benefits cliff on low-income families. If an individual enrolled in a federally subsidized housing program earns even $20 more than the amount allowed by government guidelines, they face the possibility of losing their housing, food, and medical benefits. This also severely limits a family’s earning potential; preventing them from escaping the vicious cycle of poverty.  

LIFT-New York is working to elevate housing issues and its impact on the racial wealth gap. This fall, they co-hosted a LIFT & Learn symposium in partnership with the Community Preservation Corporation, an organization working to level the playing field by providing black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs with the skills and tools to navigate the real estate development space.  LIFT-NY staff actively participate in various coalitions, including the Bronx Leadership and Organizing Coalition (BLOC), which hosts housing forums across the Bronx to elevate the voices of families. These efforts are noteworthy but more needs to be done to address homelessness on a larger scale. Until landlords and policy makers start to acknowledge the role they play in the crisis, poor families will continue to suffer.  

Until then, in my role as LIFT-NY coach, I hope to help my members elevate their voice around this issue as well as navigate access to affordable housing with families in partnership with other community-based organizations.   

1. Experiences Homelessness, SchoolHouse Connection 
2. The Science of Early Childhood Development, Center on the Developing Child Harvard University  
3.The 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR), The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
4. 16 Million Homes Are Vacant in the U.S. — Here Are the States With the Highest Vacancy Rates, Lending Tree
5. Census Bureau Reports on States With the Highest Percentage of Vacant Housing Units, United States Census Bureau
6. Mayor Adams, Governor Hochul Announce Start of Construction of $72 Million, Mixed-Use Affordable, Supportive Housing Development in the Bronx, NYC Housing Preservation & Development
7. Average rent in Manhattan jumps to a record $5,000 a month, CNN
8. Remote work to blame for rise in housing prices, Bureau of Labor Statistics