New York has a long history as a magnet for the poor and the homeless. The famous poem on the Statue of Liberty, addressed to the world’s “huddled masses,” exhorts: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me!”
But now? Not so much. A New York scheme to send hundreds of homeless people on a one-way ticket out of town has led to the relocation of more than 550 families since 2007. Under the scheme, initiated by New York’s mayor, Mike Bloomberg, the city pays for bus and plane tickets, or petrol vouchers, to destinations varying from cities elsewhere in the US to places such as South Africa or Puerto Rico.
The scheme is aimed at saving the costs of putting up homeless families in expensive shelters. It only happens if a family can show they have relatives to stay with elsewhere who are willing to look after them. Then New York will fork over the cash and make the arrangements for them to get out of town, often within a few days of agreeing to leave.
The level of help varies. One couple from Michigan were given US$400 in petrol vouchers so they could drive home after a failed quest to find New York jobs. Another family of five got free plane tickets to Paris and then free rail tickets when they arrived to get them to the northern French town of Granville.
Although the travel expenses can often cost thousands of dollars, city officials say it is cheaper than housing families in shelters that can cost around US$36,000 a year.
However, the plan has stirred controversy among charity organizations that work with homeless families. Some say the scheme is a welcome addition to the city’s armory of ways of dealing with a chronic homeless problem.
“It is a good plan,” one director who did not want to be named said at a homeless shelter.
However, others say that it does little to tackle the real underlying issues of homelessness in the city and the huge lack of affordable housing in a metropolis famed for its sky-high rents and property prices.
One such critic is Arnold Cohen, chief executive of Partnership for the Homeless. He says the scheme does not have enough interest in seeing whether families sent out of the city become homeless again or even return to New York. As such, he says, it is only dealing with short-term issues and not doing anything to help people properly turn their lives around.
“There is no exploration of whether the family members they are sent to have a long-term relationship with them. They may just become homeless again, but in a new city. Or they may come back,” he said.
Other homeless advocates have praised the effort to help families that in many ways have become stranded in New York and welcome the help to get back home.
“We are in the compassion business and we are seeing families reunited,” said James Winans, development director of the famed Bowery Mission in Manhattan.