If you listen long enough to Bill de Blasio’s conservative critics, you might almost believe that New York’s mayor has singlehandedly created the epidemic of modern urban homelessness, all but luring men and women onto the streets himself.
“DeBlasio’s progressivism created city’s homeless crisis,” blared the headline of a cover essay penned for the New York Post by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani this past September. “A city with homeless on its streets is a city that has no love of its people,” Giuliani began—before going on, with his usual up-is-down logic, to accuse de Blasio of abandoning the “love and compassion” that, he claims, he showed homeless people in the 1990s. New Yorkers with unimpaired memories remember Giuliani’s treatment of homeless people rather differently—a caustic mixture of brutal police crackdowns on street homelessness, punitive plans to evict homeless children and families from shelters to the streets, and a 32 percent rise in New York City’s homeless-shelter population. But why bother with facts?
The attacks on de Blasio’s homeless record began, first, as a low rumble, before crescendoing into a multipart chorus this fall. The head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a Republican union chief furiously opposed to policing reform, urged his members to post photos of homeless people to the Internet. And just as stories seeded in the national right-wing media often migrate to mainstream outlets, it wasn’t long before The New York Times and the Daily News were running stories about a supposed explosion in homelessness.
It’s easy to see why de Blasio’s right-wing critics have glommed on to homelessness as one of their preferred weapons in undermining the mayor. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post (with its unsubtle “Rotting Apple” series) and others have hardly disguised their agenda about painting the mayor as David Dinkins redux. And as de Blasio prepares to mark two years in office, the visibility of homeless people makes for a ready, if cynical, shorthand for all his alleged failures—for taking New York back to the grimy days of crime and disorder (falling crime rates sort of complicate that claim) and for failing to deliver on the one great promise he made to his constituents: to tackle growing inequality.
The only problem is, their analysis is wrong.
There is no question that New York City is suffering a historic homelessness crisis. But it is a crisis that de Blasio inherited, one that is in fact rooted in the failed conservative policies of his predecessors, Michael Bloomberg and Giuliani, and in the worsening housing-affordability crisis in New York. Further exacerbating the problem, New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, has played a consistently destructive role by blocking de Blasio’s efforts to address the crisis.