New York City plans to open 90 new shelters as homeless ranks swell

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York plans to open 90 new shelters as city officials struggle to get a handle on homelessness, which has climbed to its highest level in almost a century, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday.

The move is intended to ease crowding in current shelters and allow the city to move away from housing people in "cluster sites," which have been criticized as expensive and unsafe.

"This is a tough topic that has defied solution for decades," de Blasio told a news conference. "This an honest effort to come to grips with the problem."

Some 62,000 people, mostly families, sleep in city shelters each night. The number has doubled over the past 15 years to reach its highest point since the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to city figures.

The crisis in the United States' biggest city has been frustrating for the Democratic mayor, who ran on a campaign promise of creating housing equity for poor and working-class New Yorkers and is up for re-election this year.

De Blasio called the plan his administration's "blood-and-guts war strategy" at winning the city's long-failed struggle against homelessness.

The plan calls for 20 new shelters over the next 10 months, another 20 next year and five per year after that, bringing the total to more than 360 shelters. Thirty existing shelters will be expanded.

The mayor said he was prepared for similar resistance to what he saw in 2015, when community opposition successfully blocked his efforts to open new shelters, but did not say how he would approach the challenge differently this time.

"There's always going to be some resistance," de Blasio said.

The plan calls for removing people from so-called "cluster site" apartment units by the end of 2023.

Rising homelessness has forced the city to house about 45 percent of its shelter residents in the units, which have been criticized as costly, run-down and dangerous.

Last year, two girls living in a cluster site with their parents were killed when a boiler exploded, and a family was stabbed to death at a hotel where the city had placed them.

De Blasio said he plans to reduce the overall number of people in shelters by 2,500 over five years.

Advocates for the homeless were lukewarm on the strategy.

"The mayor's heart is in the right place ... but this plan is not enough for that monumental task," the Legal Aid Society, which provides legal help to the poor, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)