By Josh Dawsey

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration has increased spending on homeless services by more than 50% since he took office nearly three years ago, reaching a historic $1.6 billion this year.

At the same time, the population in city shelters is up by nearly 20%, raising questions about whether the spending has been effective in combating homelessness. Last week, more than 60,650 people, including about 23,800 children, slept in a city shelter.

Heading into a re-election year, the administration is banking on the extra funds to reverse a decadeslong rise in homelessness and is asking his toughest critics to be patient. But some longtime leaders in the social-services sector worry that the money won't curb the uptick.

"They keep creating new programs because they still believe that they will find a magic bullet," said Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former deputy mayor who oversaw homelessness until she resigned last year. "Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the immediate crisis and to forget that you need to step back and create more permanent solutions."

When Mr. de Blasio took office in 2014, the city shelter system had a budget of about $1 billion and a population of about 50,700.

The administration is spending about $350 million a year on rent for those who they believe could become homeless or are leaving shelters. The city is now spending $79 million annually on street outreach, $62 million on legal services -- up 10 fold from Mr. de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg -- and $190 million on shelter security, up by $90 million. Last week, the city added $52 million to its budget for homelessness.

When Mr. de Blasio was campaigning formayor, he described Mr. Bloomberg's record on homelessness as a failure, a charge rejected by Mr. Bloomberg's aides. Mr. de Blasio promised a policy shift that would improve the situation but has been faced steady criticism for his handling of the crisis.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed 70% of New Yorkers thought homelessness was a "very serious problem."

Complaints from New Yorkers about the homeless on the streets and dangerous conditions in shelters has spurred the spending, said Steve Banks, who leads the city's homeless services efforts. Meanwhile, advocates said the street homeless population has increased, even though the official count showed a 12% decline this year.

"The [shelter] population is significantly lower than it would have been had the administration not took the actions it took," Mr. Banks said. "The additional investments are going to bend the curve back in the other direction."There are signs that the needle is moving. City records show about 22,000 evictions in 2015, down from almost 29,000 in 2013 when Mr. Bloomberg was mayor. More than 48,000 families received rental assistance this year, likely keeping many from being evicted. More than 10,000 building-code violations at shelters have been cleared.

Some advocates and critics of the administration, including city Comptroller Scott Stringer, a Democrat, have said it is easier to do business with the city since Mr. Banks came on board.

"Steve has done a remarkable job since he took over," said George McDonald, who runs a homeless services organization called the Doe Fund. He had previously clashed with the administration.

Yet, a number of other indicators are causing alarm. As of last month, the average stay in shelter had risen to 563 days for adult families and 355 days for single adults, leading some to wonder whether the city is doing enough tomove families into better situations.

The number of homeless residents staying in hotels has more than tripled in the past two years, with more than 6,100 homeless people sleeping in hotels now. The city spent about $50 million on hotels last year, and officials said the cost will keep going up.

City officials have sometimes resisted building shelters because they are worried about political blowback, advocates and providers said.

Some advocates said the city should spend more money on permanent and supportive housing for homeless residents and try to move people from shelters into public housing. City officials said they are committed to building 15,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years.

Christine Quinn, a former City Council speaker and chief executive of WIN, a nonprofit that serves homeless women and their children, said the city needs to focus more on job-training programs.

"We need to stop beingcontrolled by the media's obsession on whether numbers have gone up or gone down...and move to focus on the question of whether people are returning to the shelters," Ms. Quinn said. "Short-term fixes to long-term problems don't work."

Part of the city's challenge is that New York has a right-to-shelter provision for everyone, unlike many other cities. Many come from prisons or other states, city officials said. The mayor and Mr. Banks both said they support keeping the provision because it saves lives.

For the first time, city officials believe they are containing the growth in shelters, Mr. Banks said. Others disagree.

"I don't see how the population actually goes down," Mr. McDonald said. "They can't go out and say that, but I can."

Write to Josh Dawsey at JOSHUA.DAWSEY@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 20, 2016 16:28 ET (21:28 GMT)

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