With the general election just weeks away, homelessness features highly in the campaign. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a significant political problem on the issue: Homelessness is at record highs, having increased significantly, as much as 25 percent, during his term. A new study (in pdf) by the Vera Institute, commissioned by the city, sheds new light on homelessness in the city. But policy changes that Bloomberg's deputies have implemented appear to have done little. Now, advocates are considering how a Fernando Ferrer administration might address the problem.
Although Ferrer's campaign has released a plan to build considerably more affordable housing than Bloomberg has committed the city to build, which is the long-term solution many agree, homeless people are more immediately affected by the city's homeless assistance policies. And under Bloomberg, advocates have seen a continuation of the recalcitrance that marked the years of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Under Giuliani, the city had to be forced by court order to implement even the most basic improvements to the city's homeless shelters and homeless policies. Giuliani's departure opened a door for Bloomberg and advocates to call a truce to litigation that had led to 52 court orders over more than two decades. A special master's panel was created to review the city's homeless policies and make recommendations.
But late last year, that truce unraveled. Among other things, the city introduced a new housing subsidy that is full of giveaways to landlords, in the eyes of many advocates, and is forcing low-income New Yorkers into rundown apartments with mice and vermin and other violations of the city's Housing Maintenance Code.
It was obvious the truce was dead last month: The city and advocates were back in court as the city sought to deny shelter to people that the city deems ineligible -- in other words, people the city does not consider homeless. Both sides claimed victory after Justice Helen Freedman decided the city could deny some people shelter, but only after assuring the people had housing of some sort.
The problem with the city's new policy is simple: The city regularly makes mistakes when it reviews people for eligibility. In its submission to the court last month, attorneys for the Legal Aid Society showed that even at the city's new and improved intake center, families are mistakenly found to be ineligible.
Anyone who has been to a "job center" (the new name given to welfare offices) can vouch for the rigor and attention caseworkers give to people's cases: Those aren't among their strengths. As I assisted a single mother with three children in a center one day, a copy of the application was riddled with errors. Everything from birth dates for the children to the home telephone number was wrong.
Revealing these errors is not as easy as it may appear, either. People seeking the help are at a distinct disadvantage when any disputes arise between themselves and caseworkers. Pointing out errors is a delicate matter, particularly to caseworkers who are obviously overworked and, probably, underpaid. Some advocates insist that that combination is strategic on the part of the city. One city official told me that homelessness was not nearly as problematic as advocates make it out to be.
The court date last month is hardly the last for advocates and the city. Bloomberg has made it clear that he hopes to eliminate the court orders that partly govern the city's homeless policies, though he has not said it in exactly those words.
"That's the way they're spinning it," said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. "The mayor has said he wants to 'end the litigation.' They really want to eliminate the court orders."
How a Ferrer administration would handle these issues is unclear. But Bloomberg's latest turn to limit access to city shelters by deeming people ineligible is not winning him support among housing advocates.
In 1996, Giuliani did the same thing, Markee pointed out (the court stopped the practice after about a month). It led to a temporary dip in the numbers of people in shelters. That could win Bloomberg political points among people who would look only at the bottom line: How many people are in city shelters and what is the trend? That's generally what appears in newspaper headlines and the sound bites on TV news, but it really says (and does) very little about the daily nightmare homeless people experience.
"If you make it harder to get shelter, then sure, you'll have fewer people applying," Markee said. "They would like to be able to deny shelter because it's a dollars and cents issue. If they could close the door, they'd save money."
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â