Issue of the Week

Out of the Shelters, Into the Streets

By Patrick Markee

Mayor Giuliani's proposal to force homeless New Yorkers to perform workfare in exchange for shelter, and to eject those families and individuals who do not comply, flies in the face of everything we have learned over the past two decades about how to engage and help homeless people. This proposal seeks to undo the legal "right to shelter" for homeless New Yorkers which was established by court orders twenty years ago, and which has provided vital emergency shelter to more than half a million different homeless men, women, and children since 1979. The bottom line: The Mayor's plan, if enacted, will result in hundreds, if not thousands, more people sleeping rough on city streets.

A few misconceptions about the Mayor's proposal need to be addressed.

First, the issue is not about "work." Homeless public assistance recipients are already required to work under state and federal welfare reform laws, and Mayor Giuliani has been zealous about herding welfare recipients - homeless or not - into one-size-fits-all, dead-end workfare assignments. Moreover, thousands of homeless New Yorkers are already employed, but earn too little to afford New York City's exorbitant rents.

Second, the City currently has no legal authority to move forward with its plan. In 1979, the Coalition for the Homeless filed a lawsuit, Callahan v. Carey, which argued that homeless New Yorkers have a right to shelter pursuant to Article XVII of the New York State Constitution. In 1981, the City and the State settled the case by entering into a consent decree which guaranteed emergency shelter for all homeless individuals in New York City. Subsequent litigation brought by the Legal Aid Society, McCain v. Koch, extended that right to homeless families with children. Thus, to move forward with its plan, the City must receive clearance from the State Supreme Court under the Callahan consent decree; the first hearing on this proposal is scheduled for January of 2000. Moreover, the court in McCain has specifically prohibited the City from placing the children of homeless families ejected from the shelters into foster care solely because the family lacks housing.

The legacy of the right to shelter in New York City is invaluable. Each night in 1999 approximately 23,000 homeless New Yorkers, including 9,000 children, reside in the municipal shelter system. As many as one of every three homeless single adults suffers from severe mental illness, and many more are seriously ill or have other disabling conditions. These are the people most vulnerable to the harm that is inherent in Mayor Giuliani's new proposal.

Disabled welfare recipients have already suffered from inappropriate workfare assignments and losses in benefits. Earlier this year, a federal court and two federal agencies documented widespread violations of laws governing food stamps and Medicaid, including the illegal denial of emergency assistance to the homeless. Under the Giuliani proposal, individuals and families who are sanctioned by the welfare system will not only lose vital food, cash, and medical assistance - they will also be thrown out of shelters and onto the streets.

There is widespread consensus about effective solutions to modern mass homelessness. These solutions involve maintaining and strengthening a true "continuum of care," which includes the right to shelter, transitional shelter and services, and expanded investments in housing, including supportive housing with on-site services for persons with special needs. Successful initiatives like the 1990 New York/New York Agreement, a City-State program that created 5,000 units of supportive housing for homeless people with mental illness in New York City, were responsible for the extraordinary decline in homelessness in the early 1990s. Tragically, after huge cutbacks in housing programs by the Giuliani Administration and by the state and the federal government, homelessness in New York City is once again on the rise.

Mayor Giuliani's recent proposal will take New York City in the wrong direction, back to the days when homeless families and individuals were forced to sleep in the streets, in parks, and on subway trains. In the twentieth anniversary year of the legal right to shelter, New Yorkers should reject this proposal and instead preserve basic protections for its most vulnerable citizens.

Patrick Markee is Senior Policy Analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless.