Why NYC homeless policies are a mess — NYPOST.com
By MICHAEL BENJAMIN Last Updated: 3:16 AM, November 14, 2011
Last week, the city placed on hold a new eligibility policy for screening single adults seeking shelter at homeless intake centers, a policy that sought to screen out those who have access to other housing alternatives. The reform was shelved not because it’s immoral, as some hysterics would have you believe. It was shelved because it violated the Callaghan consent decree, which requires court approval of any change in homeless policy by the city.
Callahan, written by an activist judge, has for 30 years saddled New York with a unique responsibility: No other city in America must provide shelter to any person who presents himself as homeless and in need “by reason of physical, mental, or social dysfunction.”
The homeless agency is the city’s toughest system to manage. Its clients are hard to handle and a public-relations nightmare. They are homeless women and children, ex-cons, substance abusers and the mentally ill. In this stagnant economy their numbers continue to rise. The number of New Yorkers seeking shelter has grown steadily and now exceeds 40,000.
The City Council grandstands in pretending to oppose a policy it helped create. Not a single councilmember wants a shelter in his/her district. When it comes to the siting of homeless shelters, each morphs into Councilmember NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).
For six months this year, I ran an adult men’s shelter; I can attest to the inherent difficulties. The men seeking shelter range from the highly functional to borderline personalities to the violently schizophrenic. Some receive public assistance and Social Security Disability, some work low-wage jobs; others are out-of-work managers, laborers, messengers, ex-cons and even PhDs.
A sizeable proportion of them have been put out by spouses, girlfriends, mothers, friends and other relatives. And therein lays the city’s problem.
Shelter workers know that some “clients” may have other housing options but many have burned those bridges. Presumably, they became too difficult to live with due to domestic violence, psychological problems, thievery, alcoholism and drug addiction, sex offender status, etc.
The city’s shelter system is the safety net for a group of people who are essentially social outcasts. Those persons should have priority. New York City can’t afford to provide housing assistance to every homeless single adult.
Homelessness in NYC is a problem without a court-mandated solution. In an effort to catch up with a growing homeless population, the city is constantly chasing its tail. Round and round they go, with no obvious end in sight.
Research shows that homelessness occurs in places where zoning rules and other regulations make building housing difficult and where housing costs more. Eliminating rent control, encouraging more outer-borough construction, building more supportive housing units and creating an environment attractive to employers are the best anti-homelessness policies to pursue.
The biggest losers in the city’s capitulation to the homeless advocates are taxpayers (and taxpaying city workers who will be laid off) footing the bill to shelter more people, many of whom have other viable options.
The city should move to vacate Callaghan and work with the Cuomo administration to devise a shelter policy that is rational, cost-effective and serves the truly needy.
Michael Benjamin
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