Last week the Bloomberg administration announced new eligibility rules that would make it harder for homeless people to get into city shelters, a cost-cutting measure astutely timed to coincide with the approach of winter. After a major outcry by homeless advocates and city council members including Speaker Christine Quinn, the city agreed last night to delay the measure pending a court review on December 9th.
Under the policy, originally set to go into effect next week, the city could refuse someone a bed at a shelter unless they proved they had no other housing options, such as staying with relatives or friends. Department of Homeless Services commissioner Seth Diamond claimed the new eligibility guidelines would prevent people who have alternatives to the shelter (like a princely spot on someone's floor) from filling up space reserved for the chronically homeless. Critics pointed out that redefining what counts as "homeless" and throwing bureaucratic obstacles at people in desperate financial straits is not the same thing as actually combatting homelessness.
Council member Annabel Palma and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn slammed the policy in a joint statement, saying it is, "cruel, risky, unacceptable, and will not reduce homelessness in the city of New York. Denying people shelter because they have found another option for some period of time is punishing people for trying to do the right thing."
"The recession has had a real effect on unemployment and on people's ability to stay in their homes -- our charge is to find ways to help these people -- not to send them into the streets with nowhere to turn to for help," the statement continued. The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless vowed to fight the new guidelines in court, claiming they violate a three-decade old decree established by the court case Callahan v. Carey guaranteeing the availability of shelter for the homeless.
Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement in response to the city's temporary hold, "Today's agreement is a welcome reprieve from the mayor's dangerous proposal that would have meant more homeless sleeping in the streets and the subways this winter. Instead of erecting barriers to shelter, the Bloomberg administration should focus on reducing the record levels of homelessness in New York City."
New poverty stats out this week highlight, yet again, that this is not the time to cut vital services that help America's neediest. Forty-nine million people are living below the poverty line, according to a census report released Monday that used a more sophisticated gauge of economic hardship to measure poverty rates. Homelessness rates lag slightly behind increases in poverty for obvious reasons -- living on the street is usually a last resort -- but the Alliance to End Homelessness predicted in September that rising poverty rates would increase homelessness by 5 percent, or 74,000 more people.
"The lingering effects of the recession have pushed more and more Americans into precarious financial situations" they wrote. "Perhaps the most ominous indicator with respect to homelessness is the continuing rise in deep poverty." (Their projections were based on a lower poverty rate than that found in the most recent census statistics).
Meanwhile, a report by Coalition for the Homeless released Wednesday found that the numbers of unhoused New Yorkers have shot up to their highest in three decades -- 41,000 adults and kids sleeping in shelters -- according to data analyzed by the group's researchers. The Coalition points out that the Bloomberg administration's decision last spring to eliminate housing assistance programs for homeless families has not helped matters.
In its initial arguments for the measure -- which may be echoed when it comes up for review in December -- the administration claimed that stricter eligibility rules would allow it to do a better job of helping the chronically homeless. But homelessness advocates pointed out that the policy may have the opposite effect, casting the city's neediest into the streets.
"It's an unbelievably dangerous policy that will result in vulnerable New Yorkers being denied emergency shelter. With the winter cold, sleeping on the streets can be a matter of life and death," Patrick Markee, senior policy researcher at Coalition for the Homeless, told AlterNet.
"It's just a new mechanism by which the city can deny shelter, even when there's not evidence these people have options," he continued.
A report prepared by the City Council ahead of a Wednesday hearing on the measure laid out the process that would be used to determine eligibility. Applicants have to fill out papers and undergo a two-hour interview, detailing their housing history for the past two years, which could be tough for people living on the street, as Markee points out. The added bureaucracy could discourage the mentally ill or people with substance abuse problems from applying. Applicants deemed uncooperative can be disqualified. A letter from an applicant's family stating that they are not, in fact, willing to take them in, does not constitute proof of need.
Similar eligibility requirements have been in place for unhoused families for years -- long enough for housing advocates to study the impact of the policy. The results are not impressive, according to the city's report, which says DHS regularly fails to accurately assess whether families have viable alternatives to the shelter. Families denied access to homeless facilities often ended up reapplying, suggesting that they did not have anywhere else to go.
That does not bode well for the new rules, which are just the latest in a long string of controversial homelessness policies initiated by the Bloomberg administration; others include making people pay rent to stay at a shelter and eliminating housing vouchers for homeless families.
"More New Yorkers have experienced homelessness under Bloomberg than any mayor since homelessness began," said Markee, calling the administration's policies "An absolute and historic failure."