A Dinkins-Giuliani aide defends the Bloomberg administration’s homeless-shelter proposal

Bellevue homeless shelter. (cuttlefish, via flickr.)
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Amid mounting opposition to the Bloomberg administration’s proposed change to eligibility rules for admittance to homeless shelters, a former Department of Homeless Services commissioner is speaking out on the mayor’s behalf.

The policy in question, available here, puts up new barriers for single individuals seeking shelter at homeless intake centers, by requiring those individuals to demonstrate that they have no access to other safe, viable housing options. Yesterday afternoon, a state Supreme Court judge in Manhattan reached an agreement with homeless advocates and the city to put off implementation of the new policy until it can be reviewed further. The next court date is set for December 9.

Fifteen years ago, a similar policy was applied to homeless families.

“It’s disappointing though not surprising to me to hear the same old rhetoric from Legal Aid and Coalition for the Homeless that this is going to deny people their rights, when we know from experience that that isn’t the case,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, who began working on homeless policy for the city under David Dinkins and then continued under Rudy Giuliani, ultimately becoming a first deputy commissioner and then acting commissioner of the agency.

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Giuliani's homeless policies were controversial. Rosenblatt is now executive director of a homeless services organization called Bowery Residents' Committee.

The new policy has angered the homeless-advocacy groups Rosenblatt referred to (among many others) in part because homeless families and homeless individuals are very different populations. Homeless individuals are known to have high rates of mental illness, and are also known to rely for shelter on informal networks of friends and relatives, in addition to actual New York City shelters. By requiring homeless individuals to rely exclusively on friends and family, the city may inadvertently put too much pressure on those other housing options.

"Whatever else you think about it being infantilizing or aggressively suspicious, it may just be bad policy, because it corrupts or potentially corrupts an informal system of support whose own viability depended in part on the shelter being there as a necessary safety net," said Kim Hopper, a professor at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "Without that net, other folks may begin to think twice about doing their part."

On Wednesday, the City Council held a very contentious hearing on the matter. Speaker Christine Quinn, normally a reliable Bloomberg ally, and the Cuomo administration have joined the fray.

In a Nov. 9 letter from New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance executive deputy commissioner Elizabeth Berlin to city D.H.S. Commissioner Seth Diamond, Berlin sought to contradict Diamond’s assertion that the the state had approved the new eligibility procedure.

“Any suggestion that the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (“OTDA” ) approved the New York City Department of Homeless Services (“DHS”) proposed shelter eligibility procedure for single homeless adults is inaccurate,” she wrote. “OTDA has not commented on the substantive merits of the proposed change, but instead determined that the proposal was not inconsistent with State law.”

More to the point, Berlin wrote that she has “has serious concerns that DHS failed to submit this proposal to the New York Supreme Court for review. For over thirty years, such a review process has been DHS’s practice when making a policy change relating to the Callahan Consent Decree.[1] Given DHS’s failure to share this policy with the Court, OTDA finds the November 14th implementation date – a mere ten days after the policy change was announced – to be completely unreasonable and is not supported by the State.”

ODTA did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Nor, for that matter, did a spokeswoman for Diamond.

The Callahan Consent Decree, dating back to 1981, requires the city to provide shelter to homeless men.  (Callahan, the decree's namesake, died on the streets before it was signed.)

But Rosenblatt counters that given budgetary limitations, those who show up at homeless shelters who do indeed have other viable options should use them.

“It’s a big if, but it’s a question that has to be asked,” said Rosenblatt. “If there are people who know you better, places that know you better, and they’re safe, and they want to help you and can help you, that is the best place for you to be.”

(Patrick Markee, spokesman for the Coalition, countered, “I have never met in 15 years of doing this somebody who had a viable better housing option who decided to go over to the Bellevue’s men’s shelter instead.”)

“I just don’t start from the premise, as it seems that others are, that by trying to be more thoughtful and rational with the policy, to make sure those that truly need it get it, is coming from an objective of abridging the right," said Rosenblatt.

Rosenblatt, whose organization gets about 45 percent of its funding from the city, also took aim at the Coalition’s assertion that the record number of homeless people in New York City shelters is due to the administration’s failures on homelessness policy.

“Poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental illness are unfortunate, tragic but very real symptoms of the human existence,” said Rosenblatt, who also said that there has never been a mayor who has not been demonized for his homeless policies. “Is it horrible that, as the Journal reported, that we have 40,000 people living in shelters? Of course. It’s a horrible statement on where we are as a society today, but on the other hand, thank god we have places for those 40,000 people to be.”