Why Cuomo objects to the city on food stamps, but not on homeless-shelter requirements

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Bellevue homeless shelter. (cuttlefish, via flickr.)
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Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken a strong position against the Bloomberg administration’s efforts to fingerprint applicants for food stamps.

But the governor has been noticeably quieter on another Bloomberg administration policy intended to make access to city services more selective: the Bloomberg administration's proposal to require all individuals seeking space at a homeless shelter to prove that they have no other viable housing options. The issue is now being litigated.

While the city has been momentarily blocked from implementing those requirements for individuals, those rules are already in place for homeless families seeking admittance to shelters. And the rules may exist, in part, because of the actions of Cuomo himself.

In 1991, Cuomo headed Mayor David Dinkins' Commission on Homelessness. At the time, Cuomo was also running a nonprofit called HELP, or Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged. The commission was charged with creating recommendations for how to improve the city’s homeless services. In addition to calling for the creation of a separate agency to handle homeless services, and the inclusion of more nonprofit-run shelters, Cuomo, reported the New York Times, also “wants eligiblity standards for people to get into the shelter system and for them to earn permanent apartments. Now, anyone asking for shelter is accepted.”

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A follow-up article reported that, as per the Cuomo's commission plan, "Workers in the assessment centers would also try to determine whether the person had no other place to stay. Some Dinkins administration officials have been concerned that some families have declared themselves homeless as a way to obtain subsidized permanent housing."

The article also noted:

The commission, headed by Andrew Cuomo, would offer the homeless a richer array of services, including drug treatment, psychotherapy and job training, in smaller settings. But it would also require the homeless to take steps like enrolling in a drug-treatment program to qualify for subsidized permanent housing and it would strengthen enforcement of eligibility requirements for getting shelter, commission members said.

In August of 1993, the Times editorialized in favor of what was characterizid as a Dinkins administration proposal.

“For a decade, New York City has sheltered just about any family that said it was homeless,” wrote the editorial board. “Never in that decade has that policy worked. The system is overloaded, resources are limited, planning has been inadequate, and the truly needy often lose out to the less needy. Finally, the Dinkins administration is facing reality. It is taking a step toward improving homeless services by rationing them. Under new eligibility rules, families seeking shelter will have to prove that they truly have nowhere else to live. If they cannot, they may be turned away.

"On the surface, the more stringent policy sounds heartless. But it is not. The city cannot go on trying to help everyone including those ineligible for help. That has been a prescription for failure.”

The Times did raise some concerns about the administration’s ability to enact the new policy fairly, writing that “criteria for instituting the new rules are unclear.”

“How stern should caseworkers be in finding a family ineligible?" asked the Times. "If they are too harsh, people who really need help will be hurt, and if they are too lenient, the new policy won't do much good.”

Rudy Giuliani, with the cooperation of outgoing Governor Mario Cuomo, implemented a similar eligibility policy, and that policy has been continued by his successor, the current mayor.

The Coalition for the Homeless, which is fighting the policy's extension to individuals, recently reported that, “During the past year, the Bloomberg administration has turned away more children and families from the municipal shelter system than at any time since the City began keeping records. In the City's own terminology, last year the City deemed fewer applicant families 'eligible' for shelter than at any time before.”