The Mayor’s Empty Words

New York Times | June 9, 1994

By Mary Brosnahan

Hearing Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani preach his gospel of homelessness and “mutual responsibility”, one is struck by its narcotic effect on audiences. Many of us would like to believe, it seems, that the homeless are homeless largely because they refuse to help themselves. Wouldn’t it be easier to pass scores of beggars each day, or read about families sleeping in welfare offices, if we knew that they were there not because of economic forces but because they refused to enroll in a drug treatment or job training program?

The Mayor’s new plan would compel homeless people to sign “independent living plans” to “assist them in resolving their crises and in moving towards independent living.” Never mind that it is almost impossible to place homeless people in effective drug treatment because there are no available beds – and that scores of beds in these programs are occupied by people who have completed treatment but cannot leave because they have no housing. The major flaw in the Mayor’s proposal is the lack of resources committed to getting people up and out of the obscenely
expensive shelter system.

A glance at the final page of this plan reveals that in the 1995 fiscal year a mere 331 housing placements will be made available to single homeless adults in the municipal shelter system. If the Mayor is correct that one-third of the 6,400 single residents of shelters are already participating in such programs, we are about 1,800 units short of housing for people who are, or will soon be, ready to leave.

The plan also calls for reaching out to more mentally ill New Yorkers who are homeless. But more than 2,000 such people are already on waiting lists for housing with the necessary social-service support. What good is more outreach if the housing is not available?

Implications for families are equally ominous. The Mayor indicates that if homeless parents refuse to¬† sign “independent living plans,” or do not comply with them, the city will take away their children and boot the parents onto the street. The families af’fected by such measures are, of course, the most in need of extra help. Tossing the kids into foster care – at a cost of $50,000 a year – and leaving the parents to fend for themselves writes these families off permanently.

Our own rental-assistance and job training programs make clear that if given a chance to enter a legitimate program linked with permanent housing options, homeless people will uphold their end of the social contract. And most of them will not hesitate to seize rational alternatives to get out of the shelters. The ques!ion becomes: How do we increase those rational options and link them to what they Mayor and others call a “continuum of care”? How can we taxpayers bankroll our half of the mutual responsibility contract?

Certain fundamental obligations must be recognized, from preventing homelessness through treatment and permanent housing. At the prevention end of the continuum, the administration’s proposal to cut $2.4 million from civil legal services to help keep families together is particularly shortsighted. A New York State study has found that those programs save $4 in averted shelter costs for every dollar spent on prevention.

Most important, we must redouble our commitment to getting people into decent permanent housing. The $95 million budgeted for the construction of new shelters should be redirected toward permanent housing with supportive services.

At the very moment when the Federal Government is finally recognizing both the scope and complexity of
this crisis, Mr. Giuliani is in retreat. New Yorkers, whether homeless or not, deserve much better.

 
 
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