Payback Politics

People in need pay the price for Rudy's revenge

The former teacher, who also did not want to be identified for fear her neighbors would learn of her illness, has relied on the Baltic Street center since 1983. It's worth the two-bus journey she has to make from her Red Hook home to get there. "I'm very happy with my present doctor and I wouldn't trade him for anything," she says. "I have depression. It's just something you can't control. But if you take your medicine and have a good place to come like this, it's ok." When she is able— as she is these days— this teacher with 15 years experience volunteers two half-days a week tutoring special-ed kids from kindergarten to sixth grade. "What I put into those two days is like a week," she says proudly. The mayor's plans for her clinic have left her baffled. "No offense," she says, "but couldn't he find another place for the shelter?"

Not all of the clinic's clients are as able as the teacher. "These are not high-functioning people," says Herb Carlinsky, who was leaving the clinic after interviewing for a computer job there (one of the first points made in the interview, he says, was that the mayor's plans had thrown SBPC's future into chaos). Carlinsky has never been an SBPC client, but says he has struggled with his own mental illness and used similar facilities. He knows their importance.

"Places like this are what keep people from staying at home in bed under the covers or getting out there and living a life and getting to work," says Carlinsky, whose anxiety panic disorders still trouble him; he lives in a Bensonhurst group home. "The mayor spoke like an idiot. How can he chase these people out? He's become like a dictator who won't discuss things with people. You just can't do that. We have enough to deal with without instability" like having a clinic move. "You can't be a bully. These are human beings."

The mayor himself was not uniformly unpopular among the clinic clients, and though all were shaken by his threat to their care, some said he'd been good for the city, or called him bright. Others were neutral— one man did not seem to recognize the name Rudy Giuliani— and others simply never liked him.

"He's a born jerk," says Steve Collins, who was at the clinic to pick up medicine for his wife's depression. "These guys don't practice politics anymore; they're just thugs."

The former Greyhound employee, however, is something of a fan. "I like Giuliani," says the man, smoking a cigarette outside the clinic. "I think he's smart. But this? This is crazy."

Last week's media coverage of Giuliani's Baltic Street attack pinned the mayor's rage to the council's approval of a bill he had twice vetoed. While the bill certainly triggered the mayor's ire, it was by no means the starting point. For years, the mayor— and mayors before him— have been battling over how the city shelters homeless people. The most recent flashpoint was whether there should be a 200-person limit in shelters.

In the 1980s, several shelters for homeless adults were set up in armories with upwards of 1000 beds. They became breeding grounds for illness, crime, and even murder. By 1984, state regulations said that no more than 200 single adults could be housed at any shelter, a number politicians and advocates for the homeless say is fair to communities and safe for the sheltered. But in spring of 1997, Giuliani asked Governor George Pataki to withdraw the limit, and the governor obliged.

Since then, the City Council has been trying to adopt the 200-bed limit as city law and to exert more control over shelter policy. On June 24, the council passed a bill with shelter limits and several other provisions; exactly one month later, the mayor vetoed it. The council rewrote the bill to address some of the mayor's objections, and on November 17, passed another version. Giuliani vetoed that measure on December 7. But 10 days later, the council overrode the veto with a 36-to-8 vote, and it became law.

In the December round, Giuliani argued that the bill would force the city to close six of its seven shelters with more than 200 beds. Anticipating that objection, the council exempted existing shelters from the 200-bed limit. But the mayor disputed whether the final version accomplished that, and threatened councilmembers who voted against his veto that they should be prepared to have him open new shelters— as many as 25— in their districts.

The mayor issued a list of 33 city-owned locations described as "immediately available" for use as shelters. Twenty-two of the locations are in Brooklyn; five of them in DiBrienza's district. But the first— and so far only— groups to get a notice saying they must move out within 30 days or face eviction are the SBPC and Families First, at 250 Baltic Street.

"What we did was reinstate the 200-bed limit for future shelters," says DiBrienza. "And we overrode his veto, but we went the extra mile and offered the olive branch, given the season that we're in," by grandfathering existing shelters. "It was so crystal clear that they could keep operating, it was so A-B-C, my five-year-old would understand it."

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