Payback Politics

People in need pay the price for Rudy's revenge

If anything is driving a need for more shelters, says Assemblyman Brennan, it is the fact that the city is closing two large facilities: the 107-bed women's shelter in the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, and the 850-bed shelter for men on the campus of Bellevue Hospital. Indeed, after a few days of bluster, even the mayor changed his tune, saying that only five or fewer shelters would have to be built. But 250 Baltic Street would remain the first. SBPC and Families First must move out by January 31.

While the 200-bed limit seemed to be the focus of the mayor's objections, what more likely unnerved him was the council's repeated efforts to take away some of his control over the Department of Homeless Services. DHS was founded in 1993 as a temporary mayoral agency; the council's bill made it permanent, moved it to the Department of Social Services, and required, among other things, that its staff file quarterly reports with the council and provide case management to homeless people. The mayor dismissed the reporting as "burdensome and unnecessary"— repeating language he had used in his July veto message.

"Unfortunately for this administration, there are three branches of government, not one," says Steven Banks, a Legal Aid lawyer who has been litigating with the city over its homeless policy for 15 years. "Fortunately for citizens, however, there is another coequal branch."

Indeed, one area of homelessness policy that troubled DiBrienza, who chairs the council's general welfare committee, is the city's Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) on 151st Street in the Bronx. For years, the EAU has been a notorious nightmare where women and children seeking shelter are regularly housed overnight, sleeping on floors, at desks, in office chairs. The practice did not originate with the Giuliani administration. In 1986, an appellate court rule forced the Koch administration to stop housing people in the EAU office. It did, but former mayor David Dinkins resumed the practice during severe budget cuts and shelter shortage; in 1992, a state supreme court judge held that administration in contempt. In 1996, the same judge found the Giuliani administration in contempt on the same issue, and one year later, an appellate panel upheld the contempt order.

Under court order, the city is fined when a family spends more than 24 hours at the EAU. In vetoing the council bill, Giuliani argued that his administration is in compliance because families are typically moved from the EAU within 16 hours. But that still means they sometimes sleep there, says Banks. Worse, he says, the city "churns" applicants by bouncing them for days between the EAU and temporary shelter in a policy designed to thwart homeless women and children from seeking shelter. "Children sleep on the floor overnight before they even get to shelter," says Banks. "It's a brutal application process, and it's a key element of keeping needy families from seeking assistance."

Banks argues that Giuliani's plan has worked: in fiscal 1997, there was an average of 5325 families in the shelter system; in fiscal 1998, the number dropped to about 4500. "The drop is because of the churning process at the EAU, where families have been squeezed out back into horribly tripled-up housing conditions, which are only one fire or one child-welfare tragedy away from being a screaming headline."

The law passed by the council requires that families who stay at the EAU overnight must be provided "with a private, self-contained, lockable sleeping room." Says Banks, "Now you have both the judicial branch of government and the legislature saying that housing children on the floors of a city office is intolerable."

Given Giuliani's track record, Banks thinks the mayor's recent rant about building more shelters "rings quite hollow. And the tragic irony of the administration's plan is that experts have consistently agreed that mentally ill people become homeless because of disruption in their lives. Yet this plan would create a major disruption in the lives of 500 Brooklyn residents, with the predictable result that certain numbers of them will end up in the shelter system because of this."

But politics, not policy, is the driving force here. Giuliani has not been shy about his disdain for the homeless; in August, the mayor remarked to Newsday, "Sometimes, people who are homeless are criminals, they're dangerous. The homeless had been romanticized." Nor does he keep his dislike for DiBrienza a secret. The rift between the two men has roots outside issues of homelessness.

"My committee, and the whole council, have arguably been the biggest critical voices and I guess that upsets this administration and this mayor," says DiBrienza. "I fought long and hard on weekly recycling, and he opposed it. I was critical of his HIV policies, and [then Manhattan councilmember] Tom Duane and I moved to save the Division of Aids Services in the face of the administration's repeated attempts to dismantle it. In the area of workfare, my committee has repeatedly criticized the administration for basically creating a situation where people have no hope of being hired by the private sector. What this administration has done is move people from welfare to permanent workfare."

The fallout has fallen smack in the middle of DiBrienza's district, directly onto Baltic Street. Said one worker there, "Life under Good King Rudy is pretty tough, especially for peons like us."

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