Wake-up Call for Rudy

If Bedrooms Are for Sleeping, Why Won’t the Mayor Build More?

It's official: Under the reign of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, all sleeping is to be done in bedrooms. The mayor laid down that edict on November 19 when he announced that homeless people who sleep on the street risk arrest. "Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there," spat the mayor, who himself lives in a mansion with no fewer than five bedrooms. "Bedrooms are for sleeping."

But an analysis of the Giuliani administration's spending to produce housing—that is, bedrooms—for the poor and homeless shows that the mayor has profoundly shortchanged them, forcing New Yorkers to turn parlors, kitchens, and even hallways into dormitories. And when bunking down on a floor is the only alternative to entering a city shelter, that apparently suits the mayor just fine.

"We've been rejected from the shelters six times," says Victor Rivera, 38, who with his wife and three children has been homeless since July. An earlier workplace injury took Rivera off his job as a radiology technician at Bellevue Hospital; he fell behind on the $600-a-month rent for his four-bedroom New Jersey apartment and was evicted four months ago. Since then, Rivera has returned to his job, but he's also slept on park benches, at the home of a friend, and on his mother's floor. "The city told me that I can go live with my mother."

Jacqueline and Victor Rivera were turned away from city shelters.
photo: Edwin Seymour
Jacqueline and Victor Rivera were turned away from city shelters.

Rivera had already tried that. But with three relatives living in his mother's one-bedroom public-housing unit on the Lower East Side, Rivera's family brought the census to nine. And, mayoral dictates aside, not everyone could sleep in the bedroom, which Rivera's 64-year-old mother shared with a nephew, a son, and a niece, leaving the sleeper couch to Rivera's two boys, ages 12 and 13, and his 11-year-old daughter. Victor and his wife, Jacqueline, slept on the front-room floor.

The crowding was too much. The Riveras sent the boys to live with a relative in Brooklyn; and their daughter to another in Manhattan. Victor and Jacqueline began sleeping on benches along the East River near South Street. When the weather got cold in October, they applied for shelter at the city's infamous Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in the South Bronx (another nonbedroom spot where Giuliani considered it appropriate for homeless families to sleep, on chairs and floors, until a city ordinance forced his administration to end that practice this summer).

From the EAU, the Riveras were occasionally sent to spend the night in a bug-infested Harlem hotel until they were officially rejected for residence in city shelters in November because they have income (about $1200 a month from Victor's job) and options (his mother's apartment). They've looked at dozens of apartments, but have found nothing that fits both their budget and their family size. For the moment, Victor and Jacqueline are staying at a friend's East New York apartment, but that arrangement will end just before Christmas, when the friend's family returns from vacation. Then, the Riveras fear, they may have to resort to the riverfront benches.

"It just makes you feel so bad," says Rivera, speaking in the X-ray development room at Bellevue, the same hospital where Nicole Barrett is recovering from a brick attack by an allegedly homeless man that sparked the mayor's most recent round of vengeance. "I'm a vet who served six years. I've worked for the city for 16 years, and I've never asked for a penny. One time I need help from the city to get back on my feet, but they give me nothing."

Indeed, when it comes to building or renovating affordable housing, and especially permanent housing for the homeless, the mayor has given as close to nothing as possible. Since Giuliani took office in 1994, the city's capital budget to build or renovate housing has dwindled to a mere $306.82 million—less than the $407.04 David Dinkins spent, and not even half the $717.35 million allocated during Ed Koch's third term. Not only has Giuliani slashed capital dollars for housing (spending only 5.6 percent of the capital budget on new and renovated housing, compared to 10.7 percent under Dinkins and 12.5 percent under Koch's last term), he has done so during a time of unprecedented surplus. Koch and Dinkins managed to eke out more housing dollars than Giuliani with average surpluses of about $360 million. But in fiscal 1999, when the city swam in a $2.6 billion surplus, Giuliani cut money for permanent housing for the poor, especially the homeless.

The mayor's press office did not return calls for this story. But an official at the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) acknowledges that the number of apartments for the homeless has fallen off, citing two reasons: The city no longer owns a huge inventory of abandoned property to restore for the homeless, and the agency's focus has shifted to preventing such abandonment. "Our role here is to stop buildings from becoming unavailable to poor people by intervening with an owner to help perhaps replace a boiler system or remove violations," says the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The broader things about housing the homeless are for other people in the administration to deal with. I'm not saying that these other things are not issues. But HPD can't take it all on."

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets