Wake-up Call for Rudy

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

The problem, says Patrick Markee, a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, is that no city agency is taking on the issue of permanent housing for the homeless in any meaningful way. "The mayor has cut back capital dollars for housing—all the while the shelter population is going up," says Markee, who has analyzed each of Giuliani's six Mayor's Management Reports (MMR), annual submissions that include summaries of city spending and goals. "Permanent housing for the homeless is essential. Without it, you simply end up with a permanent homeless population."

Indeed, the number of people housed in shelters each night has grown since the mayor took office—from an average of 6219 in fiscal 1995 to 6775 in fiscal 1999. But the number of units Giuliani has built or renovated as permanent housing for the homeless has nose-dived, from nearly 2000 in fiscal 1995 to a piddling 523 in fiscal 1999. HPD sources say those numbers include as many as 240 units of "supportive housing" each year. Markee estimates that each year, about 70,000 homeless people seek permanent apartments.

Just as steadily as the number of new or renovated units has dwindled under Giuliani, so has the number of homeless families placed in permanent apartments. In fiscal 1999, only 3569 families moved into permanent homes—less than one third of the roughly 11,000 families who sought such housing. That number is the lowest in Giuliani's tenure, falling from a high of 4695 in fiscal 1996. The decline is especially striking considering that most permanent placements are primarily funded with federal and state dollars, particularly an emergency housing voucher program. But in fiscal 1999, Giuliani tried to ditch the city's share of that voucher plan—a mere $1.1 million—even though that move would have cost the city all the federal and state money as well. The City Council restored Giuliani's cut.

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

"The black-and-white numbers of the MMR show what's really happening in the shelter system," says Steve Banks, counsel for the Coalition for the Homeless. "They're funding less permanent housing, and as a result, families are languishing longer in shelters, though soon they'll be awaiting expulsion," he says, referring to the mayor's plan to kick people out of shelters for a variety of reasons, including refusal to work. "Now, they're proposing to literally throw people into the streets at the same time that police are directed to arrest people for sleeping on the streets."

The irony is not lost on Victor Rivera. "In two weeks, if we are back on the piers at the river, we'll be arrested, but we don't really have a choice," he says. He suggests that Giuliani spend a few days in the shelter system, eating the EAU's green bologna sandwiches that Jacqueline says sickened children, enduring the remarks of staffers who reminded the Riveras that "We don't need you, you need us," and spending 17-hour days waiting to be shuttled off for a night in a fleabag hotel.

"The mayor ought to spend just three days in the EAU, with no special treatment for being the mayor, but just the same way a regular Joe goes through," says Rivera. "Let him put his head on a pillow that has boogers on it, and sleep on sheets with roaches and piss."

That is unlikely to happen. More likely is that the Riveras will be arrested for sleeping on the streets. Then, they might sleep in jail. And the mayor's ever-fungible list of what constitutes an appropriate sleeping space will probably grow by one.

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