The cost-effectiveness here is hard to beat: It costs about $36,000 a year to keep a family in a city shelter. The eviction-prevention effort runs about $750 apiece. In a letter to Governor Paterson, the five groups that administer the program pointed out that even if only half of the families they kept in their homes had wound up in shelters for just nine months, it would cost the government some $90 million.

"Our batting average is about 99 percent," says Carolyn McLaughlin, executive director of the Citizens Advice Bureau on Morris Avenue in the Bronx. "The landlords generally want the money more than the eviction, and tenants can't get access to the state rental money without our help."

The Queens Community House in Forest Hills, which also participates in the program, reports a 20 percent surge in recent months in the number of tenants seeking help because of mortgage foreclosures.

Feel the chill: Bloomberg
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Feel the chill: Bloomberg

"We're getting a lot of people being forced out of legal and illegal apartments because of the mortgage crisis," says Irma Rodriguez, the group's executive director.

Aides to Robert Hess, the city's commissioner for Homeless Services, said he was unavailable last week to discuss the city's efforts. But a spokesman sent an e-mail stating that city officials had "worked closely with the governor's office to ensure they knew the importance of the [homeless prevention] program to both the city and the state." Meanwhile, state legislators say they're hopeful that Paterson is restoring the funds, using the state's share of federal stimulus money.

One of the things that kept the homeless crisis in the public eye in the 1980s was that families were lodged at midtown hotels, where editors and producers couldn't avoid seeing them. Mothers and children were boarded in expensive and appalling rooms at the Hotel Carter, for instance, directly across West 43rd Street from the old offices of The New York Times. Hundreds of others slept at the Hotel Martinique in Herald Square, where commuters and shoppers couldn't miss them. These days, shelters are dispersed in the outer boroughs.

Maybe the smarter demand should be that they be brought back where everyone can see how much bigger the problem is today.

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