Payback Politics


For Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, revenge is apparently a form of therapy. His tirade last week against a Brooklyn psychiatric clinic— prompted by rage that the City
Council had overridden his veto on a homeless shelter bill— seems to have been an elixir for the mayor. But it is also a sickening
twist on an old adage: One man’s cure is another man’s poison.

Irate for months over council efforts to regulate and oversee his Department of Homeless Services, Giuliani vented his anger
by ordering his staff to begin the eviction process for 500 mentally ill patients who use a state-run outpatient psychiatric clinic in Cobble Hill, located in the district of Stephen DiBrienza, the councilmember who sponsored the shelter bill. Making the bogus claim that the bill would require the city to build several dozen shelters, Giuliani announced that the five-story, city-owned building at 250 Baltic Street would be the first.

“It would really be a shame, because where else would I go?” asked John Tripi, a 37-year-old Park Slope man who comes to the South Beach Psychiatric Clinic (SBPC) on Baltic Street five days a week for counseling, music therapy, and sessions with his psychiatrist. Tripi says his mother first brought him to the clinic after he suffered a nervous breakdown a dozen years ago. “The mayor’s a very strict man,” says Tripi, “but this problem is between him and the City Council, not the patients here.” A 19-year-old SBPC client who gave her name only as Havansi said she has sympathy for the homeless. “But we need this place here,” says Havansi, who first came to SBPC only two weeks ago for medication, counseling, and therapy that includes sewing classes. “They teach us how to live in the real world.”

The mayor’s antics have added to that curriculum a lesson in bald politics and bad behavior. To retaliate against a legislative body that dared exercise its will on how the city cares for more than 10,000 homeless men, women, and children, the mayor decided to disrupt a program that works unusually well in order to build something that is arguably not needed.

When the target of Giuliani’s wrath became clear, it was obvious that the bomb he had launched was not a smart one: collateral damage would be done not only to the clients of SBPC and its several arms (including a city-backed peer support group that works with mentally ill adults throughout Brooklyn), but also to the children who attend a nonprofit center called Families First, housed in the basement and first floor of 250 Baltic Street. And although not on the mayor’s eviction list, the move also spells profound disruption for a community board and a senior citizens’ group that serves 75 elderly people a week, both of which have offices in the building.

“Maybe he didn’t realize what social services were housed here,” says Families First director Linda Blyer, trying to make sense of the eviction notice she received— twice— last week. “It sure doesn’t make him look good.”

The mayor’s press office referred questions to Department of Homeless Services spokesperson Susan Wiviott, who declined to answer questions. On January 6, the City Council is expected to adopt an amendment stipulating that no existing 200-plus-bed shelter will have to shut or scale back; on January 7, tenants of 250 Baltic Street will meet with local leaders to discuss their options.

The main concern is what the mayor’s dictate means for the 500 adults who rely each week on the psychiatric clinic, which has been located in the old city health department building for at least two decades. SBPC, an outpatient clinic affiliated with an inpatient facility on Staten Island, offers social workers, psychiatrists, peer groups, and various therapies to chronically mentally ill indigent New Yorkers.

“This isn’t just a counseling center,” says state assemblymember Jim Brennan, whose district includes the Baltic Street site and who chairs the assembly’s committee on mental health. “You have to be seriously and persistently mentally ill” to use SBPC’s services. “Many of these people have been institutionalized, some for years, and this is their last resort.”

A few hours spent talking to SBPC clients on a bitter winter morning last week shows just who the victims of Giuliani’s revenge are: a middle-aged retired school teacher who is regularly debilitated by depression; a 36-year-old Bed-Stuy woman whose mania turns talents like drawing and writing poetry into bizarre stunts like impersonating Florida Evans from television’s Good Times one moment to doing a ghastly re-creation of Linda Blair’s voice in The Exorcist the next; a 70-year-old former Greyhound phone operator who came to the clinic after he was released from a three-month psychiatric-hospital stay eight years ago and who can only explain his troubles by saying, “I don’t know; I just got sick”; a 46-year-old man whose bright eyes peer out from thick lenses and who says he has just one question for the mayor: “What’s the big idea here?”

“It would create a real hardship for us getting treatment, and it’s a revenge on the patients more than anyone else,” says the man, who has been coming to the clinic every weekday since 1994 and who asked not to be identified. “We’ll be the ones who really pay.”

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.”

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.”

Late last week, the mayor’s missives to Baltic Street were coming in fast and furious— and in contradiction. The first 30-day notice to move, filed by the city on December 22, was rescinded on the afternoon of the 29th. But by the morning of the 30th, it was reinstated. In between, there was speculation that the city would give SBPC and Families First more time to move and help finding a new place. But in the end, the order to move out by January 31 remains.

Sources say the confusion from City Hall was caused by twinges of conscience within the administration— or at least the realization that the mayor had taken an ugly public stance— that were ultimately overruled by the administration’s compulsion to punish and make good on its threats.

“A few people in the administration are probably a little bit embarrassed and upset and they might have been in contact with the state” whose Office of Mental Health funds the Baltic Street clinic “and told them that they were screwing them on orders of the mayor,” says a source close to the situation. “They might have persuaded City Hall officials to say, ‘Hey, this is heavy-handed. Why don’t we rescind the eviction and say they don’t have to leave by January 31, but we’ll work with them to leave later?’ . . . But finally [deputy mayor Joe] Lhota overrode that, and they decided to plunge forward.”

The confusion has left state mental health officials saying only that they extend “assurances that, however this plays out, we will continue to offer services.” On Baltic Street, one source described being in a position not unlike that of a negotiator in a hostage taking:

“We’re really not saying much because we want to give the mayor room to get out of this gracefully. But we’re terrified to provoke him, and that then, he won’t move at all. It’s such a horrible double-whammy.”