In a transparent effort to appease upstate Republicans angry about the city’s management of a camp for the homeless located in suburban Orange County, the Giuliani administration has quietly reversed its position on a five-year-old lawsuit, agreeing to expensive security protocols it does not impose in any of its 38 other shelters.
The turnabout occurred after Rudy Giuliani’s appearance at an Orange County Republican dinner on April 6 was boycotted by two local Republicans—County Executive Joseph Rampe and Town of Blooming Grove supervisor Katherine Bonelli—both of whom have been suing the city about conditions at the camp since Giuliani took office in 1994. Homeless advocates are concerned that the concessions—which range from fencing in the entire 360-acre camp to NYPD supervision of a dramatically increased security force—may turn the city’s largest shelter “into a prison.”
Bonelli told the Voice that, because of the long-standing litigation, Giuliani “can’t say he didn’t know” about the problems camp residents have been causing in the surrounding communities, adding that “the first time he came to our county, he came for political reasons, not to address the issues of the camp.” Nonetheless, local Republicans expect action now, precisely because of the mayor’s new statewide senate ambitions.
At the mayor’s direction, Corporation Counsel Michael Hess led a seven-member delegation of top city officials on a highly unusual trip upstate on May 5, holding separate meetings with attorneys for the county and town, as well as lunching at the GOP headquarters there with party leaders and others concerned about the camp.
Surrounded by miniature elephant statues and I Love Newt signs, Hess and his entourage, including Homeless Services Commissioner Marty Oesterreich and Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Sheirer, announced a series of concessions at the party session. In an hour-long meeting chaired by the same county leader who invited the mayor to the April dinner, John Hicks, and including 10 local Republican leaders or their representatives, the city officials said they were taking steps, such as rigorous warrant checks before placing homeless at the camp, that Hess’s office had previously rejected in court papers as illegal.
The gist of the county complaint, first asserted in a 1994 filing, is that the city has used the facility—which is called Camp LaGuardia and houses up to a thousand homeless men—as a “dumping ground” for residents who are “criminal and dangerous.” These men are “allowed to leave” the camp “to harass and annoy” people in Blooming Grove, Chester, and other towns, according to the lawsuit.
The Giuliani administration employed every imaginable legal tactic against the suits until recently—seeking a change of venue from Orange County, fighting the depositions of city employees, appealing a lower court loss, and filing a 1998 motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal. It has also significantly increased the number of men bused to the camp, raising the average daily population from 770 men during the Dinkins administration to 925 last fiscal year.
But County Attorney Richard Golden says “there’s been a remarkable reversal” in the city’s position since the mayor’s campaign appearance. “It’s very atypical for corporation counsel to be involved this personally on any litigation and he has done so at the request of the mayor. They have been very cooperative and eager to find a way in which they can address the concerns of Orange County. The best word to describe the city’s initial response to this lawsuit is complete indifference. That has changed 180 degrees.”
Golden’s assessment is in stark contrast to his contention in a November brief that the city was treating Orange County as if it were “a Scrooge-like NIMBY attempting to interfere for its own selfish reasons with the munificent charitable work conducted by the city at Camp LaGuardia.”
Indeed, city attorneys argued it was “abundantly clear” that the county was trying “to affect adversely the interests of the homeless” by “violating their civil rights.” Observing that the county sought “to limit the ability of Camp LaGuardia residents to leave and reenter Camp LaGuardia,” a city attorney countered that “homeless individuals have various rights, which must be recognized,” citing prior court decisions.
A December 11, 1997, city brief flatly contended that, “contrary” to the county’s “assertions,” a “warrant check cannot be done as a condition of granting shelter to a homeless person.” Yet Sheirer, who is chief of staff to Police Commissioner Howard Safir, announced at the Hess meeting that the department had instituted a system of wide-ranging warrant checks “in the last three weeks.” He said the checks were not just of felonies, but of misdemeanors. “We’re going to have an NYPD person, either on loan to DHS or assigned to us with an online computer” at the Bellevue facility in Manhattan, where homeless are assigned to the camp, promised Sheirer, and he is “going to be able to check each person” sent to LaGuardia.
As recently as November 6, 1998, a city attorney claimed in a letter to the county that “many of the warrants” for LaGuardia residents were so minor that they “involved failure to perform community service or to pay a fine or surcharge.” The city also deposed Orange County sheriff Frank Bigger to elicit testimony that “police officers under his command” made virtually no arrests of LaGuardia residents, a contention buttressed by a recent New York Times story by Nina Bernstein, which said that town police “could recall no serious crime against a local resident by a LaGuardia man.”
Indeed Bernstein found that the most alarming incidents involving LaGuardia residents were three separate accidents when they’d been run down and killed trying to cross local highways, and one example of the harassment directed at them, namely a successful $30,000 lawsuit brought by a homeless man who was arrested under an open-container law for drinking a Sprite. Nonetheless, Giuliani was moved to act in April when he met with opponents of the camp before the party dinner, and one Republican activist who lives near the camp, Susan McCabe, produced thousands of index cards supposedly documenting the misdeeds of camp residents in the neighborhood.
McCabe has complained bitterly about instances of public masturbation and other disorderly conduct, writing Governor Pataki that “it’s sad to say” that what’s accepted “as normal behavior in NYC has now become accepted in Orange County.” She’s also complained about Giuliani’s failure to respond to certified letters she sent him, but she, like the rest of the local opponents, is quite happy now.
In addition to the fence and intense warrant checks, NYPD is, according to Sheirer, “in the process of identifying a police superior officer who will act as the security director for DHS,” as well as “a retired or active NYPD supervisor or state police supervisor to serve as the director of security physically at Camp LaGuardia.” While security services are contracted out to private companies in every other city shelter, DHS has agreed to keep city “peace officers with the power to make arrests” at LaGuardia, a pivotal issue to local activists. Oesterreich said DHS would also increase the security force from 32 to 54.
A curfew, an advisory board that will include an NYPD official, a hot line to DHS for local complaints, finger-imaging of men sent to the camp, and the immediate reassignment to another shelter of anyone deemed objectionable are all part of the city’s plan. Aside from the hefty costs of all these efforts, the city’s changes have alarmed advocates. Maureen Friar, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network, charges that the administration is “using a prison to house people,” and Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless says the introduction of screening rules and use of city police at LaGuardia is “an accommodation to community demands” that is not done at any shelter in a the city.
With special reporting by Camila Gamboa & Soo-Min Oh
Research: Coco McPherson, Kandea Mosley, Ron Zapata