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.”
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.”
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.
“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.