New efforts at cooperation between New York City's public and private sectors may pave the way to more enduring ways of dealing with the nation's burgeoning numbers of homeless people.
Two recent developments could result in much-needed models of how to provide such services within a context of fiscal constraint. First, while Mayor Edward I. Koch's call to churches to open their doors to the homeless has met some criticism, the city and the religious community have begun working together to design a pilot program to meet the complex needs of the homeless population. And , second, away from the public spotlight, an attorney who has just left his Wall Street law firm to help the homeless is drafting legislation that could provide thousands of units of low-cost housing across the state.
New York City has been under a court order since last fall to provide adequate shelter for thousands of the homeless. It is looking for alternatives to large-scale shelters.
According to those who work with the homeless, the mayor's call for greater involvement of the religious community is an implicit recognition that private charities are doing a better job than the city in providing services. Many social workers argue that the homeless prefer sleeping in bus stations or on park benches because of the inhumane treatment they receive at the public shelters.
Robert Trobe, deputy director of the city's Human Services Administration in charge of shelter programs, will visit St. Francis Residence on W. 31st Street Jan. 7 for the first time. The residence is considered an excellent example, housing up to 100 men and providing counseling and referral services for alcoholics and drug addicts.
''We're not champions of shelters,'' says the Rev. John Felice, financial director of the residence. ''We promote permanent residences - a totally different point of view of how to handle the problem.''
The Community Service Society, a leader in New York's efforts to assist the homeless, advocates setting up small, community-based shelters to deal with the complex problems associated with the numbers of homeless who have a history of mental illness.
Mr. Trobe emphasizes that the city does not have the resources to establish permanent housing for transients, but says ''we keep an open mind'' about developing new models.
With the help of churches, Trobe says community opposition to location of shelters in its neighborhoods may lessen. ''There is the hope that the involvement of religious leaders will make it more palatable,'' he says.
Robert Hayes, a former Wall Street attorney, is looking for sponsors for a bill he hopes the state legislature will pass this session. The bill would provide $15 million to nonprofit organizations to develop residences for the homeless in New York and other cities.
He explains that the dwellings would be operated like St. Francis Residence and would be self-sustaining. While he admits that the program would shift some of the financialburden onto the federal government, since residences like St. Francis are partially funded through the guests' supplemental-security-income checks, he says that many of the homeless would be able to find jobs if they had a place to keep their belongings.
Dozens of church and private charities have expressed an interest in the proposal, Mr. Hayes reports. The Rev. Donald Sakano, a director of Catholic Charities, which has been involved in developing shelter programs, says that only through a city-state partnership could such a plan get off the ground. ''The only way to deal with the homeless is with professional services,'' he says. ''Church basements are not the answer.''
Fr. Sakano is optimistic that the city will throw its weight behind Hayes's proposal but notes that the city so far has been unwilling to admit that the conversion of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) into expensive housing has contributed to the problem of homelessness. The city provides tax abatements for converting apartments, commercial buildings, and SROs into ''Class A'' (self-contained) units.
''It is unconscionable to have the SROs in this category,'' Fr. Sakano charges. The stock of low-cost housing in Manhattan and in other cities has been largely diminished due to the ''gentrification'' of urban neighborhoods.
Rallying behind the mayor's request will require a degree of cooperation between public and private sectors not attempted before, according to most religious leaders.
''We've gotten into an adversary relationship with the city,'' says Fr. Felice. ''It's unfortunate - we really don't want this.''