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New York City Shifts Strategy on Homeless

Program uses early intervention to prevent homelessness

PRODDED in part by several recent court actions, New York City is making major changes in the way it deals with the city's estimated 90,000 homeless residents. Yet critics are not satisfied with the speed and depth of the shifts and more court challenges are likely.

At the heart of the restructuring is a new effort to prevent people from becoming homeless by doing a careful and early assessment of their needs. To someone on hard times, this may mean providing a rent payment. For someone living in crowded conditions with others, making extra social services available may keep that person from turning to the city for emergency shelter.

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The city is very pleased with the success of the assessment effort so far, says Bert Knaus, deputy director of the Mayor's Office on Homelessness and Single Room Occupancy Housing. Almost one-third of those interviewed, he says, have not had to seek emergency shelter from the city.

Similarly, Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, says she approves of the individual attention and the extra services. Yet she is concerned that bad judgment calls could be made by overworked social workers and that those turned away may end up back on the streets.

This program results from the city's decade-old homeless policy. New York remains singular among US cities in having a law that the city must provide emergency shelter on demand to anyone claiming to be homeless. Ms. Brosnahan says the law, which her coalition fought for, is the major reason that families rarely bed down on New York streets.

Shelters and welfare hotels, however, house only about 25,000 of the city's homeless. The rest, mostly men, live on the street or in abandoned buildings by choice.

Mr. Knaus says the city's system for dealing with the homeless is "chronically overburdened" and that the shelter-on-demand requirement has forced the city to "try to put in some real controls at the front end" of the system. He also notes that 1 million of New York's 7 million residents are welfare recipients.

"You can't really separate homelessness from the larger problem of poverty in our cities," he says. "There's no sharp line between people who are homeless and those living in doubled-up situations or substandard housing... . We're going to have to draw that line if we're going to live within the limits of our resources."

New York now is trying to provide more services, such as drug and alcohol treatment and job training. It contracts with nonprofit organizations to run apartment-style shelters. Knaus says the city also continues to provide at least 4,000 units of permanent housing for homeless families.

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Both city officials and advocates for the homeless agree that the use of large city shelters and welfare hotels must end. Mayor David Dinkins pledged during his 1989 campaign to do this.

In response to a court ruling last year the city has put sharp limits on the number of people in the bigger armories. Nine armories, however, are still in use for homeless singles.

Also, the city has shifted to smaller, better-managed, and more geographically scattered hotels for use by homeless families when city shelters are full. Mayor Dinkins is trying to persuade the City Council to give him a two-year extension on the original April 8, 1993 deadline to end the use of such hotels. The council has given him until June to develop a detailed plan.

As another stopgap measure to deal with its shortage of emergency facilities, the city allows dozens of families to stay overnight in city welfare offices until shelter space becomes available.

But two contempt rulings have been issued against the city for that practice - one last November and one in March. A hearing is set for April 12 to determine whether the mayor and five other officials should be held personally in contempt.

And approaching is a third legal deadline that may lead to further court challenge by advocates. By April 9 the city must be in total compliance with a state court ruling that requires the city to take "concrete steps" to find housing and provide followup services for homeless, mentally ill patients discharged from city hospitals.

Brosnahan says she has ample evidence that people continue to be released who have only been given a list of shelters. "There has to be a legitimate housing placement," she says. "This can't be simply a charade."

Brosnahan says Dinkins has failed to follow through on most of his campaign pledges for the homeless: "He says all the right things but when push comes to shove, he will literally ignore court rulings."

She charges that the largest share of the $280 million he intends to spend on housing for the homeless in his new budget actually will be spent on moderate, middle-income housing.

But Knaus insists that over the last 10 years New York has had the largest, locally financed development of housing of any city in the country. "We can hold our heads high when we talk about what we've done to provide housing for low income and homeless people," he says.

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