[Hpn] New York, NY - A Homeless Problem Is Back: Overnight in a City Office - The New York Times - August 7, 2002

Editor Editor <hccjr@bellsouth.net>
Thu, 08 Aug 2002 21:42:28 -0500

[Note:  Read this one remembering the 16 yr. old boy who went through
this before he died this week.]


Homeless & Housing Daily News

A Homeless Problem Is Back: Overnight in a City Office
City officials say that demand for homeless shelter is growing
at the rate of 26 percent a year.
By NINA BERNSTEIN - The New York Times - August 7, 2002

The only city office where homeless families can go to apply for
shelter has become so crowded that three times as many people as
city fire codes allow are waiting there each day, leading a judge
to suggest that the city reopen homeless services offices that it
closed a decade ago.

Despite court decrees ordering the city to end the illegal
practice of allowing homeless families to stay overnight in the
office of the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, the number
of children and parents waiting there into the night has
escalated, according to court papers filed yesterday seeking a
finding of contempt against the city's commissioner of homeless
services, Linda I. Gibbs.

On Monday, city records show, 966 people had to wait in the unit,
where the fire safety codes limit temporary occupancy to 330, and
139 families, including 196 children, stayed all night on floors
and benches.

Many had been repeatedly returned to the unit after one-night
shelter stays, a practice also outlawed by court order.

The contempt motion, brought by Steven Banks, the Legal Aid
Society lawyer who has represented homeless families in
longstanding litigation since 1983, was made at the reluctant
invitation of Justice Helen E. Freedman of State Supreme Court in

Last month, after years of overseeing the ups and downs in
the city's efforts to comply with court decrees, she called the
deteriorating situation "scary," and "as unhealthy as it gets,"
and finally concluded that a contempt motion against
Ms. Gibbs might be the only method left to force the city's

More than 8,000 homeless families, with 14,700 children, were
sheltered on an average night last month, an escalating number
that experts say is driven by high rents, bad times and an
accumulating shortage of low-income housing.

City officials say that demand for shelter is growing at the rate
of 26 percent a year. Last year in July, 6,252 families with
11,594 children were given temporary beds, surpassing previous
peaks in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

Michael Cardozo, the city corporation counsel, assured the judge
at a hearing on July 16 that he was personally reporting to Mayor
Michael R. Bloomberg on the problem more than once a week, and
that the mayor had the situation "on his highest radar screen."

Mr. Cardozo added, "This is a very, very difficult situation, and
we're trying to cope with it as best we can."

At the hearing, Justice Freedman referred to the possibility of
finding Bloomberg administration officials in contempt and said,
"I hate to do this to individuals."

But she contrasted the escalating problems this summer to the
great improvements made a year ago under the threat of a
contempt motion against Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

At that time the previous homeless services commissioner, Martin
Oesterreich, eased a similar bottleneck in the unit by working
closely with the court's special master, lawyers for the homeless,
and a landlord group.

One emergency option, the judge hinted, is for the city to reopen
units in Lower Manhattan and in Queens that used to serve as
other shelter entry points before the city consolidated all those
operations at the Bronx office in 1993.

An order that allowed the city to close the Manhattan office,
in a shelter on Catherine Street, provided that it could be
reopened to relieve crowding.

Ms. Gibbs said that no such plans were under consideration now
because she was confident that other adjustments would ease the

"I am acting with the greatest urgency," she said. "We're making
changes to meet the immediate need, but we're really sticking to
the long-term plan."

That strategic plan, an ambitious agenda that emphasizes
prevention and faster placements into permanent housing, was
announced in June.

Ms. Gibbs declined to specify what short-term measures she
was taking, saying that the details were being submitted to the
judge late yesterday.

But lawyers at that meeting said the city planned to add housing
authority apartments for homeless families stuck in the shelter
system, to make up for new shelter beds that have been delayed.

In the strategic plan, Ms. Gibbs made no secret of her desire to
be free of court supervision, and city lawyers have since asked
the court to replace its special master, Barbara Cutler.

"I think that's part of the problem," Mr. Banks said yesterday.
"In the past the special master's efforts to mediate the problems
that arose were frequently successful, and those efforts have
generally been rebuffed in the current period."

Yesterday evening Justice Freedman directed the city to meet with
Ms. Cutler next week to set up a schedule for the contempt

A finding of contempt of court against an individual can result
in imprisonment, a fine or both.

Justice Freedman made such a finding once before in the
homeless families litigation, against a deputy mayor in the
administration of David N. Dinkins, ordering that he stay in
the Emergency Assistance Unit.

The city appealed, arguing that government officials were legally
shielded, and that the city had made extraordinary, if
unsuccessful, efforts to fix the violations.

But in 1994, the state's Court of Appeals unanimously upheld
Justice Freedman's contempt finding, ruling that neither good
faith efforts nor government service were viable defenses for
violating a court order. By then, however, the deputy mayor was
out of office and no longer subject to the penalty.

Yesterday's contempt motion included an affidavit by Dr. Ellen F.
Crain, a pediatrician who directs the division of emergency
medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

She concluded that "the unbearably crowded and unsanitary conditions
at the E.A.U. office are having devastating impacts on the health
of families there;" that "the cribs provided by the E.A.U. are
unsanitary and can contribute to the spread of disease;" and that
"children sleeping on the benches and on the floor are at risk of
injury from falling or by being stepped on or crushed."

If these conditions were allowed to exist in a day care facility,
the doctor added, "the facility would be shut down immediately
upon inspection by health officials."

At the July hearing, the judge asked city lawyers, "What is this
nonsense about people being there for 10 days, or people staying
3 nights without being placed at all? That hasn't happened in

After reviewing photographs of ailing children and pregnant women
crammed into the dilapidated unit, she said: "This is really awful
having people there like that. Can you imagine?"

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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