[Hpn] New York, NY - A Jail Becomes a Shelter,
and Maybe a Mayor's Albatross - New York Times - August 13, 2002
Tue, 13 Aug 2002 09:23:45 -0500
A Jail Becomes a Shelter, and Maybe a Mayor's Albatross
Homeless families have been over crowding the NYC's
Emergency Assistance Unit in record numbers over the last year.
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER - New York Times - August 13, 2002
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did not create the current homelessness
crisis. But his management of it may be one of the most crucial tests
of his mayoralty so far.
When it comes to the pressing social policy issues, Mr. Bloomberg
has tried to position his administration as an extension of the
Giuliani administration, swathed in a velvet glove.
He would remain tough on crime, and continue to push people to
get off welfare, yet be generous with social services.
He would not tolerate homeless people in the streets, but neither
he brook dangerous shelters or a lack of beds for people to sleep in.
On Sunday, the Bloomberg administration reopened an old jail in
the Bronx as a temporary shelter for homeless families, who have
been crowding the city's Emergency Assistance Unit in record
numbers over the last year.
The move was sought by the commissioner for the Department of
Homeless Services to stem the number of families sleeping on the
floor of the unit, while she seeks a quick increase in the number
of apartments in the city's housing projects.
"This is definitely a very important issue for him," said Edmund
J. McMahon Jr., a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a
conservative research and policy center. "So much of what he
seems to be endeavoring to do is keep alive the issues of the
quality of life, which improved for many New Yorkers over the
last eight years. And he's sensitive to being perceived as being
in any way the cause of the reversal of those improvements."
The situation is all the more difficult, Mr. McMahon said,
because the increase in homelessness is driven in large part by
"children who are perceived as not gaming the system but rather
down on their luck, which is different from a man sleeping on the
steps of a church."
Indeed, the specter of children sleeping on prison cots, just
beyond a wall of razor wire and among strangers — a week after a
16-year-old with a history of mental illness killed himself in a
Harlem shelter — underscores how few good solutions there are to
the city's homeless problem.
In sending homeless families to a barracks-style shelter in the
jail, the mayor has adopted an approach that previous
administrations thought was a vestige of the past.
Legislation passed in the early 1990's prohibited the city from
using such shelters for families. And the approach quickly came
under criticism yesterday.
Steve Banks, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society and a frequent
critic of the city's homeless policy, said, "Even in the darkest days
of the last administration, when there were many draconian things
that were proposed and some implemented, the idea of putting
children in a prison was never, never an issue."
But Mr. Bloomberg saw no other options. His decision was driven
largely by the untenable situation of scores of families sleeping
on the floor of the Emergency Assistance Unit, which he visited
Carmen Garcia, 37, an unemployed security guard who
has slept on the floor for the past week with her four children
and her husband, Richard Vazquez, 36, described a chaotic and
"I never saw anything like it in my life: babies lying on the floor,
even newborns," she said. "We filled out the papers. They told
us to wait and we waited."
While in the 1980's homeless adults could be found sleeping over
steaming manhole covers on every other block, families drive the
city's current homelessness problem.
On Sunday night alone, a record 8,458 families received shelter
from the Department of Homeless Services.
Advocates for the homeless cite a variety of reasons for the
rapid increase in homeless families, among them stagnant wages in
some low-paying jobs and rising rental prices.
But one large factor appears to be an enormous slowdown in
housing construction in recent years, a problem that stands to
hinder an ambitious plan by the Bloomberg administration to move
more people out of the shelter system and into permanent
The city's housing production fell to about 83,000 units during
the 1990's from 360,000 during the 1960's, said Joseph Weisbord,
the staff director for Housing First!, an education group. In
addition, the city's population has been increasing, and the
vacancy rate is hovering just over 3 percent, the lowest level in
The Bloomberg administration recently presented a plan to move
more people out of the shelter system by offering more federal
vouchers — called Section 8 — to help pay for housing, and said
that it would assign 2,000 public housing apartments to homeless
families over the next year, a large chunk of them in the next
But with a lack of available inexpensive housing and a reluctance
by landlords to accept the federal vouchers, it will take months,
if not years, for the current plan to be successful.
The need for a fast solution for scores of homeless families came
in the form of the old jail.
The commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Linda I.
Gibbs, was in danger of being found in contempt of court, at the
behest of the Legal Aid Society, for permitting families to sleep
in the Emergency Assistance Unit.
Ms. Gibbs said yesterday that she expected other solutions —
like the former jail, which will be used for only a short time —
to surface under this administration.
"I feel absolutely assured that commissioners will be working
together in thoughtful ways that will not end with this venture,"
Ms. Gibbs said.
Mr. Bloomberg yesterday defended his decision to use the old
jail, which he also visited over the weekend.
He said of it, "There is no questions that it is infinitely better,"
"Linda Gibbs, who is probably one of the best commissioners that
I have, has been working day and night seven days a week in spite
of personal attacks on her to do what is right for the people of
Gail B. Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee
for Children of New York, and others said yesterday that the most
crucial thing for the city to do now is to re-examine how
families enter the system, to stop some of the administrative
backup from the beginning of the process.
"When the choice is between putting the commissioner in jail and
putting kids in jail," she said, "obviously these are really lousy
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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