[Hpn] NYC - Jail Closed as Homeless Shelter to Children at 9:00PM Last Night - New York Times - August 15, 2002

Editor Editor <hccjr@bellsouth.net>
Thu, 15 Aug 2002 07:27:56 -0500


Jail Closed as Shelter to Children at 9:00PM Last Night
After Report of Lead-Based Paint

Longstanding court order bars the city from housing children
under 7 in shelters containing lead-based paint, which can cause
permanent brain damage if ingested.

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By SARAH KERSHAW - New York Times - August 15, 2002

Four days after opening a homeless shelter in an unused jail in
the Bronx, city officials said last night that they would stop
sending children younger than 6 there, at least for now, after
advocates for the homeless said that large amounts of chipping
and peeling lead-based paint had been found throughout the jail.

About 90 homeless families were scheduled to sleep at the jail
last night, city officials said. Many of the families have small
children, but exact figures about how many would be affected by
the change were not available.

For the night at least, city officials said, some of the families
would have to sleep on the floor of the city's only intake center
for the homeless, the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx,
which is a few blocks away from the jail, near Yankee Stadium.

It was not clear where the families with young children would be
sheltered in the long term if the lead paint problem prevents the
city from sending them to the new shelter, called the River
Avenue Annex.

The city's Department of Homeless Services already
faces the prospect of being held in contempt of court for letting
hundreds of families sleep in the intake unit in violation of a
longstanding court order.

A firm hired by the Legal Aid Society, which acts as an advocacy
group for the homeless, first found the lead.

Another longstanding court order bars the city from housing children
under 7 in shelters containing lead-based paint, which can cause
permanent brain damage if ingested.

In response to that claim yesterday, the city sent its own inspectors
to the shelter, a wing of the Bronx House of Detention for Men that
was closed as a jail in 2000 and hastily converted on Sunday into an
emergency overnight shelter for homeless families.

City officials did not release any test results, but announced
the sudden policy change around 9 o'clock last night.

In a statement, Linda I. Gibbs, the city's commissioner of homeless
services, said, "Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided
not to allow families with children under the age of 6 to stay at
the River Avenue Annex until the Health Department can conduct a
thorough lead paint assessment."

The statement continued, "We anticipate that some families will
need to stay at the E.A.U. tonight, and we expect to have more
information in the coming days as testing and evaluation is
completed. As always, the health and safety of those in need is
our foremost concern."

The Legal Aid Society said the city's actions did not go far
enough. "We appreciate they are addressing immediate health
hazards of young children," said Steven Banks, a lawyer for the
society, which opposes putting any homeless people in the jail.

"But there is still a dispute about the operation of a prison as
a shelter for other children and adults."

The findings by the Legal Aid Society's consultant found that of
20 samples of paint taken, eight tested positive for toxic levels
of lead and were in "poor condition," meaning the paint was loose
or chipped, in a form that children could easily ingest. The
levels of lead were as high as 8.5 milligrams per square
centimeter of paint, the inspection report said, while the
toxicity level as defined by the city Health Department is 1
milligram per square centimeter.

A surge in homelessness has emerged as a major test for the
administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Officials had hoped
they had found a solution to crowding at the Emergency Assistance
Unit by using the jail, an option briefly considered by the Giuliani
administration, but rejected out of concern for children.

Earlier yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg had proudly announced that
"not one person slept on the floor of the E.A.U. Not one. The
first time that has happened in a long time." But even as he
spoke, the new problem was surfacing.

Word of the city's new policy began to spread slowly last night,
and it was greeted with a mixture of relief and worry by homeless
who were waiting at the emergency intake unit for word on where
they would stay last night.

Shannon Moore, 28, who was with her 7- and 10-year-old daughters,
said she was stunned to hear that children under 6 would not be
allowed to spend the night at the jail, adding that she was
concerned about her 7-year-old.

"Why stop at 6, they're still kids if they're older, and lead
poisoning is lead poisoning," Ms. Moore said. "Of course, I'll go
if I'm sent, we have no other choice."

The issue of the age cutoff remains in dispute. The city says it
relied on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines
in setting the age cutoff at 6.

But a 1987 court ruling forbids housing children under 7 in shelters
containing lead paint, Mr. Banks said.

That ruling, in State Supreme Court in Manhattan,
stemmed from a situation in which the Koch administration housed
families in a shelter in Chinatown that was found to be
contaminated with lead paint.

The court ruled that the city could not house families in the shelter
and ordered the administration to immediately find an alternative.

The ruling also extends to pregnant women and adults with mental
impairments.

It was unclear last night what kinds of inspections or tests the
city conducted at the jail before it decided to move those
families in. Mr. Banks said new shelters were routinely inspected
before they opened. Officials with the Department of Homeless
Services said that their assessment the jail was safe "took into
consideration a recent paint job, its cleanliness and other
factors."

But even among the most hardened veterans of the bulging network
of emergency and temporary shelters  places that have nicknames
among the homeless like "Cockroach City," and "Hotel Hell,"  a
night at the jail, a tall brick fortress surrounded by barbed
wire and guarded by corrections officers carrying guns, Mace and
sticks, stands out, said many who stayed there.

The experience was more frightening for the many newly homeless
families entering the city's overwhelmed shelter system and
finding that their first night in a shelter was a sweltering one
spent in a place that looks, smells and feels like a jail,
several said.

Despite the city's quick renovations, covering some of the bars
with white sheets, hanging shower curtains and, starting
yesterday, ripping down some of the curly barbed wire around the
perimeter, "the River," as the shelter is called by the emergency
intake workers, is still physically very much a jail.

Kimberly Miller, 18, was sent to the jail from the emergency
intake unit on Wednesday night with her two sons, Michael, 1 1/2
years old, and Devonte, 4 months old. But she said she could not
stand it and was permitted to leave after two hours.

Ms. Miller had been to the jail before, to visit her brother in
the early 1990's, when he was serving time there on a drug
charge. She, too, had been to jail in Brooklyn, she said, for
selling drugs at the age of 14.

"I was a bad teenager," she said. "But now I'm just homeless."



Copyright 2002 The New York Times
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