[Hpn] NYC, NY - Mayor's Style Is Tested in Sending Homeless to Old Jail - New York Times - August 16, 2002

Homeless Daily News Homeless Daily News <hccjr@bellsouth.net>
Fri, 16 Aug 2002 07:48:40 -0500

Mayor's Style Is Tested in Sending Homeless to Old Jail

But when it comes to the seemingly intractable problem of what to
do with homeless families, Mr. Bloomberg's style may have backfired.

By JENNIFER STEINHAUER - New York Times - August 16, 2002

The most crucial decisions that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg makes
 from policies to appointments  he does in consultation with a
few aides, and usually with little regard to politics or public relations.

He often appears to believe that the best answer to a problem is
anything that has not been tried before.

So far, this management style  culled from his many years in the
private sector  has served him well.

But when it comes to the seemingly intractable problem of what to
do with homeless families, Mr. Bloomberg's style may have

His administration's decision on Sunday to house homeless
families in an unused jail in the Bronx has been pitted with
problems. He has faced a lawsuit, the discontent of a special
master assigned to oversee the city's management of homeless
families and, two nights ago, the discovery of high levels of
lead in the jail, forcing the city to send families with children
under 7 back to the Emergency Assistance Unit.

The jail was chosen in order to get families out of that unit,
the city's only intake center for the homeless; allowing families
to sleep at the unit is forbidden by a longstanding court order,
and the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services,
Linda I. Gibbs, was facing a contempt order if she did not come
up with a solution fast.

But the city made the decision without informing the special
master or a lawyer representing the homeless, nor many people in
government. And it did so without the environmental tests needed
to assure that small children could stay there.

Faced with sending families back to the intake unit  51 families
slept on the floor there Wednesday night  the specter of further
lawsuits and newspaper photographs featuring children lingering
outside what is clearly a jail, Mr. Bloomberg may be facing one
of the first major embarrassments of his mayoralty.

"He has made very few missteps as mayor," said Steven Cohen, the
director of the Executive Master of Public Administration Program
at Columbia University. "What they were doing was a natural
reaction to the situation they were in.

But irrespective of the tradeoffs they had to make, the politics
of this are really bad. The symbolism of the jail was pretty
awful, and I don't think that the administration was sensitive
enough to that."

By keeping his plans under wraps, said several policy experts,
former and current government officials and advocates for the
homeless, Mr. Bloomberg may have missed an opportunity to avoid a
major headache.

Some officials said they would have suggested that the mayor
consider, for instance, emptying a men's shelter in the East 20's
in Manhattan for families, and sending the men to the former jail
in their stead.

And others would have suggested that the jail be checked
beforehand for environmental hazards. (The city is still doing
its own tests on the jail turned shelter.)

"Testing for lead is exactly the reason we have prior notice
before they open facilities," said Steven Banks, a Legal Aid
Society lawyer who represents the homeless.

Further, by choosing to move families into the former jail while
the judge and the special master of the case were out of town,
Mr. Bloomberg has risked their wrath, the exact opposite of what
his administration needs to do if it wants to end the court's
oversight of homeless policies, which is its stated goal.

"Mayor Bloomberg wants to be the master of his own destiny, but
every action he is taking only incites the judge," said a former
city official who was involved in past court orders. "In spite of
the fact that he is an elected official, the court requires him
to be collaborative."

City officials told Mr. Banks yesterday that they would be ready
to discuss further plans for homeless families today.

The city is due in court on Wednesday for further discussions of
the contempt order regarding sleeping on the floor of the
Emergency Assistance Unit. And Mr. Banks said Legal Aid would
file yet another suit to stop the city from housing pregnant
women and frail children and adults in the unused jail, which he
insists is illegal, although the city disagreed.

"The mayor recognizes that sometimes difficult, challenging
problems result in imperfect solutions," said the mayor's
spokesman, Edward Skyler. "But that doesn't mean you don't stop
trying to make things better for those in need. Hindsight is
always 20/20."

The Department of Correction closed the jail in 2000 because of
declining numbers of inmates. But it still controls the building
and could use it as a jail again if the need arises, officials

For Ms. Gibbs's part, she said yesterday that the department
would remain focused on its long-term plan of trying to get
families  whose stays in the city's shelters have reached
historical lengths  into permanent housing to make room for
families needing to get out of the intake unit, and other
longer-term housing strategies that her department announced
several weeks ago.

"I don't regret using the facility at all," Ms. Gibbs said of the
vacant jail, which is blocks from the intake unit.

"Obviously it is very convenient, and as we get the results we
will make a decision as to whether or not we are comfortable
sending younger children there again.

To me it is no question that is a highly preferable situation to
the one we were experiencing at the E.A.U."

Ms. Gibbs also said that she would convene a group of experts on
social services and the shelter system to try to find new ways of
dealing with the increase of homeless families seeking shelter.

More than 8,400 families are in the city's shelter system, and
the number of families applying for shelter rose by 25 percent in
the budget year that ended June 30 over the previous year.

"We've got to look at this differently," Ms. Gibbs said.

She conceded that she did not know what the different approach
might be because the solutions she had been presented with did
not seem viable.

In the long term, she said, "I feel that we can make a lot of
progress in turning this around."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times
source page:  http://makeashorterlink.com/?X20062981

H. C. Covington, Editor
Homeless Daily News