NYC Tough Love homeless policy: Will it work? FWD

Tom Boland (
Mon, 13 Dec 1999 20:17:30 -0800 (PST)

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What do recovering addicts think of NYC's homeless policy?
Christian Science Monitor - DECEMBER 7, 1999



New York laws apply welfare-reform ideals to
homelessness - work if you are 'able.'

Alexandra Marks
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


Marie Bresil sits with her hands clasped tightly
around the pocketbook in her lap, nervously
twiddling her fingers as tears seep from the corners
of her eyes. She's staring straight ahead,

    QUIET PETITION: Shoppers in San Francisco
    pass Mick Smith. Despite America's continuing
    prosperity, homelessness has persisted as a
    significant social problem nationwide.

A homeless mother cut off from welfare, she's now
frightened she could lose the room she shares here
in a shelter with three children because of a new city
policy that requires all "able-bodied" boarders to
work. "What do they want me to do: live in the
streets?" she asks quietly.

Like thousands of homeless people in New York,
Ms. Bresil is caught in an emerging national debate
over how best to deal with homelessness - a
seemingly intractable problem that has refused to
give way despite the nation's booming economy.

Escalating housing prices have forced thousands out
of their apartments and homes, creating a new
generation of homeless - many families and
children. The result is a growing challenge for
urban and suburban America. Many cities,
concerned about the visibility of the homeless and
eager to promote self-sufficiency, have cracked
down on those living on sidewalks.

But poverty groups contend that such moves only
amount to "criminalizing" homelessness and
exacerbate the problem.

"It's an unfortunate trend that comes out of
frustration in terms of responding to the
complexities of the issue," says Philip Mangano,
executive director of the Massachusetts Housing
and Shelter Alliance.

Perhaps nowhere is the tension more visible at the
moment than in New York, where Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani (R) is trying to apply the self-sufficiency
ethic of welfare reform to the homeless. He's
decreed that those who bed down in cardboard
boxes on city streets will be arrested if they don't
move along or accept the help the city offers. And
starting this month, all able-bodied people living in
shelters must work or they can be tossed out and
their children put in foster care.

Mr. Giuliani defends his new approach as truly
compassionate. "Attaching social responsibilities to
social programs helps people move away from
dependency toward self-sufficiency," says Anthony
Coles, a senior mayoral adviser.

On any given night nationwide, an estimated
600,000 to 700,000 people sleep in shelters. While
the numbers vary from city to city, a snapshot of
New York and Philadelphia shows that as many as
60 percent of those people are families and children,
30 percent are single homeless, and 10 percent are
mentally ill.

Recent studies indicate that more families and
children are cycling in and out of shelters on a
short-term basis than previously thought. In
New York, while 23,000 people reside in
shelters on a given night, more than
85,000 people will stay in a shelter at some
point during the year.

"We found that about 6 percent of poor
families are homeless in a year, and about 10
percent of poor children under the age
of 5 are homeless in a year," says Dennis Culhane,
a professor of social policy at the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Homeless advocates attribute much of the new
pressure on families to the escalation in rent prices,
as vacancy rates shrink and poorer neighborhoods
become gentrified. "The economic boom is having a
kind of paradoxical impact on the poorest members
of this society," says Maria Foscarinis, executive
director of the National Law Center on
Homelessness and Poverty in Washington.

A recent study done by the center found that 48 of
the 50 states have enacted new laws or revived old
ones designed to get homeless people off the

During a nine-month period in 1998, San Francisco
police issued more than 16,000 "quality of life"
tickets, most to homeless people. In Tucson, Ariz.,
the city council proposed "privatizing" the
sidewalks, which would have allowed business
owners to keep people from sleeping in front of

Homeless activists say New York has gone the
furthest in its crackdown, confusing the threat of
prison sentences with instilling personal
responsibility. They believe such policies make it
harder to deal with a complicated social problem.
"This flies in the face of everything that we know
about how to end homelessness," says Nan Roman
of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in

But some conservatives believe that, as with welfare
reform, the best solution is a "tough-love" approach
with a clear set of expectations, requirements, and
penalties. "Giuliani is right to require work," says
Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation in
Washington. "We've been down the other route,
and it just increases the dependence and the
breakdown of the family."

Ms. Roman and other advocates respond that
putting children in foster care will only exacerbate
the homeless problem in the long run. Studies have
shown that at least three times as many homeless
people were foster children at one time, compared
with the general population.

To the Giuliani administration, a parent who won't
work is endangering his or her children. "If after a
series of interventions, a healthy bodied parent
won't work to support his children and is willing to
put them on the street, it raises questions about a
risk of neglect," says Mr. Coles.

In the end, advocates for people like Bresil say the
city has to do more to ensure people get the services
they need and aren't punished by the complicated
paperwork and rules of the city's workfare
program. Bresil has been in four shelters in five
months. She says she was cut off from welfare
because she missed an appointment with a
caseworker. She says she never got a notice,
because she had no permanent address.

   The URL for this page is:
   For further information:

       Civil Rights of Homeless People National
       Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty


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