Criminalizing homelessness NYC's approach - Boston's is

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 16 Dec 1999 23:25:10 -0800 (PST)


http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/features/99/12/16/EDITORIAL.html
FWD  Boston Phoenix [news & entertainment weekly] - December 16, 1999
     Editorial

     TALE OF TWO CITIES

     IT'S A CRIME TO CRIMINALIZE HOMELESSNESS

High-profile local policy sets a tone, sometimes in a contrarian or outright
reactionary direction. Think of when California passed a measure capping
property taxes in the 1970s. It led to similar laws across the country,
including Massachusetts's Proposition 2&1/2. Or how about New York
City mayor Rudy Giuliani's get-tough approach to law enforcement, which is now
accepted practice in most urban police departments in the nation?

That's why the differences between New York's and Boston's attitudes toward
homelessness are so important to the nation.

It would be tragic if other public servants followed Giuliani's cruel approach
to housing the homeless -- which is to put them in jail if they refuse to
participate in shelter programs. In a deeply cynical move, Giuliani is
requiring people seeking shelter to meet the same requirements that welfare
recipients must meet: work or be denied aid. Missing an appointment or showing
up late for work can result in losing shelter for three months at a time.
Incredibly, these punitive measures are directed even at families with
children.

A better example is the one set by Mayor Thomas Menino, who has volunteered
every year since becoming mayor as a census taker in Boston's annual count of
its homeless population. While participating in this year's census Monday
night, Menino met an 81-year-old homeless man who sleeps in the subway at
Downtown Crossing. The man is well known to outreach workers and resists
attempts to place him in shelters. But on Monday, after talking with the mayor,
the man agreed to go to Pine Street Inn for the night. Menino personally
escorted him there. "You can juxtapose that to what Rudy Giuliani is doing, and
there's a very big difference," says Kelley Cronin, director of the city's
Emergency Shelter Commission.

A national study, released early this month, confirmed what we already know
about the homeless crisis: there are no easy solutions. Close to
40 percent of the nation's homeless are mentally ill; nearly
30 percent were raised in foster homes or institutional settings, and thus
have never known a place called home; and more than 60 percent of our
homeless are chronically ill. All are mired in poverty.

But Menino's behavior at least exhibits compassion -- and it's typical of the
policies in Boston and Massachusetts. "We've accommodated the system to the
needs of the homeless people rather than expecting the homeless to adapt to the
needs of the system," says Philip Mangano, executive director of the
Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

At the Pine Street Inn, the shelter on Long Island, and the Shelter for
Homeless Veterans, federally funded programs are in place that teach homeless
people to work in food service. Homeless workers at these shelters are paid the
minimum wage to feed their counterparts. Some go on to find outside jobs. At
the Boston Rescue Mission, shelter workers have teamed up with ServiceMaster, a
private maintenance company, to learn janitorial and building-maintenance
skills. At Project Place, homeless people work with the city to beautify
business districts, planting flowers and removing graffiti. The city also runs
a Transition to Work Collaborative that offers job training to homeless
mothers.

The emphasis in all these programs is on working with the homeless population
in a positive way, not a punitive one. The goal is to help people move on if
they are capable of doing so. As for the hard-core homeless -- those who have
been living on the streets for years -- the city approaches them with equal
respect. "When you've worked in homelessness long enough, you see that some
people really have limitations," says Cronin. "They just aren't able to
participate in the economy at the level other people are." Rather than
abandoning these people, the state has employed outreach workers to get to know
the chronically homeless, including those who are mentally ill and those who
are addicted to drugs. As Mangano points out, this is one reason you don't see
"masses" of homeless people in every doorway or public park, the way you do in
New York City.

Even as much of society enjoys unprecedented prosperity, homelessness is
increasing: the Boston census counted 250 homeless people on the street,
compared to 188 last year. We need compassionate solutions, not punishing ones.
"Boston understands that the homeless person is a victim of something, not the
perpetrator," Mangano says. Mr. Giuliani should pay attention.

END FORWARD

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