NYC homeless showdown leaves solutions out in cold FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 19 Dec 1999 15:38:28 -0800 (PST)
FWD  USA Today - December 17, 1999 - Page 30A
     Today's Debate
     Dealing with the homeless
     [One of the articles in the series appears below.]


Just in time for the opening of the holiday season last month, New York
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dropped a new policy on the most troublesome of the
city's homeless: Get off the streets or go to jail. Since then, homeless
advocates have shot back with sharp attacks and an all-night protest vigil,
and Senate hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton is weighing in, too, preaching
against arrests in a season celebrating ''the birth of a homeless child.''

The Big Apple bout--belligerent Rudy vs. the benevolent first lady -- has
thrown a spotlight on a particularly intractable aspect of homelessness
that's far from unique to New York. Even when a city builds shelter for the
homeless -- and in that regard New York is a model -- a small, sad number
consistently refuse to use it.

Many cities, from Atlanta to San Francisco, are tackling that problem with
blunt tools: laws making it a crime to panhandle or sleep on the streets,
and police sweeps of homeless from public spaces, often into jails.

City streets are not for sleeping. On freezing nights, they can become
deathtraps for the very people who cling to them. And all residents, not
just the homeless, have a right to enjoy the streets unfettered.

But neither the mean-streets approach nor the wrath it inspires is solving
the problem. The two sides are shouting past each other, distorting facts
and failing to seek a solution that -- while difficult to put into play --
is fairly clear. A humane way is needed to take truculent and often
mentally ill people off the streets, preferably one that would treat mental
illness and substance-abuse problems, which afflicted about 75% of the
homeless in 1996, according to government figures.

New York's dilemma is all too typical.

Giuliani began his high-profile arrests after a woman was hit in the head
with a paving stone as she crossed Madison Avenue. When she later died, the
public fastened on a homeless person as the potential culprit.

Since Nov. 23, police have confronted nearly 3,600 homeless people and
arrested about 175, most for minor infractions, officials say.

Yet virtually no one argues that jail is any more than a fleeting,
expensive fix. Many people cycle through the system in 24 hours, to be
tossed on the streets again.

What's needed is a way to get the unwilling into treatment. But that
solution engenders new fears. Historically, forced psychiatric care was
often abusive, with people wrongly deprived of freedom or held for too long
in appalling conditions. When the pendulum swung, mental institutions
slammed shut. One result: sick, homeless people on the streets.

Despite so many obstacles, some cities have made a dent in the problem.

*In Portland, Ore., where police once swept away homeless encampments,
outreach workers persuaded authorities to let them work with the homeless.
The group moves about six people a week into permanent housing.

*In Miami-Dade County, Fla., federal funds are used to set up small
residences staffed with mental health professionals. The key to luring the
hard-core homeless inside is a controversial rule: Residents are allowed to
stay even when they fail to remain drug- or alcohol-free.

*In Manhattan, Bellevue Hospital Center has run a pilot program, supported
by Giuliani, that uses court orders to force recalcitrant mentally ill
patients to take medication while living in supervised community housing.
More than 300, about 40% originally homeless, have been treated since 1995.

New York's failure to deal with this population is baffling for a city that
has made major strides against homelessness.

A 20-year-old court case guarantees shelter. And the number of single,
homeless adults has dropped 28% in the past decade to an average of about
6,800 these days, according to University of Pennsylvania studies.

This at a time when cities nationally are struggling with rising
homelessness. A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey released this week found
26 cities reporting an average 12% increase in the demand for emergency

While advocates and the city are often at war, they have at times joined
together, fueling success. But that cooperation is absent now.

The mayor bluntly announced the arrest policy on his radio show,
proclaiming, ''Bedrooms are for sleeping.''

Homeless advocates aren't behaving much better. They have yet to seek a
meeting with the mayor to talk out the issue. Asked for solutions, they
focus on the big picture: more money, expanded tenant assistance, new
housing and other support services for the mentally ill homeless. Solid
goals, but none will resolve the problem now as the city confronts homeless
men and women on the streets, some engaged in harassing behavior.

While both sides remain at the extremes of the debate, the homeless are the

Until someone comes up with a humane and selective scheme for involuntary
commitment, the options remain stark: the streets, a shelter -- or jail.


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