Fighting City Efforts to Close the Shelter Door [UPDATE: More Good News for Now]

[UPDATE: This morning, following a brief hearing in New York State Supreme Court, the City once again agreed with the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless NOT to implement restrictive new shelter eligibility rules for homeless adults. The City agreed to hold off implementing the rules until at least January 20th, pending the ongoing legal challenges.]

Original Post November 10, 2011 –

Today the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless filed legal papers seeking to block the City’s dangerous, misguided new rules that will sharply restrict access to emergency shelter for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

The City’s proposed new shelter eligibility rules, which we wrote about here, were “announced” last Thursday night in a local TV news report — only five working days before they’re supposed to be implemented. The rules would create bureaucratic barriers to emergency shelter for homeless single men and women, particularly those living with mental illness and other disabilities.

Yesterday the New York City Council held an important emergency oversight hearing about the proposed new rules. The Coalition and Legal Aid testified — you can read our joint testimony here – and highlighted the dangers of the City’s plan and how it violates the thirty-year-old consent decree in Callahan v. Carey:

The first paragraph of the 1981 consent decree in Callahan v. Carey states:

“The City defendants shall provide shelter and board to each homeless man who applies for it provided that (a) the man meets the need standard to qualify for the home relief program [i.e., public assistance] established in New York State; or (b) the man by reason of physical, mental or social dysfunction is in need of temporary shelter.”

The Department’s proposed new shelter eligibility procedure for homeless single adults…fails to comply with this core provision of the consent decree. Under the proposed eligibility rules, homeless adults with mental, physical, or social dysfunction can and would be denied emergency shelter in multiple ways.

The proposed eligibility rules are flawed and dangerous enough on their face, but even more when one considers that the population that would be affected — homeless single men and women — is characterized by very high incidence of mental illness and other serious health problems. Indeed, numerous research studies — including some commissioned by the City itself — have found high rates of serious and persistent mental illness, addiction disorders, HIV infection, and other serious health problems among homeless adults residing both in shelters and on the streets. In addition, a large percentage of homeless women have been victims of domestic violence.

Members of the New York City Council, led by Speaker Christine Quinn and General Welfare Committee Chair Annabel Palma, fired a series of critical, outraged questions at NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond.

And it became even more clear throughout the hearing that the rules would close the shelter door to many homeless individuals, potentially thousands. Indeed, under questioning from Councilmember Palma, Diamond said that the City estimates that at least one of every ten adults seeking shelter would be denied under the new rules — meaning more than 2,000 people turned away each year.

Michael Powell of the New York Times wrote a powerful piece about yesterday’s hearing and the draconian new rules — and also visited the Bellevue intake shelter to talk to some homeless men who could fall victim to the new gate-keeping policy. The intro to his column says almost all anyone needs to know about how dangerous and misguided the rules are:

Ask about home, and Calvin Miller points to a soot-gray hulk of a former psychiatric hospital on East 30th Street, where dead vines run like varicose veins up the brick.

“I’ve been in the shelter here for eight months.” He runs a hand back and forth across a shaved scalp. “I’m a pizza man. I work hard. I like to work. But I’m bipolar, so that’s my very real problem, too.”

His nouns, verbs and adjectives bounce off one another in a fast-running torrent as he stands outside the Bellevue men’s intake shelter. Then he ramps down.

“New York is very rough.” He stares at me with blue-green eyes. “It’s swallowed me alive.”

Then he turns away.

Theoretically, this young man who grew up in Miami and says he has friends and maybe a girlfriend, although he’s not sure where, is a candidate for the new homeless policy presented by the Bloomberg administration this week. City officials propose to hold tight the shelter door, to apply more pressure on single adult applicants to find somewhere to sleep, the couch of a friend or of a sister, a flophouse.

Every study of homeless single adults has found that a decided majority suffer from mental illness and the addictions that are its handmaidens.

Still, officials want to inquire after a few facts. Like:

Can Mr. Miller detail everywhere he has slept for the past year? Every job he has held? A bank account? And does he have the documentation to prove it? If he doesn’t, someone might assume he’s putting one over on the system.

If he slept at the home of a sister, even if she says that she can no longer house him, he could be found noncompliant. If he refuses a psychiatric evaluation, he could be found noncompliant.