Lhota’s Dangerous Proposal to Close the Shelter Door on Homeless People

Republican NYC mayoral candidate Joe Lhota proposed a dangerous plan to change the New York State Constitution in order to deny shelter to many homeless people.

During a tele-town hall with supporters late last week, Lhota said he would seek to modify the New York constitution in order to deny shelter to non-New Yorkers, which he suggested — incorrectly, we might add — are flooding the municipal shelter system. What Lhota is essentially proposing is repealing or radically revising Article XVII of the constitution, which states:

“The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the Legislature may from time to time determine.”

As we’ve noted in the past, Article XVII — which is the legal underpinning of the landmark Callahan v. Carey consent decree and the legal right to shelter in NYC — dates from 1938, when New York was suffering through the Great Depression, and was fervently supported by NYC Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia among other prominent New York leaders:

“If the welfare system were fixed, [La Guardia] predicted optimistically, not only would the old, the sick and the needy be better off in the long run, but government would save money and the overall economy would get better….Perhaps recalling his tenement childhood, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York believed that government had a sacred duty to protect the unfortunate. And so…he urged the Committee on Social Welfare at the New York State Constitutional Convention to adopt an amendment declaring that the state had an obligation to care for its sick and needy.”

That Lhota proposes discarding this important constitutional protection while New Yorkers are still recovering from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s is hard to fathom. Lhota’s proposal is nothing less than a dangerous, and legally dubious, attempt to curtail fundamental legal protections for homeless individuals and families.

In his other remarks, Lhota went on to suggest he would continue the current homeless policies of the Bloomberg administration – emphasizing low-wage jobs instead of permanent housing assistance – which have resulted in an all-time high NYC homeless shelter population.

Jill Colvin of the New York Observer’s Politicker blog wrote about Lhota’s remarks:

The former deputy mayor and MTA chair said that, if elected, he wants to overhaul the city’s homeless shelter system, calling for an amendment to the state’s constitution, which currently requires the city and state to provide shelter to anyone in need regardless of previous residency.

“We’re becoming a magnet city. People know that all around the country: Come to New York, you’ll get into a shelter and after the shelter you’ll get housing,” said Mr. Lhota during a tele-town hall with supporters last week. “We need to fix that law. We need to fix the Constitution and change that. It’s not fair. We should give priority to new Yorkers and not out-of-towners that come to New York and are bloating the numbers of our homeless.”

Mr. Lhota went on to acknowledged just how bad the homeless situation has become.

“You know, homelessness right now, believe it or not, is at the highest level it’s ever been in the City of New York. What’s different now is that the City of New York is spending a fortune in housing the homeless and so we don’t see them in the streets as frequently as we used to and don’t have the oppressive panhandling that we’re used to,” Mr. Lhota said. He argued that–in addition to providing social services for drug and alcohol abuse and mental health problems–the best thing the city could do to help the situation is to create new jobs.

“The most important thing that I can do is expand the economy of New York so there are jobs for people,” he said. “I think a job is the best social program that there is.”

Mr. Lhota’s comments drew criticism among some homeless advocates, including Mary Brosnahan, the president and CEO of Coalition for the Homeless, who said that his approach would only make the problem worse.

“Lhota’s plan appears to be little more than doubling down on the failed policies of the Bloomberg administration that brought us a record 50,000 homeless New Yorkers,” she said in a statement. “Throwing up our hands and saying ‘go find a minimum wage job’ is exactly how we ended up with over 21,000 homeless children in shelters each night – and his proposal to restrict access to the shelter system will mean even more vulnerable homeless people on our streets.”

“What seems lost on Bloomberg and Lhota is that for poor people living in NYC, these are still the bad old days,” she added.