Unhinged from Reality: Mayor Bloomberg Defends His Shelter Denial Plan

The premise behind Mayor Bloomberg’s shelter denial plan — which was fortunately blocked by a New York State Supreme Court ruling this week — has always been more than a little far-fetched and absurd.

Since November, Bloomberg administration officials have struggled to sell the fantastical notion that New Yorkers with genuine, viable housing options are rushing en masse to the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, the 1,000-bed Wards Island shelter complex, and similar warehouse-style facilities in order to sleep on metal cots and thin mattresses constructed by prison labor, in dormitories with upwards of 100 homeless adults in rows of identical cots three feet apart. And that these New Yorkers will spend months in the municipal shelter system, living in the same grim institutional conditions and eating the same grim institutional food, all while they actually have other housing available to them.

Indeed, City officials claim that between 10 percent and 60 percent of all homeless single adults — roughly 2,000 to 12,000 people each year — actually fall into this ridiculous, absurd category of New Yorkers bedding down in municipal shelters instead of in their own homes. That’s why, the officials say, the City needs new bureaucratic rules to ferret out what the New York Post editorial board — echoing (and amplifying) in time-tested fashion the administration’s rhetoric on its punitive homeless policies — characteristically called “fraudsters.”

One might have hoped that, in the wake of Tuesday’s court ruling (PDF) — as well as the near-universal opposition to the proposed shelter denial rules from the New York City Council, other local elected officials, homeless service providers, community groups, and advocates — that the administration would re-think its misguided “adult shelter eligibility rules.”

Sadly, however, in response to the court ruling Mayor Bloomberg actually doubled down on the fantastical and absurd rhetoric underlying his shelter denial plan. As Capital New York reported:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted strongly to the ruling, defending the city’s proposed policy change.

“The law requires that we provide shelter,” said the mayor. “But you cannot say, ‘I’m tired of paying my rent, therefore the taxpayers of New York City should just pay my rent,’ OK? That’s not reasonable.”  [Emphasis added.]

According to NY1 News, the Mayor then went on to attack the courts — and even to cloak his attack on the judiciary in the shroud of patriotism…!

“…I think we should do it now and we’re going to do everything we can to have the ability to do it or let the judges explain to the public why they think that you should just have a right to walk in and say, ‘Whether or not I need services, give it to me.’ I don’t think that’s what this country’s all about,” said Bloomberg.  [Emphasis added.]

Of course, the proposed “adult shelter eligibility rules” (PDF) have never really been about determining if shelter applicants have genuine, available, suitable housing alternatives. The rules are really about creating bureaucratic tools to deny emergency shelter to people who are genuinely homeless. In fact, NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond essentially admitted as much at a November emergency City Council hearing, where he addressed the hypothetical, though commonplace, scenario of a homeless man who had once lived with his brother. Under the new rules, Diamond said, the City would deny shelter to the homeless man EVEN IF the brother refused to accept him in his home – and EVEN IF the brother changed the locks on his door!

And this is only one blunt example of how the “eligibility rules” are designed to close the shelter door to thousands of homeless New Yorkers. As we explained in testimony at the same November hearing, under the rules homeless people would be denied shelter:

• Even when a family member with whom the homeless person lived in the past states verbally and in writing that the person can no longer live in their home;

• Even when an outreach worker or police officer escorts the homeless person to an intake shelter but the Department claims the person has “not cooperated” with an eligibility investigation;

• Even when the homeless person is unable to provide a complete one-year “housing history”;

• Even when the homeless person attempts to document his or her one-year housing history, but the family or friend with whom s/he resided refuses to cooperate with the Department’s eligibility investigation;

• Even when the homeless person, who may suffer from a mental or physical impairment, fails to undergo an evaluation for such an impairment;

• Even when the Department claims that the homeless person’s other “housing option” is another person’s public housing apartment (or some other subsidized housing) and the homeless person’s residency jeopardizes the primary tenant’s subsidized housing;

• Even when DHS investigators have never visited an alleged “housing option” to see if it is actually available and/or suitable to meet the needs of the homeless person;

• Even when the homeless person is unable to produce documentation of their income or past housing history;

• Even when DHS makes a mistake in determining the homeless person’s eligibility for shelter but the homeless person cannot re-apply for shelter because s/he cannot produce “new evidence”; and

• Even when the “housing option” identified by DHS is unsafe but the homeless person has allegedly failed to provide evidence of the safety hazards.

There’s no question that, Mayor Bloomberg’s fantastical rhetoric aside, his shelter denial plan represents the gravest threat in more than a decade to the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers. That’s why Tuesday’s court ruling is so important. And it’s why Coalition for the Homeless and our allies will continue to fight this misguided, dangerous plan.


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