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Home for the Holidays

New York's commissioner for the homeless, Linda Gibbs, took office with a bold promise to end homelessness as we know it. She aims to give the homeless themselves a stark choice: Accept housing quickly, or be put back on the street. Now, with the economy sputtering, is this callousness -- or inspiration?

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Home-maker: Linda Gibbs at a shelter for single adults on Beaver Street in Manhattan.  

The woman confronting Linda Gibbs, beseeching her for help, has applied seven times for a spot in a homeless shelter. Seven times, the woman has been turned down. Her eighth try, on a busy afternoon in the basement of the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, isn’t going much better. Gibbs, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Homeless Services, isn’t exactly a social worker. Like her boss, Mike Bloomberg, she’s an enlightened bureaucrat -- a numbers whiz and compulsive planner who believes that most problems can be resolved by better management. Still, it’s not without some sorrow that Gibbs explains to the woman, after making some inquiries, that the sticking point is that she has a grandmother with a three-bedroom apartment. Which, Gibbs says gingerly, is why the city has decided that this woman is not homeless.

The right to shelter in New York City is famously guaranteed by the courts, but of course it all depends on how you define homeless. Gibbs’s job, or part of it, is to make sure the city honors that right. And lately, that job’s been a bitch. The homeless crisis is turning a year old, and the numbers are only going up. To say that the eighties are back would be an understatement: The peak of the shelter population in the late eighties was 28,700, and now it’s 38,000. Gibbs has brought me on a rare tour of the EAU to show me how homeless families’ only gateway to the city’s shelter system has become hopelessly clogged.

The public isn’t invited inside; even if you are homeless, it’s difficult to get in. Everything you bring in is screened for contraband, and long lines of mothers and babies -- very few fathers -- wait to pass through metal detectors. Inside, the place smells of French fries, from both a nearby McDonald’s and the cafeteria downstairs. Past the cafeteria is a roomful of investigators who carefully interview each new arrival. Then they head into the field like old-fashioned gumshoes, interrogating landlords to verify evictions, calling on family members to see if they have room. About half the applicants are eventually turned away. Even after all that vetting, last summer, usually the shelter’s peak-demand period, many families still were sleeping (in violation of court orders) on wooden benches under the EAU’s fluorescent lights.

On her way out of the building, a few steps from the Grand Concourse, Gibbs explains in gentle diplomatese that the city has to be careful that people don’t abuse the system. “The EAU is described cynically as a way to keep people out,” she says. “The reality is, it’s intended to ensure that the shelter system is available to people who need emergency shelter and not those who have safe alternatives.”

But even she knows the place won’t do. “It’s always been the hot spot. It’s always where the crisis derives from. It’s not working.”

Her ideas to fix it, though, have created crises of their own. Gibbs is far and away Bloomberg’s most controversial commissioner -- though she has his full and unwavering support -- and she has notions that could forever transform the way this city engages with the homeless.

Linda Gibbs came to her job a year ago brashly saying she thought she could end homelessness as we know it. She jumped at the chance to rethink the city’s homeless strategy from the inside out -- quickly tracking down permanent housing space that during the last administration had gone unused. In June, she released a strategic plan, the first in the department’s history. Then, as if on cue, a fiscal crisis, compounded by the events of September 11, triggered an explosion in the homeless rolls. Not since the Great Depression have so many New Yorkers needed shelter.

So much for the plan. Overtaken by events, Gibbs hacked away at the crisis -- opening 2,134 new units of family shelter, handing millions of dollars to landlords to place homeless people in buildings of their choosing, even weighing wild-card options like decommissioned cruise ships, anywhere she might put people so that they wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor of the EAU. When Gibbs took over an old Best Western near Kennedy Airport, one state senator called it and the other ten shelters in nearby poor neighborhoods “environmental racism.” The pot boiled over in August, when Gibbs, who had been personally sued for contempt, opened a former jail a few blocks from the EAU as a temporary shelter. The symbolism of putting homeless families behind razor wire wasn’t lost on angry advocates for the homeless; the word draconian saw a lot of use. The contempt motion was deferred when the place was closed a month later.

“A week hasn’t gone by when Linda hasn’t been in the press, always pilloried, and she keeps coming back,” says Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, who worked with Gibbs from the other side of the fence when Gibbs was a deputy at the Administration for Children’s Services. “She seems to have an unlimited capacity to tolerate criticism. Which obviously makes her an ideal person to head the Department of Homeless Services.”

As fall turned to winter, the crisis only worsened, and colder weather should bring more broken records. Still, crisis management is not where Gibbs’s heart is. “I don’t want to find myself five years later, looking back and saying, ‘I put out the fires faster,’ ” she says. “If it’s just perpetuating the status quo in a little bit better way, then the question is: How did you spend your time when you were there?”

"We're no eager to discontinue anybody's shelter," says Gibbs. "My expectation is that you can actually manage this in a way that people change their behavior."

Gibbs’s answer to that question can be found in her plan -- at least one part of which is poised to explode into controversy. On January 17, barring a last-minute settlement, the city is scheduled to ask the state court to enforce limits on how long the homeless stay in shelters. If people don’t choose from permanent housing options they are offered in time, they would be suspended from the system for 30 days. Parents who are ejected would see their children taken into temporary foster care. She calls this policy Client Responsibility and claims that if she does her job right, no one will ever really be expelled from a shelter. Everyone from homeless advocates to religious leaders like the Reverend Calvin Butts and Episcopal archdeacon Michael Kendall to the Times editorial page has been urging Gibbs and the city to back down and settle.

Even if she does eventually temper the proposal, this is something Gibbs truly believes in. She often cites a statistic that a selection of families living in shelters last spring looked at an average of just 1.3 permanent homes per month. Getting people to choose a home sooner, she believes, is the only way to keep the system running efficiently. Her explanation is matter-of-fact, sidestepping any larger moral questions. “The lack of standards contributes to this sort of passivity, this culture of waiting,” Gibbs says. “People know that they can wait to look for apartments and they can keep looking until they find that ideal apartment. And so we do have a very lackluster amount of effort. But we’re not eager to discontinue anybody’s shelter. My expectation is that nobody should get to that sanction -- that you actually manage this in a way that people change their behavior.”

She also admits to another motive here. The court order she’s appealing in January is but one of several she would like to see go away. For 21 years, she explains, the city’s homelessness policy has been dictated not by City Hall but by the state court. In the past two decades, the legal right to shelter has given birth to a well-intentioned subculture of impact-litigation attorneys and shelter operators and gadflies and activists, all gathering under the advocate rubric. There are many in City Hall who believe that the cart is pulling the horse -- that policy is now being dictated by the advocates and not the city. Gibbs, a lifelong Democrat who has worked for two Republican mayors, is one of those people.

“I knew from the get-go that I wanted to get out from underneath the litigation,” she says. “I’ve said it to the plaintiffs several times. I don’t mean that as an attack on them -- I think, particularly in the early years, that it merited litigation in order to bring attention to issues. But now the city really has a very sophisticated approach to homeless services, and the need for ongoing court management of the agency becomes destructive and counterproductive.”

The advocates themselves, of course, call Client Responsibility even more symbolically reprehensible than, say, using a jail to house the homeless. “It’s listed under ‘efficiency and accountability’ in Gibbs’s plan,” says Steve Banks, the Legal Aid Society lawyer who sued Gibbs for contempt in August. “That’s a rather antiseptic term for throwing people into the streets and putting their kids in foster care. I’m sure the city will try to put sugarcoating on a policy that hurts everyone.”

Others suspect that the very notion that homeless people aren’t in a hurry to find housing is a distraction meant to draw press attention away from the system’s own ineffectiveness. “Families are seeing on average only 1.3 apartments a month, but that’s not because they’re lazy,” says Ted Houghton, a former DHS official who now works for the Housing First! advocacy group. “It’s because they aren’t getting apartments to see.” The whole shift in focus from the system to the people, he believes, is suspect: “This is the first administration to run a media strategy. And it’s worked very, very well for them. Because the debate in the media is about families that are too choosy. It provides a good story. It’s easy to follow, easier than looking at the dry numbers of the housing shortage.”

Just like Gibbs, though, the advocates have ulterior motives. Many are worred about preserving the power of the court orders, saying the policy would blow a cannonball-size hole in New Yorkers’ legal right to shelter. “The right to shelter doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country,” says Patrick Markee, a policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless and one of Gibbs’s most vocal adversaries. “This is why you see many fewer deaths on the street here than in other cities. This consent decree has literally saved thousands of lives in the last twenty years.”

There is, however, more to defend. Banks is still angry that the city petitioned the court about Client Responsibility without alerting him first. “Lo and behold, we read about it in the New York Times,” says Banks. Which is why, when Gibbs smiles and says blithely, “I think that it’s not incumbent on me to run every decision past the plaintiffs to see if they’re okay with it or not,” she seems to be implying that the Client Responsibility battle is also about the advocates’ being afraid of losing their seat at the table.

What’s confounded most experts about this homeless crisis is that it’s nothing like the last one. Today’s homeless person is much more likely to be a working parent than a drug-addicted panhandler. Today’s homeless parents are, some say, likely to be second-generation social-service clients: Many of them grew up in the foster-care system and have no concept of what it’s like not to be receiving help from the government. Which, along with the real-estate boom and the recesssion and a notorious shortage of permanent housing, may explain what Gibbs was saying about the EAU’s becoming a practical means of finding a place to live. “It is undeniable that people come into the shelter system because they know that’s the way to get a subsidized apartment,” says Dennis Culhane, a social-welfare-policy professor from the University of Pennsylvania who has the best data on New York’s homeless population.

More families are on the way to the EAU -- the number of homeless children increased by 29 percent during 2001. and once they get in, fewer of them are leaving. Only 3,700 out-placements were made in each of the past five years, about 1,000 per year less than the norm. They’re also staying longer before they leave. Two years ago, the average stay was eight and a half months; last year, it reached eleven. The Coalition for the Homeless reports that in the past decade, the number of families placed in city-funded apartments each year fell from 2,100 to an embarrassing 184.

Lengthening stays in shelters has already affected a huge number of children: Forty percent of the kids in the shelter system have asthma, the highest rate of childhood asthma ever reported anywhere in the world. “This is staggering,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, founder of the Children’s Health Fund. “You cannot treat chronic asthma by just dropping into an emergency room. These kids have to have what we call a medical home, a place they can always go. Otherwise, you have a disaster -- these kids are sick, they can’t play, they can’t go to school.”

Redlener says that by and large, the parents aren’t particularly plagued with problems like addiction -- or even joblessness: “This is not just about unemployed people in deep poverty. This is about working families, people working at about minimum wage, whose housing prospects are increasingly dim. I think we’re at the beginning of a problem that’s about to get a hell of a lot worse.”

Gibbs’s plan actually provides more housing than the city’s provided since the Koch years. She’s seized control of 3,300 new Section 8 housing vouchers from the federal government, plus 700 additional units of public housing from the city Housing Authority. She’s creating Homestat -- a program that tracks and predicts homelessness trends by neighborhood à la the NYPD’s Comstat crime-tracking system. The mayor, meanwhile, has announced an even more ambitious proposal for 65,000 units of housing, some of which is targeted for the homeless. Already, Gibbs has increased the number of families at the EAU deemed eligible on their first try from 52 percent in February to 73 percent in August. In time, the lines at the EAU may diminish, and she might unclog the entire front end of the system.

As for the back end, that’s where Client Responsibility comes in.

"It's listed under 'efficiency and accountability.' That's a rather antiseptic term for throwing people into the streets."

For Gibbs, this isn’t about ideology. “She’s very liberal on social issues,” says Nicholas Scoppetta, the fire commissioner, who was her boss at the Administration for Children’s Services. “People in that position sometimes come under scrutiny as not being concerned enough about helping people in need. But she’s a natural at that; that’s her natural inclination. She’s not faking it.”

She also may be the only person in New York to use the word fun when talking about a bureaucracy. Something about complex systems appeals to her -- the opportunity to constantly tweak, perhaps, or the thrill of a puzzle that keeps revealing new, ever-smaller partial solutions. Under Scoppetta, she formed a plan that took the city’s foster-care system from a monolithic, centralized bureaucratic nightmare to a more personal neighborhood-based model. This she found fun. “It was really unique, and incredibly challenging, and it was just very fun,” she says. “Because we knew we were walking into a situation that was a real mess.”

She grew up in Menands, New York, a small village (population 2,000) near Albany. Her father worked as a state labor negotiator and was also the town mayor. She chose suny-Potsdam for college because she wanted to be an art major, but “by the time I got there, I actually decided that I wasn’t talented enough for that. And maybe I was just too pragmatic.” After college, she dove into suny-Buffalo law school’s government-law program and from there found work with Alair Townsend, Ed Koch’s deputy mayor for economic development.

Her timing couldn’t have been better: Koch established a Charter Revision Commission to restructure the city government, and Gibbs joined the staff. That commission turned out to be the Bloomberg administration in embryo. Its secretary was Nat Leventhal, who later headed Bloomberg’s transition team. There she met Marc Shaw, the director of finance for the City Council who became Bloomberg’s scruffy No. 2 (he helped recruit her for the homeless-commissioner job). Working for Shaw was Tom McMahon; now McMahon serves a dual role as the council’s general counsel and as Linda Gibbs’s husband. (They have two children and live in Carroll Gardens.)

When Rudy Giuliani was elected, Gibbs moved to the city’s Office of Management and Budget. Two years into Giuliani’s first term, 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo was beaten to death by her mother even though several city agencies were aware she was being abused. Giuliani yanked the children’s-services division out of the mammoth Human Resources Administration in 1996 and created the Administration for Children’s Services, appointing Scoppetta as commissioner. Scoppetta and Gibbs managed to end a lawsuit that had been a part of the city’s approach to child welfare for the past three decades, partly by creating an advisory panel to mediate every point of legal contention. “She’s talked to me about the need to get out from under the litigation,” Scoppetta says now. “Maybe an advisory panel is the way out.”


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