Client responsibility actually had a life prior to Gibbs, as a failed proposal from the Giuliani administration. The idea was that homeless welfare workers who didn’t comply with the city’s new welfare-to-work rules would be kicked out of their shelters. The city had fairly good luck clearing the idea with the courts until the state granted one last temporary restraining order. Then the public, in a Daily News poll, blasted the idea, and the mayor decided not to ask the judge to lift the restraining order. Now Gibbs wants that order lifted, arguing that her sanctions have nothing to do with welfare-to-work.
Gibbs says she decided to try it again after touring shelters and hearing caseworkers as well as her own staff talk about how people in the system were turning down apartments. In July, for instance, 20 percent of the homeless people presented with permanent apartments by her agency were turned down by landlords (some landlords hold out for a larger family that will bring a larger government subsidy). But 30 percent of the homeless people rejected the apartments outright.
From this she drew the conclusion that the clog in the system was on the back end as well as at the EAU. “We are a temporary emergency-housing system that has grown over time into a form of permanent housing,” she says. “The clients themselves have a role to fulfill. The current system does not set the appropriate expectations.”
Even Ed Koch came out and asked why, instead of kicking people to the curb, Gibbs didn’t simply force people to accept the apartments they’d been shown. In response, Gibbs squints and shrugs. “How do you compel somebody to live somewhere?” she says. “They have to have a lease and they have to pay rent. It just gets back to the question: What if they refuse? What then?” Anyway, she says, “my firm belief is that virtually every client will comply. I wouldn’t implement this if I didn’t firmly believe that.”
Still others see in the fine print of Gibbs’s plan some encouraging signs -- changes the advocates have long wanted. “The first thing I noticed was that for the first time, the city created guaranteed access to permanent housing for homeless families,” says Gail Nayowith. “The second message I got was it created an obligation on the part of the shelter providers and the city to help find housing for homeless people.” Nayowith believes that the shame of banishing anyone from shelter, especially during the winter, would keep Gibbs from following through on any threat.
It’s certainly true that what makes Client Responsibility so galling to the advocates is that they consider it (and the jail idea) a blight on an otherwise fairly admirable administration. Rudy Giuliani, by contrast, was so cool on the shelter system that his DHS officials at times went behind his back to work with the advocacy community.
“We’re talking now,” says Steve Banks, who’s moved beyond the jail contretemps. He’s even suggested a compromise. “Instead of continuing to fight about this, we’ve asked the court to permit the city to discharge families to apartments they’ve turned down rather than the streets,” he says. “Sounds practical, right?” So far, Gibbs hasn’t taken him up on it.
Gibbs fondly remembers the day she took Mike Bloomberg to jail. It was a Sunday in August, the day before River Avenue Annex, a few blocks from the EAU in the Bronx, was to be reopened as an emergency shelter, its bars concealed from view by blue plastic.
She was desperate. Linda Sullivan, the assistant commissioner who oversees the EAU, had walked through the jail with Gibbs Friday afternoon. “It’s a godsend,” she told Gibbs. Two days later, Gibbs showed the jail to the billionaire mayor.
Gibbs talked as he listened. Then they toured the EAU and saw babies and their parents on benches and floors. Finally, he spoke his piece. Did he say, What are you thinking? Or, perhaps, Isn’t there anywhere else you can put these people? No.
According to Gibbs, he said, “We shouldn’t say no because of fear about bad press or bad PR. If, in your heart, you believe that it’s the right thing, then that’s what we should do.” Mayor Bloomberg, meet Jiminy Cricket.
“I wanted to hug him,” Gibbs says. “But I wasn’t allowed -- he’s the mayor; you can’t just grab him. But he was great.”
This kind of approach pervades this City Hall -- find a way to make the machine run better, implement it, don’t get bogged down by criticism. There is a human cost to these decisions, of course. After next month, Gibbs’s next decision could mean denying someone shelter, taking a child away from a parent. For someone holding the fate of thousands of people in her hands, Gibbs shows a confidence that’s both inspiring and, in its unself-consciousness, a little unsettling. But her unwavering faith in her new system is as close as she comes to having a philosophy about this roaring crisis.
“I strongly believe that you have to trust government to do the right thing,” she says. “You can’t structure a government agency based on the expectation that it will do the wrong thing. People are in government because they care.”