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Quality-of-Life Control

When it comes to squeegee men and other urban menaces, can Bloomberg stay tough -- and have a heart?

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Remember Larry Hogue, the trash-talking, ice-pick-wielding Wild Man of 96th Street, whose reign of terror over a swath of the Upper West Side in the early nineties (pushing a girl into traffic, trying to set parked cars afire) brought him in and out of mental hospitals and prisons? Hogue had serious brain damage, doctors said, but his crack habit and less-than-social behavior made him into a symbol of everything uncontrollable and fearsome about Dinkins-era New York -- its revolving-door justice, its menacing homelessness.

A decade later, at the start of a new mayoralty and new recession and fairly new war, the old icons are in play again. Crime is down, yes, but everything else is up. When Mike Bloomberg talks about anecdotal reports of quality-of-life incidents, he knows he's really talking about the public's fear of a time warp -- the notion that what's been undone can be done again. Squeegee men are back on Houston Street for the first time in recent memory. More vagrants are on the subways, and for good reason -- shelters haven't been this full since 1987. Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, the head of the Coalition for the Homeless (and, like Hogue, a superstar of New York's old homeless-crisis media circus), has encountered a city that seems sadly familiar: "People defecating on the subway, someone threatening to attack people -- there is this sense of 'What's going on here?' "

The recession and the terrorists have, of course, rope-a-doped us into a new economic crisis -- and the end of welfare, triggered by last month's five-year expiration of benefits, threatens to create a new generation of homeless people. Bloomberg says aggressive street people are a high priority, yet the situation he's inheriting is different -- and in some ways potentially worse -- than the one Giuliani started with.

Today's homeless population has fewer single adults and more families. "Replace your stereotype of the alcoholic man," Sullivan says. "It's much more likely to be a 7-year-old." This makes a straight law-and-order approach to homelessness a little outdated, and politically risky. But housing families is expensive: Last year, city spending on welfare hotels for families spiked 43 percent -- and this year, as layoffs mount, that's the number to watch.

How can Bloomberg stay tough and also move beyond the Rudy strategy? For advocates like Sullivan, the real answer isn't shelters but housing, something Giuliani benefited from (Dinkins- and Koch-era housing was completed in his first term) but failed to fund more of. Again, Bloomberg is at a disadvantage there -- he knew his new-housing hopes were dashed when the Trade towers crumbled.

But he can still economize while addressing street people who cause most of the problems. For two and a half years, the city has been resisting a lawsuit brought by activists that would provide more assistance for thousands of mentally ill people released from city jails. Settling would cost money (as the Giuliani administration argued), but it could also save money. Well-placed social services cost less than jails, and once these people's lives improve, studies suggest that their cells won't have revolving doors.

City lawyers were still fighting a contempt motion as late as December, but the judge has scheduled a conference for this week. We'll find out soon if this mayor knows a bargain when he sees one -- and can keep the Larry Hogues of the world off the streets and safely tucked away in people's nightmares.


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