Mayor Bloomberg is supposed to be pragmatic, ruled by data, and fundamentally results-oriented. And yet, when it comes to the city’s homeless, he can also be an ideologue. With few particularly solid (non–Wall Street) signs that we are shaking off an extended, brutal recession, and the city’s shelter rolls higher than they’ve ever been—about 36,000 people, or 15,000 more than in the bleak Dinkins era—he’s doubling down on an innovative welfare-reform policy that advocates for the homeless are worried will just make matters worse: charging for space in a shelter.
The mayor’s people call it an “income contribution requirement.” City Hall announced the policy earlier this spring, explaining that it was simply complying with the fine print of a state policy (suggested, it’s said, by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani) that had gone unenforced for years. After the cash-poor state said it would refuse to pay the city a few million in homeless assistance, the city announced it would essentially pass the cost along to people who want to stay in shelters, starting this fall. It’s over $900 a month in some cases, no small thing. Then, when State Senator Daniel Squadron tried to change the law, to prohibit the city from charging rent in shelters, the city chose to lobby against it.
The city’s Homeless Services commissioner, Robert Hess, is said not to have supported the policy (though he never commented publicly on it). He was replaced this month with Seth Diamond, a veteran of Giuliani-era welfare reform. Meanwhile, the poor are still applying for shelter with the city in record numbers. Bloomberg’s people may blame the recession, but advocates say the situation worsened as soon as the mayor started attaching strings to subsidized housing. “There’s a wealth of studies that showed that permanent housing keeps people out of shelters,” says Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. “Besides that, you’ve got the evidence of the city’s new policies. The recession only made it worse.”
Charging admission to homeless shelters is part of a broader Bloomberg policy to transform the city’s social-service system in ways that motivate people off the dole. (Another policy, also excoriated by homeless advocates, would eject formerly homeless people from subsidized housing if they fail to get a job within a set amount of time.) “From the city’s point of view, we believe there is responsibility on the client side to make their own effort to overcome their homelessness,” says Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor who oversees Homeless Services. “And seeking a contribution from them if they have income is not inappropriate. It fits within a whole program and approach for helping people overcome their homelessness.” And with the hiring of “compassionate conservative” Stephen Goldsmith as deputy mayor for operations, expect more of this thinking.
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