“It’s extraordinarily frustrating,” says Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless. “It seems so obvious.” She’s trying to explain why – at a time when state and city coffers are flush with surplus tax dollars and an election is just around the corner – the one program that’s been proven to get the hard-core homeless off the streets cheaply and effectively hasn’t been renewed. Known as the New York/New York Agreement, and praised by advocates and politicians across the board, it looks on paper like a shoo-in for funding. But its continuation requires that Governor Pataki pay half of its relatively paltry cost, and to date, the governor has given no indication that he plans to contribute a penny.
The program, drawn up byDavid Dinkins and Mario Cuomo, has created inexpensive homes for 8,370 mentally ill New Yorkers. An astonishing 84 percent of those served by the program have stayed off the street, living in the New York/New York units or moving on to other apartments. But even a record like that and money on the table – the city has already budgeted $85 million to build more of the housing – aren’t enough to keep the program alive. The city won’t do anything unless the state matches its allocation. “We have always maintained that we weren’t going to do these programs by ourselves,” says one city official. “Because once you start down that path and you say, ‘Well, all right, we’ll pay for it,’ then the state feels that they don’t have to pay for anything.”
“So far there has been silence from the governor’s office,” says James Brennan, who chairs the State Assembly’s mental-health committee.
Despite the distance, literal and figurative, between Albany and New York City, the governor does have some incentive to fund this program. Like the mayor, he is rumored to be preparing for the national stage, and he can’t afford to alienate any constituency. “New York City residents do not want to see homeless people all over the streets again,” warns political consultant Hank Scheinkopf. “They’ll blame George Pataki.”
As it is, after declining for several years, the homeless population is rising again. Encampments are sprouting up around town, and local shelters are filling up. Up till now, Pataki’s work in the field of mental health has been heavily influenced by pork-barrel politics: To protect jobs upstate, he has left 29 ridiculously overstaffed mental institutions open, soaking up 70 percent of the mental-health budget to serve just 3 percent of the state’s mentally ill. Scheinkopf sees that record as a new liability: “The rumor is that George Pataki would make a wonderful vice-presidential candidate. It’s not in his interest to portray himself in an election year as someone completely lacking in compassion. He can’t afford to have that kind of baggage.”
Homeless advocates want to make sure the governor understands how their interests and his converge, and so 102 city social-service agencies have formed a lobbying coalition. On Wednesday, 300 supporters, including many New York/New York clients, will travel to Albany to meet with the city’s entire delegation and hold a public rally. “Things are going to play out very quickly over the next couple of weeks,” says Brosnahan.
Many of the protesters have undertaken the journey in the past, but this time, they say, the fate of the program is uniquely urgent. “New York City leads the nation in this stuff now,” says Cynthia Stuart of the Corporation for Supportive Housing. “New York really knows what it’s doing, and it’s just criminal not to have some money to back that up.”