My Favorite Martin

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Shhh. The mayor’s newest commissioner, Department of Homeless Services boss Martin Oesterreich, is getting a reputation as an accessible, open, honest guy. In fact, one advocate worried that if the mayor hears how popular the guy is, he’ll get the axe.

Oesterreich was appointed in March to head DHS, an agency routinely pilloried for policy disasters. Traditionally, DHS commissioners are not advocates’ best friends. But one of the first things Oesterreich did was call up Fred Shack, president of the Tier II Coalition of homeless shelters, to talk shop. “He has been receptive,” says Shack, who has since spoken with Oesterreich two or three times.

Among advocates, Oesterreich is known for being frank when he disagrees and for admitting he’s not omniscient–he got that rep in his old job as the first commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development. The DHS job is a more politically charged post, however, and simply being a good guy may not do much to change policies, points out Legal Aid’s Steve Banks. “In day-to-day operations, a commissioner who has a good heart can ameliorate the suffering of homeless children and adults to some degree,” Banks says. “The problem is homeless policy as set at City Hall.”

Indeed, during May’s budget sessions before City Council, Oesterreich touted the virtues of making residents work in exchange for shelter. “I believe that the central tenet of making people independent revolves around mutual responsibility,” Oesterreich said, winning him a happy thumbs-up from welfare commissioner Jason Turner.

Meanwhile, Legal Aid and the Coalition for the Homeless are both looking into ways to push the city to obey a law and a recent court order that protect shelter applicants during the application process. And this is one case in which Oesterreich’s openness may help. Says coalition executive director Mary Brosnahan: “In contrast to [former commissioners] Joan Malin and Gordon Campbell, he doesn’t take things personally.”