COUNCIL: SANCTIONS UNSETTLING

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As the state appellate court drags its feet on deciding whether the Bloomberg administration can legally penalize homeless single adults for not following certain rules in the shelter system, a couple dozen City Council members last week increased the pressure on the Department of Homeless Services to negotiate a settlement on the matter.

In a resolution introduced on Wednesday, the Council members, led by Bill de Blasio, warned that the city’s plans to impose sanctions could increase homelessness and lead to more illness and death among adults living on the streets.

In February, the city’s attorneys argued in its appeal of the Callahan v. Carey case that DHS should be allowed to ban from the shelters for at least 30 days any client who endangers other shelter residents or fails to follow a plan for funding permanent housing. By filing the appeal, the Bloomberg administration hopes to bring the city into line with state regulations that require shelter residents to cooperate with a complete evaluation of their housing and public assistance needs; to work with social workers on a plan for moving to more permanent housing; to actively seek housing and not “unreasonably refuse” appropriate housing; and to refrain from endangering the safety and health of themselves and others.

Shelter is “not an entitlement” and is not a “perpetual right,” argued the city’s attorney, Alan Krams, at the appellate court hearing on February 28.

But Council members hope this policy can be softened if not completely circumvented through negotiations with the Coalition for the Homeless, the plaintiffs in the case. Settlements on this issue are certainly not unheard of: In January, the Bloomberg administration reached an agreement with the Legal Aid Society on a similar case involving homeless families. Rather than impose penalties on families, the settlement created a panel of special masters charged with evaluating the shelter system and policies.

The coalition supports the idea: “My door is always open,” said Steve Banks, the coalition’s lawyer and the lead attorney in the McCain case that was settled with the city in January.

But the city continues to say, no thanks. “We don’t believe a services system should send a message to an entire class of people that they are categorically unable to play by the rules, improve their lives, or set goals and achieve them,” said DHS spokesperson James Anderson. “Negotiations failed because we have an irreconcilable difference in philosophy.”