NEW HOMELESS FRINGE: COALITION GETS SNUBBED

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When Patrick Markee, policy analyst and point man for the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, picked up the Metro Section of the February 27 New York Times, he was miffed.

The headline? “Advocates for Homeless Offer Cautious Praise for City Changes.”

It wasn’t simply that City Hall reporter Jennifer Steinhauer chose not to call the coalition–one of the city’s most visible homeless advocacy groups–for comment. In doing so, she failed to learn of the group’s annual “State of the Homeless” report, coincidentally released the same day as her story.

This year’s report hands Mayor Bloomberg a lousy report card–”C+” for families; “D-” for singles–and contains some of the most troubling data on homelessness in years. The number of people sleeping in city shelters (38,628, as of February 24) has reached an all time high since the Great Depression, it states, and the number of homeless children has increased a frightening 67 percent since the mayor first took office.

Markee wonders if Steinhauer’s somewhat cheery article may have discouraged other papers from citing his group’s report. While the Associated Press recapped it in a 329-word brief the next day, Newsday was the only major local paper to pluck that story off the wires. Last year, nearly all the city’s major dailies ran pieces on the coalition’s findings.

“It was kind of a kick in the ass,” said Markee.

Some fellow advocates say the report’s lack of resonance this year may reflect a shift in thinking on how to effectively fight the city’s homelessness epidemic. Without former Mayor Guiliani as a constant and, at times, brutish foe, the coalition has been relegated to the fringe.

Steinhauer says she called 20 other sources for her piece. The coalition is “an extremely respected group,” she said, “but they’re not the only voice on homelessness.”

The mayor’s voice, however, has been loud and clear. “We’ve placed a record number of homeless New Yorkers–20,000 men, women and children–into permanent housing,” the mayor boasted in this January’s State of the City address. And “for the first time in modern memory,” he added, “no one slept on the floors of the Emergency Assistance Unit.”

The coalition acknowledges some improvements. It gave the agency a high “B+” for using federal resources like Section 8 vouchers to place homeless families in permanent housing. But Markee says that picture is incomplete. While the mayor has assured that “no one” slept on the floor of the Emergency Assistance Unit last year, for example, Markee contends “dozens to hundreds” of homeless couples did in fact sleep on EAU floors, prompting DHS to open a separate intake center in Manhattan.

Department of Homeless Services spokesperson Jim Anderson says concerns like these are overshadowed by the agency’s recent victories. The number of children in shelters, for instance, is “unacceptably high–but no longer growing,” Anderson said last week, speaking at a two-day conference where 250 public and private sector leaders gathered to offer recommendations on the mayor’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. (The coalition was not selected to join the 40-member coordinating committee, composed of other advocates and business leaders.)

“It’s a different kind of battle,” said Arnold Cohen, executive director of Partnership for the Homeless. During the combative Guiliani years, he said, advocates could engage a political dogfight—in court, out of court, anytime, anywhere. Now, with an agency at least willing to explore alternatives, the coalition’s attacks simply aren’t sticking.

“How do you fight an enemy that isn’t there?” he asked.

(Corrected version posted 3/8/04)