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Friday’s tumultuous City Council hearing began with the Giuliani administration’s plan to make homeless people work for their shelter, ended with councilmembers accusing one another of incompetence and racism, and left many questions unanswered when agency chiefs took to their heels after barely an hour of questioning.

The hearing saw the heads of the welfare agency, homeless services department and child welfare agency lined up in front of some of their biggest critics. Advocates and council members alike have attacked this new strategy to make shelter residents join the city’s workfare program–especially the plan to put the children of homeless parents in foster care if a family is booted out into the street.

Calling media reports about the plan “inaccurate, speculative and just plain wrong,” homeless services chief Martin Oesterreich explained the proposal to the council, stressing that the physically and mentally disabled would not be forced to work for their shelter, and insisting that few children would get taken away from their parents.

But one major question remained unresolved: whether the new plan to put shelter residents into workfare jobs is actually legal. Advocates pointed out that previous court orders bar the city from either placing a work condition on shelter services or from taking homeless children away from their parents. Legal Aid Society Homeless Rights Project coordinating attorney Steven Banks, who received official notice of the city plan on Friday afternoon, will ask the courts next week to put the policy on hold. It is supposed to go into effect December 13.

The trio of commissioners didn’t address these legal issues–though welfare boss Jason Turner did manage to offend most of the audience by referring to the “poverty industry” in his first sentence.

Soon after Turner finished his remarks, the hearing degenerated into bickering on the dais. Council Republican leader Thomas Ognibene demanded the right to pose questions, and, when refused by chair Stephen DiBrienza, lashed out at Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge for being late. Later, Councilmember Juanita Watkins mentioned that although the proposal would affect mostly black women, all three commissioners are white men; Oesterreich replied by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

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