A few weeks ago, the city asked the state Supreme Court for permission to temporarily ban homeless families from the shelter system if they fail to abide by shelter rules or accept adequate permanent apartment offers. Now, the city is looking to do the same for homeless single adults.
On Friday, the Bloomberg administration appealed a two-year-old State Supreme Court decision that prohibits the city from imposing such sanctions on single adults.
Seeking to enforce guidelines first established by the Giuliani administration in 1995, the city hopes to win the right to kick single adults from the shelter system for up to a month if they engage in gross misconduct, fail to complete a variety of assessments and an independent living plan, or refuse to take an adequate permanent apartment that has been offered to them.
“We continue to hear from people that they are scared to come into the shelter system,” said Department of Homeless Services spokesperson Jim Anderson. “This is another tool to further enhance safety.”
Such arguments failed to win over State Supreme Court Judge Stanley Sklar in 2000. Faced with an identical request from the Giuliani administration, Sklar ruled that these sanctions interfere with the state-mandated right to shelter, which was first established by the courts in the Callahan v. Carey case in 1979.
Sklar decided that the added paperwork and requirements that clients would have to complete to avoid the proposed sanctions were too stringent for many homeless adults. “The simple bureaucratic error which might send an individual out into the street because he or she was unable to understand or to cooperate with these requirements might be the error which results in that individual’s death by exposure, or death by sheer neglect. The risk is simply too great to take,” he ruled.
Bloomberg officials disagree, and say there must be consequences for clients who fail to obey shelter rules. “The right to shelter is not the right to engage in the behavior that puts other clients and shelter staff at risk,” said Anderson. “This would bring balance back to the system and make clear those critical distinctions.”
At least some shelter operators agree: “There should be a responsibility attached to the right,” said George McDonald, president of the Doe Fund, which provides shelter and services to hundreds of adults and supports the mayor’s appeal. Right now, says McDonald, “They have a right to shelter, but government doesn’t have a right to expect anything of them.”
Advocates at the Coalition for the Homeless agree that clients who engage in criminal and other disruptive activity should be dealt with. They have urged the city to beef up police security at shelters and to consider sending disruptive clients to “shelters of last resort,” without certain amenities and services available at other shelters.
However, says the coalition’s Patrick Markee, “Sending individuals onto the street is in nobody’s interest.” He fears the city would use the sanctions as a means for getting itself out of the expensive bind of finding shelter for homeless single adults and families as the demand in the system continues to grow. On the night of October 17, 7,650 single adults sought shelter from the city, according to the coalition, the highest level since 1991. And the family numbers are at an all-time high: 36,975 parents and children in late September.
Some shelter providers hope the city will back down from its rigid stance. “We support the concept that there should be consequences,” said Richard Salyer, director of Volunteers of America-Greater New York, which runs shelters for about 2,000 single adults and 300 families. But there need to be options other than putting people out on the street, he added. “I don’t think it’s a case of one size fits all.”
Oral arguments in the case are expected for mid-January. The case regarding homeless families will be in court on October 31.