Twenty-five years ago, in his last day in office, New York’s governor, Mario Cuomo, repaid a favor to then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. As the New York Times’ Celia Dugger reported, “If the new state rule withstands court challenges, it will mean the city can legally leave families to sleep for two nights or more on tables, chairs, and the floors of city offices while they wait for shelter and services.” Giuliani, a Republican, had endorsed Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, over his victorious Republican challenger. Cuomo, at the end of his long political career, did not have to grant the mayor this favor. But he did.
Dugger continued, “Mr. Cuomo, who spent his last campaign decrying the nation’s mean spiritedness toward the poor, will leave office on a final note of taking away a protection his administration established for the poorest of the poor in the state.” She reported that “Steven Banks, coordinating attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Family Rights Project…called the new rule ‘a political payoff [that] is cavalierly saying that families with children can be left to sleep on tables, chairs and floors.’”
That was then.
Last week, readers of the Post again saw pictures of homeless people sleeping on the floors of a homeless intake center. This time, Mayor Bill de Blasio—with Governor Cuomo the Younger’s blessing—has the police roust homeless people from the subways in the middle of a deadly pandemic and force them either onto the street or into homeless shelters where contagion rates are sky-high. Homeless people go to the subways precisely because they do not trust the shelters to be safe; this is normally the case, but in the context of COVID, it goes double.
Banks is now de Blasio’s commissioner of the Department of Social Services, which oversees the Department of Homeless Services. A department spokesperson just pilloried City Councilmember Steven Levin’s proposal to house homeless people in hotels to keep them safe as “ham-fisted and reckless, self-defeatingly unilateral and ill-informed, and legally questionable and amateurish.” It would be lovely to get the younger Steven Banks to respond.
Now, one could trot out the old line from the onetime student radical-turned-neoconservative, Irving Kristol, that a “neo-conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.” But that wouldn’t explain what’s going on here.
Indeed, the Trump administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency has said that it would foot 75 percent of the bill for putting people living on the streets and in congregate shelters where contagion risks are greatest into some of the city’s 100,000 empty hotel rooms. But de Blasio isn’t budging, preferring to use the police to remove homeless people from the subways and offer them a Hobson’s choice.
Nearly all homeless people in the subways would voluntarily leave the subways for hotels: Again, they are avoiding dangerous, congregate shelters. A GoFundMe campaign recently paid for hotel rooms for twenty homeless people. Most are still in the hotels. It’s a plan that works. And it’s nearly free for the city. The City Council bill recognizes all of this. De Blasio should stop using the police to solve this problem—a rare case on which the police and homeless activists agree. For his part, Andrew Cuomo, for all his daily shows of compassion—and his early career in homeless services—can only pronounce the homeless people on the subway “disgusting” to behold.
In April, Cuomo shoved a punishing austerity budget through the state legislature, claiming devastating shortfalls in state revenue while refusing to consider new taxes on the super-wealthy. But Cuomo could use emergency powers to compel the use of hotels. He could also move toward housing advocates’ demands for rent-forgiveness. When the eviction moratorium he declared is over in June—his extension to August is only partial—the possibility of mass evictions looms, still during the pandemic. Then, the terrible scenes of poor people being forced into situations in which they are at significant risk of contracting a sometimes-fatal disease will simply multiply exponentially.
Twenty-five years ago, Mario Cuomo was known for his oratory. During his years in office, Presidents Reagan and Bush made him look like a paragon of virtue. But his parting act as governor should remind us that his apparent compassion was mere sanctimony. A quarter-century later, we have craven municipal leadership, and federal leadership that makes Andrew Cuomo look heroic. Yet, the prospect of Andrew Cuomo following through on his rhetoric of respect and compassion is likely a chimera, as well; the son’s sanctimony may well send hundreds to their deaths for being too poor to pay rent, all while the real-estate billionaires whom Cuomo tapped to help “reopen” New York are seen as too precious to tax, even a little bit more.
John Krinsky is a political science professor at the City College of New York and the director of Community Change Studies there.