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Controversial New Policy Forces Homeless to Prove They Have Nowhere to Go

By Jill Colvin | November 4, 2011 1:55pm
A homeless man walks down the street on June 20, 2011 in New York City.
A homeless man walks down the street on June 20, 2011 in New York City.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

MIDTOWN — People seeking refuge in the city’s homeless shelters will have to prove they have no other place to go under a new policy announced Thursday that has advocates reeling.

“Last night, we announced that we are implementing a policy where when people come in and apply for shelter. We’ll look at where they were living before and make a determination about whether any of those places where they have lived in recent months are options,” Seth Diamond, Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, told DNAinfo Friday.

He said the change in policy, which sent shock waves through the advocate community, was intended to increase the level of service for those who truly have no options — not reduce costs.

Bellevue men's homeless shelter on First Avenue.
Bellevue men's homeless shelter on First Avenue.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

The department has seen a marked increase in the number of people turning to shelters after living with family and friends, from 40 percent five years ago to more than 60 percent in recent times, Diamond said.

“The shelter system should be reserved for those who have no alternatives,” he said.

Beginning the week of Nov. 15, those who show up at shelters will be interviewed by specialists who will ask them about their previous residences and assess whether they have alternatives they could turn to instead.

“There are some people that come in who are not aware of their options,” he said. “Our goal here is to match people with the resources that will [help] them most."

The department is hiring specialists who will conduct the interviews and make assessment, which will include contacting prior residences to determine whether they are safe to return to, he said.

“No one is being turned away,” Diamond insisted, arguing that the city has used the same approach for homeless families for the past 16 years.

But City Council Speaker Christine Quinn blasted the decision as “cruel, risky, unacceptable” and called for an emergency oversight hearing scheduled for Nov. 9.

“This policy is an irresponsible 'no room at the inn' approach that does nothing to address the record number of people experiencing homelessness in New York City as winter approaches,” she said in a joint statement with General Welfare Committee Chair Annabel Palma, which called on the Bloomberg administration to reverse the policy.

Scott Cotenoff, a senior vice president for Partnership for the Homeless, said the idea that people would turn to a shelter if they didn’t really need to is far-fetched.

“People seek assistance from a shelter on a last resort,” he said, arguing that shelters should be available to anyone in need at any time.

He noted that the announcement comes just as the city is about to discontinue funding for the Advantage program, which provides housing subsidies to thousands of families across the city.

He suspected the city is likely stepping up its efforts to separate those who are “more deserving of shelter than others” ahead of the expected rush.

Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, also  echoed the Council’s language, calling the new rules “dangerous and inhumane.”

She warned the new rules will result in more people sleeping on the streets, in the subways and in other public spaces, just as winter is approaching,

“Mayor Bloomberg has failed to move homeless families and individuals out of the shelter system and into stable housing, and failed to prevent thousands of New Yorkers from becoming homeless.  The result is record homelessness and a shelter system at the breaking point,” she said in a statement.

Diamond said that those who don’t agree with the city’s determination can argue their case in front of a state judge.