CITY HALL — City Council members railed against a new homeless policy that will force those seeking shelter to prove they have nowhere else to go, warning Wednesday it will drive people into the streets.
“My concern is that this process is simply going to force people, as winter approaches, to sleep in the streets as they go through an unfair and at times grueling and invasive verification process. Is that really what we want?” said Council Speaker Christine Quinn ahead of an emergency hearing called in response to the new policy, which was announced by the Department of Homeless services last week.
Beginning on Nov. 13, individuals who want to sleep in city shelters will be forced to undergo a rigorous interview, after which 23 newly-hired “eligibility specialists” will look at their housing history to determine whether the shelter system is really their last resort.
“People should use other housing options if they are available,” testified DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond, who said that, at a time of fiscal crisis, “precious resources" should be preserved "for people who need them most.”
Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of the Legal Aid Society, said the group intends to file an injunction Thursday morning to block the move, which they were informed about by DHS on Nov. 3.
The hearing comes as new numbers show homelessness is on the rise.
According to a Coalition for the Homeless report released Wednesday, there are now more than 41,000 men, women and children living in the city’s shelters — most since the survey started in 1983. The number includes more than 17,000 children sleeping in shelters every night.
According to Council numbers, there were 9,343 single adults in the shelter system on Nov. 3 — a 22 percent spike since 2008.
While Diamond repeatedly insisted that the policy change is not driven by cost savings, the department estimated it can save approximately $4 million-a-year if it can divert about ten percent of shelter applicants to other places, like the homes of family and friends.
“There are a range of options and services available to people that they may not realize,” Diamond said, pointing to food stamps and family mediation as potential options.
Diamond assured that anyone who shows up at a homeless shelter will be housed until a determination on their eligibility is made, and said a similar interview system has been in place for homeless families for 15 years.
But council members blasted every aspect of the plan, especially the idea that someone might turn to a homeless shelter if it wasn't really their last resort.
“Do we think these people are lying when they come in?” asked City Councilwoman Annabel Palma, chair of the council’s General Welfare Committee, who personally has battled homelessness.
She said that being forced to turn up at a shelter is a humiliating enough experience without an added two-hour interrogation questioning men's and women's choices.
“If I’m going to be thought of as a liar, I’m not even going to ask for help,” said Palma, who warned earlier at a rally on City Hall’s steps that people turned away from the shelter system will be pushed out on the street, where their lives will be at risk.
Brooklyn City Councilman Jumanne Williams was bluntest in his criticisms, slamming the policy as “insane” and “stupid,” and accusing the city of overstepping its bounds by presuming it can pressure private residents into turning their homes into shelters for family and friends.
But Diamond said that the department has seen a marked increase in the number of people turning to shelters after living with family and friends, from just 40 percent five years ago to more than 60 percent in recent times — leading officials to believe the situation may be less cut and dry.
He said the department will use “multiple safeguards” to make sure alternatives are safe and ensure that no one really needing services will be turned away.
But Council members questioned how the city will decide who has another place to go.
While factors like overcrowding or violence at a previous residence would likely rule an address out, Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin pressed Diamond on what would happen if a relative with whom an applicant has previously stayed said ‘No,' they didn't want them to return.
While Diamond repeated that every case is different and said staff will be there to assist, he said ultimately the responsibility will rest with them.
“Family should take care of themselves,” he said. “Brothers should take care of each other.”
Levin also noted that those who are rejected from the system will no longer be classified by the city as “homeless,” artificially driving numbers down.
Council members also expressed deep frustration over the fact that they were not consulted ahead of the move.
Quinn said she found out from a news report that policy was set to take effect in ten days.
“When the Bloomberg administration has policies they think are good, they usually call. So I find it curious,” she said.
Kendall Jackman, 56, one of a handful of homeless people who attended the hearing, said the new policy is off-base.
“I don’t have family I can stay with. My family wouldn’t take me in,” said Jackman, who sleeps at a shelter in The Bronx.
While a friend’s couch might be good for a weekend, in the long-term, “It’s not going to fly,” she said.