Tuesday, October 30, 2007

BOB HERBERT: No Emergency Room


Homeless advocates in New York are facing off against the Bloomberg administration in a fight that threatens to bring back the protracted court battles of a couple of decades ago.

There is no gray area in this fight. The advocates will tell you that a mayor with multiple billions of dollars and lavish homes here, there and everywhere has taken on the noxious task of throwing homeless families with small children out into the cold.

They will tell you that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with a bizarre new policy aimed at denying emergency shelter to as many applicants as possible, is forcing these families to spend long, harrowing nights riding subways, or sleeping in parks, or huddled in doorways, or camped out in hospital waiting rooms.

The city will tell you that’s nonsense, that a family might fall through the proverbial crack here and there, but that the mayor is not a Grinch, and that mothers with small children are not being left on their own in circumstances reminiscent of the Great Depression.

Well, some of them are. The question is, how many?

Diane Wilson, who was denied shelter and spent a weekend roaming the streets with her 7-year-old daughter, Jasmine, said she saw other mothers and children “scattered out there in the streets and on the subways in the middle of the night.”

And a number of homeless families have been sleeping on the floor at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx.

When I started researching this column, it seemed very much like the mayor had in fact ordered a crackdown that was condemning large numbers of destitute families to the street.

Ms. Wilson and Jasmine were given the alarming news that they could no longer stay in the emergency shelters that had housed them since September. The city’s policy, they were told, had changed.

Until a few weeks ago, the city had offered emergency shelter on a night-by-night basis to families that had been found to be ineligible for longer-term help. This safety net was important because bureaucrats make mistakes.

If you have no place to go and you’re standing in the doorway of a shelter, holding two kids by the hand, and an intake official doesn’t believe that you’re homeless, you’re in big trouble. Which is why emergency placement, until the truth can be sorted out, is essential.

The Bloomberg administration, upset by what it said were people abusing this emergency system for families who might have incorrectly been denied shelter, ended it.

Ms. Wilson and Jasmine were indeed thrown onto the street. Frightened and bleary-eyed, they tried to stay as long and as unobtrusively as possible at a McDonald’s restaurant. They rode the subways. They walked and walked and sometimes wept in frustration.

They thought at one point that they had found shelter — for at least awhile — in the waiting area of a hospital emergency room. But hospital officials, fed up with their presence, told Ms. Wilson that they would report her to the Administration for Children’s Services, which takes away the children of unfit parents.

Ms. Wilson and Jasmine hurried back outside.

So we are talking about an ugly situation here. But it’s not clear that it’s ugly in the same way that some homeless advocates are alleging. If you go on the hunt for homeless families in the street, you’ll have trouble finding any. There just aren’t that many out there.

And Diane Wilson’s initial application for shelter left a great deal to be desired. The kindest way to put it is that she made a few factual errors.

Despite that, the city took another look at her case. After two days, it again gave Ms. Wilson and Jasmine emergency shelter, and will most likely offer them more extended help.

So what’s the problem?

Steven Banks, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society and a longtime advocate for the homeless, is correct in his contention that the new Bloomberg policy is a step backward. There is no doubt that some families, probably a lot of them, have been improperly denied shelter.

There is no evidence, however, that most of them ended up on the street. The worst and most unscrupulous aspects of the homeless crisis are taking place out of public view — families being returned to homes that are inappropriate, and even dangerous; families being sent way out of state — to Florida, or the West Coast, or Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic — by city officials who just don’t want to deal with them.

It may be that the most dramatic examples offered by the advocates — mothers huddled with small children on street corners in the cold — are just the tiniest aspect of a much larger, much more tragic problem.

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