New York city council may sue over Bloomberg homeless policy

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 29, 2011 8:03 AM
New York city council may sue over Bloomberg homeless policy

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York City Council will vote on Tuesday whether to proceed with filing a lawsuit over new eligibility requirements for the city's homeless shelters that the council speaker described as "cruel and punitive."

Christine Quinn, the council speaker, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration did not follow rules laid out in the city charter when announcing it would change the admission policy at shelters for single men and women, requiring them to prove they have nowhere else to stay.

"We are filing this lawsuit because the Bloomberg administration has flouted the rules and regulations as it relates to public notification," Quinn told reporters at her office at City Hall on Monday, appearing confident the vote would go in her favor.

"The public has to be notified. The public has to have opportunity to comment. I would argue that it hasn't happened because it's a bad policy and you don't promote things you're not proud of."

If the lawsuit against the Bloomberg administration, aimed at forcing public hearings on the issue, were to proceed, it would be the first time the council has filed an independent lawsuit against the mayor's office during Quinn's tenure as speaker, which began in 2006.

The City of New York is bound by a 1981 ruling known as the Callahan consent decree to provide shelter to anyone who needs it because of "physical, mental or social dysfunction."

The Bloomberg administration has said the introduction of the new policy was not out-of-line with current regulations.

Seth Diamond, the commissioner of the city's Department of Homeless Services, told Reuters the proportion of people in shelters coming directly from living on the streets has decreased to about 15 percent from 33 percent five years ago.

"The overwhelming majority of people are coming from living with someone else," he said. "The system has developed so that people use it as a first option. We think it should be for people who have no alternatives," Diamond said.

"If you're there because you've had a fight with your mother or your brother, we can help to step in to mediate," he added.

Diamond said the policy was designed to help staff better understand and advise men and women who sought help, and was based on a similar admissions policy in place for homeless families for the last 15 years.

He said that ultimately anyone who genuinely needed shelter would still be provided a place to stay under the new policy. About 8,500 individuals, not including families, stayed in city shelters on Sunday night, Diamond said.

He said the new policy would save an estimated $4 million from the department's $800 million budget, but stressed that cost-cutting was not a deciding factor in the policy change.

The Bloomberg administration has agreed to postpone implementing the new policy, which had been due to start on November 14, until a judgment was reached in an earlier lawsuit filed in the State Supreme Court by the Legal Aid Society, a not-for-profit legal organization for low-income New Yorkers.

That lawsuit said the policy would violate the consent decree and was not subjected to required public hearings.

"What we have in effect here is a city plan to erect a barrier to such people when they turn to the city for help," Steven Banks, the Legal Aid Society's attorney-in-chief, said.

He said the new policy could result in genuinely homeless people being refused shelter.

The next hearing is due to take place in December. Speaker Quinn said the council's lawsuit, if approved, would likely be filed by mid-December.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Bohan)