Dinkins' Shelter Plan Under Fire


THE firestorm of protests that met New York Mayor David Dinkins's proposal of a new concept for housing the homeless is still crackling two months later.Neighborhood, elected officials and even homeless advocates have differing objections to the $200 million five-year-plan for building 24 small, transitional shelter and treatment centers around the city. Almost everyone insists that the plan must be radically changed. That includes even Andrew Cuomo who heads a mayoral commission on homelessness due to make a broad report on the subject in January. He termed the plan "dead on arrival." Final approval of the plan is up to the City Council, which has been holding informal hearings. "This plan will not pass this Council - it isn't going to fly," insists Council spokeswoman Peg Breen.

Lack of specifics Ms. Breen says the mayor's plan, by listing 35 potential sites scattered around the city but giving no specifics about annual operating costs or types of programs offered, approaches the problem backwards. "The plan was guaranteed to build up opposition," she says. "It isn't surprising that people were upset and scared." Many of the potential sites are in stable, middle-class neighborhoods. Mayor Dinkins said he was obliged under the new City Charter approved by voters to distribute equitably the burdens and benefits of city facilities. Many poorer neighborhoods already have a high proportion of similar projects. Some of the plan's critics say commercial-industrial areas were left out of the formula and should be considered since they are often nearer transportation, jobs, and other services. Some advocates for the homeless would prefer to revamp other facets of the plan. They say racism and stereotyping of the homeless are behind much of this opposition. "We want to deal seriously with the concerns of the community rather than just having this blanket kind of rejection," says Anne Teicher, co-director of the Mayor's Office on Homelessness and Single Room Occupancy Housing. "The problem is that there's been so much misunderstanding about the program that people's perception of the impact is that it will be much more negative than we believe it will be," Ms. Teicher says. The mayor's plan would include on-site treatment for alcohol and drug addiction as well as mental illness. No building would serve more than 150 people. "We wanted to see the shelters even smaller - you don't help people in large groups," says John Turcott, spokesman for the Partnership for the Homeless, a shelter network of churches. In all, the mayor would provide temporary quarters for 2,500 single homeless men and women now in city shelters. He also hopes to build another 10,000 permanent housing units. Estimates of New York City's homeless range from 30,000 to 110,000. About 23,000 people currently stay in municipal shelters; as many as 5,000 more stay in private shelters. One common criticism of the mayor's plan is that the city should not only allow nonprofit organizations to run the shelters, as it now plans to do, but also to select the sites and build the shelters. Mr. Cuomo is one who says that nonprofits should play a much stronger role. Many say such groups can more effectively deal with neighborhood opposition and run the shelters better and more cheaply than the city. "These are not union city folks just looking for their next pay raise - they're people with a mission ... that have real community ties," explains Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, a 10-year-old homeless-rights advocacy group. "The city went about marketing this program entirely in the wrong way."

Separate the criminals Fred Siegel, a professor of humanities at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, says the mayor's plan would appear more manageable and less threatening if "intelligent distinctions" among different groups were made. Single homeless men with criminal records, for instance, could be assigned to existing secure facilities, he says. Some are critical of the mayor's new plan for leaving the existing homeless street population virtually untouched. "If nobody wants to let us build the shelters anywhere, we're not going to help either the people on the street or in the system now," insists Anne Teicher of the mayor's office. The city is expected to choose its final 24 shelter sites next spring.

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