Shelters Go Private: Is It A Help or Hindrance?

New York joins movement to put homeless services in private hands, raising concern about long-term aid.

The mayor of New York is well on his way to getting the city completely out of the homeless-shelter business, transferring the largest shelter network in the nation to the care of private groups.

But each step he takes - such as a new move to cut by half the 2,000-person Department of Homeless Services and spend that money to help privatize shelters - provokes an outcry by homeless advocates.

"The city is treating shelter privatization as an end unto itself rather than as a means to put people more efficiently into permanent housing," says Mary Brosnahan of New York's Coalition for the Homeless. Without city intervention on the housing front, homeless advocates fret, people who are homeless or who will lose their benefits during the coming wave of welfare reform will "literally fall into the streets."

At its heart, the clash between Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and homeless advocates is over how much local government should do to pull people off the streets - and keep them off.

Whereas Ms. Brosnahan and others argue that the city by law and social mandate is required to build permanent housing for low-income people, city officials counter that government can only be expected to provide a foundation for individual recovery. The burden for improvement, says Gordon Campbell, commissioner of the city's Department of Homeless Services, is on the homeless themselves.

"We want to serve as a bootstrap to allow homeless families to assume responsibility for moving toward independent living," says Mr. Campbell.

National trend

Few here argue with the fundamental move to privatize shelters, something dozens of US cities have already done.

Most city governments, Denver and San Francisco for instance, are not involved at all in managing shelters, says Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. In fact, privately run shelters under the management of groups such as the Salvation Army and Volunteers of America are characteristic of most cities and rural communities.

Because privately run shelters have become the norm rather than the exception, advocates are concerned that city governments have made affordable housing for low-income families a low priority. "The issue of privatization is really a moot question," says Ms. Gleason. "The real issue here is whether or not there is sufficient low-cost housing for poor people."

But Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, says affordable housing isn't the panacea advocates would make it out to be. Many homeless people struggle with substance abuse or mental illness, making permanent housing a secondary need. "These are people who are so radically socially disassociated they are not going to stay in affordable housing," she says.

Privatization success story

The privately run St. Paul's Church shelter is a small 10-bed facility tucked like an oasis in downtown Manhattan.

Providing housing for male adults for six to 12 months, the shelter was created in 1983 by the nonprofit Partnership for the Homeless just as the problem began to take on national proportions.

"We're really looking for people who want to straighten out their lives," says Mike Gabor, a volunteer who interviews prospective boarders before admitting them. "When you live on the street, it's like walking in a circle that you can't break. We want to break that circle."

And by all accounts, they have. The success of the St. Paul's Church shelter is a stark contrast to the 1980s, when pictures of vacuous, unclean dormitory-style shelters sparked a public outcry that quickly led to the creation of several homeless advocacy groups. To rectify a largely dismal situation, the city began to ask nonprofit groups specializand mental-health support to take over the ing in drug rehabilitation shelters.

Spurred by a 1992 landmark report by the New York City Commission on the Homeless, headed by Andrew Cuomo, now secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city shifted some 40 shelters to private groups.

But as New York moves to reduce its current lot of shelters from 15 to three, Gleason of the National Coalition for the Homeless says her studies show that when cities abdicate shelter management, many families fall through the cracks, and they will continue to do that in New York.

Commissioner Campbell says that is to be expected. He says the shelters, which house roughly 20,000 people a night, simply have limitations. "There are many people in New York City, like there are many people across the country, who are in less-than-ideal situations," he says. "But there is no way we can meet every individual and every family's need. I don't know anyone who has the resources to do that."

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