Marie Bresil sits with her hands clasped tightly around the pocketbook in her lap, nervously twiddling her fingers as tears seep from the corners of her eyes. She's staring straight ahead, impassively.
A homeless mother cut off from welfare, she's now frightened she could lose the room she shares here in a shelter with three children because of a new city policy that requires all "able-bodied" boarders to work. "What do they want me to do: live in the streets?" she asks quietly.
Like thousands of homeless people in New York, Ms. Bresil is caught in an emerging national debate over how best to deal with homelessness - a seemingly intractable problem that has refused to give way despite the nation's booming economy.
Escalating housing prices have forced thousands out of their apartments and homes, creating a new generation of homeless - many families and children. The result is a growing challenge for urban and suburban America. Many cities, concerned about the visibility of the homeless and eager to promote self-sufficiency, have cracked down on those living on sidewalks.
But poverty groups contend that such moves only amount to "criminalizing" homelessness and exacerbate the problem.
"It's an unfortunate trend that comes out of frustration in terms of responding to the complexities of the issue," says Philip Mangano, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.
Perhaps nowhere is the tension more visible at the moment than in New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) is trying to apply the self-sufficiency ethic of welfare reform to the homeless. He's decreed that those who bed down in cardboard boxes on city streets will be arrested if they don't move along or accept the help the city offers. And starting this month, all able-bodied people living in shelters must work or they can be tossed out and their children put in foster care.
Mr. Giuliani defends his new approach as truly compassionate. "Attaching social responsibilities to social programs helps people move away from dependency toward self-sufficiency," says Anthony Coles, a senior mayoral adviser.
On any given night nationwide, an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 people sleep in shelters. While the numbers vary from city to city, a snapshot of New York and Philadelphia shows that as many as 60 percent of those people are families and children, 30 percent are single homeless, and 10 percent are mentally ill.
Recent studies indicate that more families and children are cycling in and out of shelters on a short-term basis than previously thought. In New York, while 23,000 people reside in shelters on a given night, more than 85,000 people will stay in a shelter at some point during the year.
"We found that about 6 percent of poor families are homeless in a year, and about 10 percent of poor children under the age of 5 are homeless in a year," says Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Homeless advocates attribute much of the new pressure on families to the escalation in rent prices, as vacancy rates shrink and poorer neighborhoods become gentrified. "The economic boom is having a kind of paradoxical impact on the poorest members of this society," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington.
A recent study done by the center found that 48 of the 50 states have enacted new laws or revived old ones designed to get homeless people off the streets.
During a nine-month period in 1998, San Francisco police issued more than 16,000 "quality of life" tickets, most to homeless people. In Tucson, Ariz., the city council proposed "privatizing" the sidewalks, which would have allowed business owners to keep people from sleeping in front of stores.
Homeless activists say New York has gone the furthest in its crackdown, confusing the threat of prison sentences with instilling personal responsibility. They believe such policies make it harder to deal with a complicated social problem. "This flies in the face of everything that we know about how to end homelessness," says Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington.
But some conservatives believe that, as with welfare reform, the best solution is a "tough-love" approach with a clear set of expectations, requirements, and penalties. "Giuliani is right to require work," says Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "We've been down the other route, and it just increases the dependence and the breakdown of the family."
Ms. Roman and other advocates respond that putting children in foster care will only exacerbate the homeless problem in the long run. Studies have shown that at least three times as many homeless people were foster children at one time, compared with the general population.
To the Giuliani administration, a parent who won't work is endangering his or her children. "If after a series of interventions, a healthy bodied parent won't work to support his children and is willing to put them on the street, it raises questions about a risk of neglect," says Mr. Coles.
In the end, advocates for people like Bresil say the city has to do more to ensure people get the services they need and aren't punished by the complicated paperwork and rules of the city's workfare program. Bresil has been in four shelters in five months. She says she was cut off from welfare because she missed an appointment with a caseworker. She says she never got a notice, because she had no permanent address.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society