No more court oversight for homeless services

September 17, 2008 11:18:33 AM PDT
The right to emergency shelter for homeless people in New York City is now established in a legal agreement between Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration and advocates for homeless families who sued the city 25 years ago. Previously, that right had existed only under a court order that stemmed from litigation originally brought against Mayor Ed Koch's administration in 1983. Both sides said Wednesday that they had settled the years-long legal dispute, an agreement that also means an end to court oversight of the city's homeless services system that had endured for four mayoral administrations.

The court-ordered right to shelter is believed to be the only one of its kind in any major city nationwide.

"Today's historic agreement provides a framework to ensure forever that children and their families will be entitled to shelter in New York City, no matter what the economic times are, no matter who the mayor is," said Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society, the lawyer who originally brought the case.

The years of litigation have resulted in a city homeless policy that has largely been shaped by the court.

Among other things, court orders have included mandates like requiring the city to stop letting homeless families sleep on the floor of the emergency intake center, and making baby formula available to homeless families waiting for shelter assignments.

The courts also initiated the rule that homeless families seeking shelter could not be interviewed by phone and had to be seen in person.

City officials had argued that homeless services were insufficient in the early 1980s when the case was brought, but that years of court supervision had created an atmosphere of "quasi-paralysis" in the administration because the layers of legal red tape caused delays and kept the city from being able to set its own agenda.

Bloomberg, who has been criticized in recent years for failing to improve the city's homeless problem, acknowledged there is work to be done but said the settlement "frees us to make even greater progress."

On a given night in New York City, some 30,000 people stay in city shelters, a number that includes some 8,000 families with children.

A harsh report last month by the city's Independent Budget Office said Bloomberg is far short of the goal he set in 2004 to reduce the homeless population by two-thirds before his term ends in 2009.

The Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group that has long been critical of Bloomberg's homeless record, said it was pleased with the settlement and that the administration has "come to its senses" to codify the right to shelter in a legal agreement.

"It is our hope that the city will now stop hiding behind the fig leaf of litigation and start providing families with vulnerable children emergency shelter and long-term, stable rental assistance so they can begin to rebuild their lives," said Mary Brosnahan, the group's executive director.

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