The Militant (logo)  
   Vol.66/No.33           September 2, 2002  
New York government uses jail
as shelter for the homeless
NEW YORK--Mayor Michael Bloom-berg is drawing fire here for his decision to reopen a decrepit city jail for use as an emergency overnight homeless shelter.

As the economic crisis worsens and capitalist landlords price working people out of apartments, the number of homeless families in New York City is growing by 25 percent a year. On an average night last week some 8,400 families, encompassing around 25,000 men, women, and children, were officially registered with the city’s homeless agency, along with 9,000 single people. The number of individuals in homeless families has increased by 10,000 since 1998.

Prior to reopening the jail on August 11 the mayor and the city commissioner for homeless services, Linda Gibbs, toured the facility, a tall brick fortress surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by corrections officers carrying guns, mace, and sticks. The jail is located just blocks away from the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit intake center in the Bronx, where those seeking shelter must wait in line to register and be fingerprinted.

Despite some quick touchup, which included covering some of the bars with white sheets, hanging shower curtains, and removing some of the perimeter barbed wire, the place looks, smells, and feels like a jail, several of those forced to stay there said.

About 90 homeless families were scheduled to sleep at the jail August 14. One of them, Kimberly Miller, 18, who was sent there with her two sons, aged one-and-half years and four months, said that she could not stand it and was finally allowed to leave after two hours.

Four days after opening this shelter, city officials admitted the presence of large amounts of lead-based paint, and announced they would no longer send children younger than six to the facility. This move came in response to an investigation by the Legal Aid Society. The firm hired by the society found that of 20 samples of paint, 17 were in "poor condition," meaning the paint was loose or chipped, making it easy for children to ingest. The levels of lead were as high as 8.5 milligrams per square centimeter of paint, the society said. The toxicity level as defined by the city Health Department is 1 milligram per square centimeter. If ingested, lead-based paint can cause permanent brain damage.

"Why stop at six, they’re still kids if they’re older, and lead poisoning is lead poisoning," stated Shanon Moore, 28, who was with her seven- and 10-year-old daughters. "Of course, I’ll go if I’m sent, we have no other choice."

On many days, dozens of families who have gone to the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx have been offered nowhere to sleep other than the unit’s floor. On August 14, for example, 51 families slept on the floor there. A court order bars the commissioner for homeless services from allowing any overnight stays at the unit. New York City is under court supervision of its homeless program, and operates under a consent decree to provide homeless people with shelter.

In June Mayor Bloomberg announced his plans for "reforming" the shelter system. While offering a modest increase in subsidies to those lucky enough to gain access to the scarce low-income housing units in the city, the mayor seeks the right to evict anyone in the shelter system whom city authorities deems to have been staying there too long. The billionaire mayor’s proposal "would require shelter clients to look at two apartments a week and prohibit them from refusing multiple housing options presented to them, or they would risk losing the right to stay in shelters for 30 days." reported the New York Times.

Elaborating further on the proposal, Homeless Services Commissioner Gibbs insisted, "Clients need to understand that this is temporary shelter that is there for emergencies. If families come in they need to understand and accept their obligation to seek and accept permanent housing."  
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