'It's All Their Fault': Dept. of Homeless Services Blame the Victim as Lawsuit Alleges Denial of Shelter

PHOTO:  NYC.gov  DHS Commissioner Robert Hess, on the left, with Mayor Bloomberg, center, at a Dec. 22 appearance.

A Dec. 9 lawsuit against New York City alleges that homeless men and women are sleeping on benches, floors, and dining room tables, in violation of 1980s-era settlements with the city which established that homeless men and women have a constitutional right to shelter, The New York Times reports.

According to Times reporter Julie Bosman, the lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, requests that a New York State Supreme Court judge enforce past settlements to lawsuits over shelter for the homeless by ordering the city to come up with more beds.

The lawsuit also “alleges that homeless women have been transported on buses after midnight to a shelter in East New York, Brooklyn, where they have been allowed to sleep for less than five hours before being required to leave again in the morning.”

Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Commissioner Robert Hess blamed individuals described in the motion for “refusing” beds or arriving at shelters too late.

This sort of “blame the victim, not the system” rhetoric isn’t new, of course.  The Giuliani years, and now the Bloomberg years, have seen plenty of instances where the respective administration’s blamed the homeless for their plight.

The reality is much more complicated than the neoliberal explanation that the homeless need to show more “personal responsibility.”

The reason why there exists such a high demand on the municipal shelter system is because of a horrendous economy, unemployment, evictions from apartments, and the complete lack of any affordable housing in the city.  All of those reasons are set against the backdrop of thousands of vacant property sites around the city and a huge waiting list for placement in public housing even as public housing apartments remain vacant for long periods of time due to “renovations,” as the city claims.

The stakes are even higher as the winter cold approaches, when historically demand for shelter has soared.

Here’s more from the Times report (emphasis mine):

‘The system has not yet exceeded capacity, though it is close,’ Mr. Hess said. Capacity in the adult shelter system was at 99.6 percent on Dec. 8.

We’ve seen an uptick in demand, so our system, as you might expect, is a little tight,’ he said. ‘We’re confident that we’ll continue to be able to meet demand and meet our obligations throughout the winter.’

Mr. Hess said that the description of homeless women being bused to a night-only shelter was ‘potentially correct,’ but he said many of the women had missed curfew at the shelter where they were originally assigned.

‘Am I completely comfortable with that? No,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, people made a choice not to come in by curfew.’

The 15-page motion filed on Wednesday describes scenes that the Coalition monitors say they witnessed in the last several months.

For instance, late at night on Sept. 29, at least 15 homeless men at two shelters the group visited had not received beds. Workers at one of the shelters said there were no more beds available, the motion said.

It also said that early on Oct. 9, at the city’s Bellevue shelter, 52 men slept in chairs or on the floor as they waited for shelter. Fourteen men were bused to shelters with beds, but 38 remained for the rest of the night.

On Oct. 21, 35 men and 4 women were waiting for beds late at night at three shelters inspected by the Coalition, the motion said. At one of the shelters, two women were seen sleeping on a dining room table.”

So we have a situation where advocates are raising the possibility of serious injury and death for homeless people forced to sleep on the streets, and the Department of Homeless Services essentially saying, “calm down, we’ll be fine, we have an adequate plan.”

It’s not like this lawsuit should come as a shock to DHS; as early as October, the Coalition for the Homeless was sounding the alarm over this shelter “capacity crunch."

As I reported in the Indypendent’s October 30 issue, “Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, points to the convergence of rising unemployment, increasing evictions from apartments and the lack of affordable low-income housing in the city as the key causes of the crisis…While the coalition has been talking with the Bloomberg administration and DHS about expanding shelter capacity since early this year, the group’s calls have gone unheeded.”

Tom Robbins at the Village Voice thinks this is only a harbinger of things to come in the “Age of Bloomberg,” as he puts it.

Immediately after the election, homeless people and advocates I spoke to predicted bad things to come for the homeless because of Bloomberg’s re-election to a third term.

Rob Robinson, a formerly homeless board member with Picture the Homeless, told me in mid-November that the re-election of Bloomberg “means continued money being poured into a shelter system that only temporarily houses people. I think homeless people will not see any significant policy changes and we can expect the numbers of homeless people in the city will rise.”

It seems they were exactly right.