Analysis: The City Demands the Homeless Prove It

It was back in 1979 that a young, idealistic lawyer named Robert Hayes brought a lawsuit in behalf of all homeless men in New York.

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    NEW YORK - OCTOBER 26: A sign of a man panhandling for money is displayed on the streets of Manhattan October 26, 2009 in New York City. In a recently released report by the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless it was revealed that the numbers of homeless people using New York City shelters each night has reached an all time high. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office eight years ago there has been a 45 percent increase in shelter use with over 39,000 homeless people, including 10,000 homeless families, checking in to city shelters every evening. The group also said that 2009 has turned out to be 'the worst on record for New York City homelessness since the Great Depression. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

    New York has a tradition of caring for its most vulnerable people. That’s why it’s shocking to hear that homeless single people will have to prove they are truly homeless to get into a shelter.

    My colleague, Melissa Russo, reports that the city’s Department of Homeless Services plans to save $4 million a year by cracking down on those who are unable to show they have no other option but going to a homeless shelter. I have covered the homeless crisis in New York for 32 years -- and this latest development is outrageous.

    It was back in 1979 that a young, idealistic lawyer named Robert Hayes brought a lawsuit in behalf of all homeless men in New York. He filed it in the name of a man named Robert Callahan. On a cold winter night, Hayes introduced me to Callahan, who was sleeping on a bench in a park in Kips Bay. Callahan said: “I want a home.”

    The State Supreme Court ultimately ruled that everyone had a constitutional right to shelter. It was a landmark decision for New York and the nation.

    Over the years various bureaucrats have nibbled away at the essence of that decision. Now, the city’s Homeless Commissioner Seth Diamond, says: “People who have alternatives are not homeless. If they have a brother or a sister who can house them, that’s where they should go.”

    This sets the city up as the ultimate judge of whether or not someone is actually homeless. It’s an astonishing turn in a history in which New York stands out as a place where compassion, not the dollar sign, rules.

    As winter approaches, is compassion out of style? In this city, the Callahan case should be enshrined as a standard for charity and decency. It’s hard to accept that this is no longer the case. When the first person freezes to death on the streets, will the bureaucracy change its mind? Are we going to try to force relatives to take in homeless people? What provision in the Constitution or the law entitles City Hall to do that?

    Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless told me: “This new policy is unconscionable. Just as winter approaches and Thanksgiving, we are putting the most vulnerable people at severe risk. People will die if this policy goes unchallenged.”

    And the coalition intends to challenge it. Meanwhile, at last reports, there are a record 39,000 homeless people in New York, including single adults and families.

    People have written to NBC New York about this development. Richele Lewis wrote: “The option of sleeping on someone’s floor is not considered adequate housing although it is better than having to sleep on the subway or in a park…”

    And an e-mail from Eva Clark: “It’s hard to sleep on someone’s floor, especially if they really don’t wish you there and wish you get out and go somewhere and get lost and don’t come back.”

    As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, I’m inclined to believe that compassion is not out of style. In the scriptures are the words: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

    Mother Teresa said: “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in.'"