Homeless Crisis Worsens as Winter Comes

By Gabe Pressman
|  Saturday, Dec 12, 2009  |  Updated 11:01 AM EDT
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Homeless Crisis Worsens as Winter Comes

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It's going to be a cold winter for the homeless in New York.

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As New York is gripped by freezing weather, sadly, a familiar crisis afflicts us again.

The homeless shelters have run out of beds. Advocates for the homeless battle the City Hall bureaucracy. It seems to be a struggle that never ends. And the unfortunate homeless, the victims at the center of this perennial controversy, have no say in the matter.

It’s a familiar story --  and I remember when it all began. It was 1979 when a brilliant young lawyer named Robert Hayes went to court to bring the epic case of Callahan versus Carey. I remember a cold night in 1981 when Hayes took me to a small park on the East Side where Robert Callahan, the plaintiff in this suit was asleep on a bench. Hayes introduced me to the man who said all he wanted was a real bed.

New York State’s Supreme court ruled, in effect, that the homeless had a constitutional right to shelter that the government was obligated to provide.

Callahan had a smart lawyer who was succeeded by other smart lawyers acting for the homeless advocates. City Hall had an ample supply of smart lawyers, too. And, year after year the lawyers have fought it out in the courts. The advocates charge the city is short-changing this most vulnerable group of New Yorkers -- and City Hall insists it’s doing the best it can.

But it’s never enough. And this year is no exception. The homeless advocates are demanding that a judge enforce the 1981 decree by requiring the city to come up with more beds. Steven Banks, attorney for the Legal Aid Society, says the city has run out of shelter beds.

“The extreme situation now is reminiscent of problems that we haven’t seen in years,” says Banks. “It’s a failure to plan and it’s having dire consequences for vulnerable women and vulnerable men.”

Robert Hess, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, told the Times that this court action was “alarmist” and that the people cited in the latest motion had actually refused beds or arrived at the shelters past 2 a.m., when it was too late to receive a bed. Hess said the system had not yet exceeded capacity, though it is close. The capacity in the system was 99.6 percent on December 8th.

Alarmist indeed! That a civilized society can reject people for being tardy in arriving at shelters after 2 a.m. seems ridiculous. Who decreed that arriving after 2 a.m. disqualifies you? Did it come down as a decree from Mt. Olympus or Mt. Sinai?

This is a season that celebrates the lives of a homeless family. New Yorkers of every faith can relate to the challenges of homelessness. Mayor Bloomberg and his staff must put the homeless crisis at the top of their agenda.

Perhaps it’s time to call off the lawyers. The problem exists in the streets----and there it must be solved. Legal technicalities are not the path to justice for the homeless. Judges or their decrees won’t end this crisis.

It says in the scriptures, “So these three things remain: faith, hope and love. But the best one of these is love.”

It’s truth that every religion embraces----and atheists too. We must give the homeless charity and love----and stop trying to figure out legal ways to avoid our moral responsibility.

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