Court Rejects Giuliani Homeless Policy
By Steven Wishnia

State Supreme Court Justice Stanley L. Sklar has blocked the Giuliani administration’s plans to require homeless adults to work or be evicted from city-run shelters.

The ruling, handed down Feb. 23, found that the workfare rule was constitutional, but would violate a 1981 consent decree in which the city and state agreed to provide shelter to homeless single adults who qualify for home relief or need shelter because of “physical, mental, or social dysfunction.”

“The decision isn’t about whether work is good or bad,” says Legal Aid attorney Steven Banks, one of the lawyers challenging the regulations. “It’s about the importance of keeping a roof over people’s heads.” The Giuliani administration plans to appeal the decision. The city provides shelter for an average of about 23,000 people a night, of whom about 7,000 are single adults.

Last October, Giuliani issued new shelter regulations for the city Department of Homeless Services, requiring it to deny shelter to anyone violating state workfare rules instituted in 1995. Homeless people would be thrown out of shelters for 30 days or more if they failed to cooperate with an assessment, violated shelter rules, failed to comply with a service plan, or failed to comply with any public-assistance requirement, from attending recertification hearings to obeying all workfare rules. Homeless families evicted would face having their children put into foster care.

Advocates for the homeless challenged those rules, arguing that they violated the consent decree, which was extended to families later in the ’80s. A series of decisions in December and January barred the city from using the new rules to evict homeless families.

Justice Sklar agreed that the workfare rules could not be used to deny shelter to single adults either, holding that it would “violate the terms of the Consent Decree, in that it will place restrictions on the right to shelter guaranteed under the specific and unambiguous language of the Consent Decree.” Sklar also held that the rules made no provision for people with “social dysfunction,” who may be “unable, as opposed to unwilling, to cooperate with bureaucratic niceties.”

“It highlights the fact that the city has no comprehensive housing policy,” says Banks. The Giuliani administration, he adds, “has spent seven years undermining protections for people who have fallen out of the housing market.”