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February 24, 1990
Dinkins Aides Win Delay on Homeless Bill

The Mayor's action is at odds with his words in the past.

by Todd S. Purdum
Mayor David N. Dinkins, long a strong advocate for the homeless and a critic of New York City's efforts to house them, has found his new administration forced to adopt an approach to the issue that markedly tempers his past remarks as Manhattan Borough President and a mayoral candidate.

Yesterday, a City Council committee agreed to postpone consideration of a bill that would force the city to move all homeless families out of barracks-style shelters over the next 12 months because the Mayor's aides said they needed more time to make sure enough apartment-style shelter units or permanent housing would be ready.

City officials are already struggling to keep the Koch administration's pledge to move homeless families out of welfare hotels by June and risk losing Federal subsidies if the remaining 1,300 families are not moved from hotels by fall. They said yesterday that they were determined to meet that deadline and did not want a deadline for the shelters that might make it harder for them to keep their commitment on hotels.

But advocates for the homeless used Mr. Dinkins's past positions to pressure him yesterday, distributing excerpts from "A Shelter: Is Not a Home," a report he issued as Borough President that called the use of barracks-style shelters "even more disturbing than the use of hotels" and that said such shelters "cannot serve any defendable social purpose."

Some Council members and advocates for the homeless made it plain that they were unwilling to wait much longer for action, and said Mr. Dinkins's failure to name heads of the city's welfare and housing departments meant that the problems could grow worse.

"I'm sympathetic to the fact that this administration is only two months in office," said Steven Banks, coordinating lawyer for the homeless family rights project of the Legal Aid Society. "But the fact remains there needs to be a plan to get these families out of shelters. Specific legislative deadlines mean more to families with kids than a sense that their needs will be met at some future time." Nancy Wackstein, the director of Mr. Dinkins's new office on homelessness, said that the Mayor's convictions had not changed but that he needed time to carry out his policies. "What purpose does it serve to set a deadline nobody can meet?" she asked.

Ms. Wackstein told the Council's General Welfare Committee yesterday that the Dinkins administration "should not be forced into a reactive mode" and "must avoid agreeing to a plan which includes targets and projections which cannot be met."

She said the city was about 500 units behind schedule in opening apartment-style accommodations needed to meet the goal of moving families from hotels, let alone from shelters.

Part of the shortfall involves construction problems and delays in approving contracts and measures like asbestos removal, she said.

A spokesman for Mr. Dinkins, Albert Scardino, said Ms. Wackstein had expressed the Mayor's views and that he would have no further comment.

On Tuesday, in a move advocates for the homeless also criticized, Mr. Dinkins announced that his administrators would place homeless people with AIDS-related illnesses in a newly created medical section of a large shelter. He had opposed that idea as a mayoral candidate, favoring city-subsidized apartments or single-room-occupancy hotels.

Families Sleep on Cots
The bill discussed yesterday was a softened version of an earlier measure that would have required the city to stop using four large shelters by the end of this year. Families sleep on cots in big rooms in the shelters -- two in Manhattan, one in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn.

As of yesterday, the shelters housed 522 families, or 727 adults and 558 children for a total of 1,285 people. Depending on the shelter, the cost ranges from $105 to $170 per family per day.

The Council Speaker, Peter F. Vallone, eager to seize some initiative on the homeless issue and counter criticism that he was too sympathetic to landlords, proposed the original bill last year. But former Mayor Edward I. Koch contended that the city could not meet such a deadline until the middle of 1992.

The welfare committee had been prepared to vote on the matter yesterday, but deferred action after discussions between the Council leadership and the administration. Aides to both Mr. Vallone and Mr. Dinkins said neither side was eager for a confrontation now, since their goals were the same.

The latest proposal calls for the city to stop using three of the shelters for barracks-style accommodations by Jan. 1, 1991, and the fourth by March 1, 1991. It could use one of the shelters to house homeless couples without children until June 30, 1991, if the women were not pregnant.

"We hope and pray that the strong and reasonable political will exhibited by the Council through its support of this bill is joined by the strong and reasonable will of this city's Mayor," Mr. Vallone said in a statement. "I believe it will be."

A spokeswoman for Mr. Vallone, Peg Breen, said later that the Council was willing to work with the administration, "but if within a reasonable period of time we're not agreeing, Peter is ready to move forward with this bill."

"We're talking a couple of weeks," she added.

But Ms. Wackstein said she doubted that details of an agreement could be worked out by then, and said the administration could not yet say how long it would take to stop using the shelters.

Peter P. Smith, president of the Partnership for the Homeless, an advocacy group, said he had told Mr. Vallone that the revised bill "is acceptable, but at the outer limits of what is acceptable" and that it must be passed soon.

Councilman Abraham G. Gerges of Brooklyn said the city could meet the proposed Council deadline if it cut through red tape tying up development of apartment-style units.

"There are enough units that are stuck in the pipeline that developers could rehabilitate if the city would act," he said. Not having commissioners in place, "of course makes it more difficult," he added, "but obviously the agencies are still functioning and these contracts have been pending in the past administration."

George McDonald, head of The Doe Fund, an advocacy group for the homeless, said after the hearing: "I believe everybody is headed in the right direction. The Council and the Speaker are committed, and the Mayor is committed. But the Mayor is new and he needs time to analyze further with the new information that his position gives him, and he's entitled to that."

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