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June 22, 1991
Evicting the Homeless

All Sides Show an Increasing Frustration As New York City Uses Harsher Measures

by Sam Roberts
The Dinkins administration's separate decisions to roust homeless people from Tompkins Square Park earlier this month and from Columbus Circle within the next week represent a more aggressive approach to a growing problem that is trying the patience of many New Yorkers, including the Mayor.

City officials say there is no new blanket policy of removing all homeless people from all the public spaces they now occupy. But they acknowledge that they are responding, if sometimes reluctantly, to rising anger over permanent encampments by the homeless in public spaces. Several recent crimes and disturbances have also heightened the public's frustration with government's failure to reduce the homeless problem after more than a decade.

"Columbus Circle and Tompkins Square are situations that the Mayor felt were out of control," said Nancy G. Wackstein, a former outside advocate who joined the administration as director of the city's Office of Homelessness and Single Room Occupancy Housing Services.

"They were symbols of a city out of control," said Deputy Mayor Barbara Fife. "The Mayor feels there's not one segment of the public that can privatize a public area."

Insisting that the actions do not add up to a new anti-homeless policy, city officials say the decisions in these two cases were also driven by logistical concerns: evidence that the encampments were bound to grow over the summer, and a desire to confront the problem before many of the social workers responsible for relocating the homeless are dismissed by June 30 to help close the city's budget gap.

But beyond the local pressures that may have forced New York's hands, the latest policy swing is also emblematic of a growing national ambivalence about the homeless. In Atlanta, a bill to bar aggressive street begging has been proposed; sleeping on public streets was banned in Santa Barbara, Calif.; O'Hare Airport in Chicago has been closed to the homeless, and Phoenix has moved to shrink its shelter system.

In New York, the June 3 sweep of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, a week after another of a series of melees between demonstrators and the police, has embittered advocates for the homeless and exasperated their supporters within an administration that was elected, in part, because voters were persuaded that Mayor David N. Dinkins would be more compassionate than his predecessor.

The Mayor's compassion has been constrained, though, by multi-billion dollar budget gaps. And his deputy, Bill Lynch, insists that the decisions about Tompkins Square Park and Columbus Circle are related, but not concerted -- an assertion that some critics find believable about an administration that has been faulted for lacking a strategy to deal with a number of issues.

But, even if the decisions were not concerted, the city's responses to Tompkins Square and Columbus Circle mirror public impatience.

The imminent sweep of Columbus Circle's homeless -- who will be replaced by an attractive sidewalk cafe outside the shuttered New York Coliseum -- is particularly symbolic. It was prompted by complaints from the public agencies that occupy neighboring buildings and from residents of the West Side, whose traditional liberalism and reputation for compassion have been tested by the homeless people who have congregated at the Coliseum, which is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and under the arches of 2 Columbus Circle, which houses the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs.

'It Is Scary to People'
The community's tolerance was strained again June 8 when the police arrested a homeless man in the stabbing death of a former Rockette who was walking her dogs on West 69th Street. On Thursday, the police said, a secretary was slashed in midtown Manhattan when she refused a homeless man's request for a dollar.

"Even on the Upper West Side, the last liberal bastion, people are sort of fed up," Ms. Wackstein said. "This murder on West 69th Street didn't help. It is frustrating to people. It is scary to people. It's been a decade since the homeless problem has been identified as such and there seems to be little progress. And they don't seem to be the older mentally ill. They seem more like young black male drug abusers. There's not a lot of sympathy for that group to begin with."

"There's no policy to sweep people out," Ms. Wackstein said. If their presence is not interfering with public health, public safety and community life it has basically been our position that we're not going to do anything about it. We are responding when there is a danger or public health problem, a danger to workers or to residents or where a community is prevented from using public space."

Fences and Patrols
Homeless people who refuse to leave may be charged with criminal trespass, on the complaints of the city and state agencies with offices at the two sites, and with health code violations. Fences and police patrols are to be installed at both locations.

The city plans to help the homeless store their belongings and to coax them into shelters, but has said it lacks money to open a drop-in center on the Upper West Side, as local elected officials have requested.

"We plan to offer the homeless what we have available, and people are correct that we don't have everything we should have: detoxification, drug treatment and shelters," Ms. Wackstein said in an interview. "If people do not accept these offers and choose to remain outside then we will tell them they can no longer stay there. They will move to some other public place, there's no question. But maybe if you turn down the comfort level in public places they will come inside."

Advocates for the homeless, who fought efforts to prohibit begging in the subways and to discourage homeless people from congregating in Grand Central Terminal, acknowledge that public tolerance began to decline several years ago.

"I'm fed up, too," said Douglas H. Lasdon, executive director of the Legal Action Center for the Homeless. "I don't want to be stepping over people. I don't want them approaching me all over the place. You're not going to get me to say homeless people should be living on the streets. But until we offer a decent alternative these people aren't going to go anywhere."

Some are afraid of city shelters. Others may need more than the shelters can offer. Andrew Cuomo, whose HELP program builds housing for formerly homeless families, said: "Not wanting to go into the shelters is not an irrational behavior pattern. And many homeless have problems with drugs, alcohol or mental illness. Nobody wants to say that. It doesn't make them bad people; it makes them people in need."

Ruth W. Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President, and City Councilwoman Ronnie M. Eldridge, who represents the West Side, argued for more social service

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