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February 24, 2003
Homeless have to abide by rules

by George McDonald
Mayor Bloomberg wants to rid the city's homeless shelters of crime and drug use by ejecting offenders for 30 days. The Coalition for the Homeless calls this "a death sentence" for the ejected.

Apparently, the coalition intends to continue its fight to protect the right to shelter for everyone -- even those few who make shelters unsafe. All too often, the most fragile homeless people choose the dangers of the street over the warmth of shelters because they find them too dangerous to navigate.

The coalition is also castigating the Bloomberg administration for planning to conduct today the first comprehensive count of the homeless. The goal is to develop better services for this population, which is now at record levels and increasing every day. But the coalition calls it "an impossible task" and a "waste of city money and resources."

At a time when most homeless advocates and providers -- as well as the Legal Aid Society, Supportive Housing Community and Department of Homeless Services -- have agreed for the first time to work together to solve the homeless crisis, the coalition insists on perpetuating its divisive and hypercritical attacks. In fact, the coalition is the only organization not rallying behind the new era of unity.

As a result, rather than seizing this unique opportunity, we are in danger of blowing it. Rather than a collective effort to offer alternatives to the thousands in need, we are at risk of continuing to trap homeless individuals and families in unconscionable conditions.

The mayor is absolutely right to expect those who stay in shelters to adhere to the basic laws that all of us must obey. Being homeless doesn't exempt anyone from personal responsibility. It is a matter of keeping the shelters safe for anyone who needs them.

At the Doe Fund, which supports Bloomberg's initiative, we have employed a system based on paid work and personal responsibility. Participants in our Ready, Willing & Able program are required to work cleaning city streets while living in decent, drug- and violence-free shelter. Individuals take the necessary steps to become productive rather than stagnating in dangerous environments where people around them continue to wallow in drug use and delinquency. That is an incredibly powerful motivational force.

We support life-saving emergency shelter during extreme weather. But shelters cannot tolerate an environment of lawlessness that endangers everyone and affirms the perception of those on the street that they are marginalized, forgotten and not subject to the same standards as the rest of society.

That is exactly the type of misguided reinforcement that worsens the homeless problem and enables chronic and persistent cases to live in a state of learned helplessness.

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