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April 28, 2003
Legal Services v. the Homeless

Conservatives have been trying to defund the Legal Services Corporation for years, arguing - not without reason - that it's a taxpayer funded liberal legal advocacy group. The Legal Services Corporation, created by Congress in 1974, says its role is to "provide free civil legal assistance to the poor." So it was amusing to read in Tuesday's New York Sun that the lawyer for a group trying to block a 400-bed homeless shelter in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is none other than Marty Needelman of, get this, Brooklyn Legal Services. The Legal Services lawyers are usually the ones suing the city to provide housing for the homeless, not trying to block it.

There are plenty of arguments to be made against placing homeless shelters in certain New York City neighborhoods. But this particular shelter is being built in an industrial park, across from a garbage transfer station. Furthermore, it is to be run by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit with a fine reputation and track record of emphasizing work and helping troubled men turn their lives around. The Doe Fund is to run the shelter under a long-term contract with the city's Department of Homeless services. Not-in-My-Back-Yard concerns from factory owners and distant residential neighbors seem entirely without basis. Concerns cited by factory owners, for instance, that their trucks might run over a homeless person, border on the inane.

The entire episode shows how the taxpayers get soaked by this sort of legal work and by the mindset that has the city paying to house immediately, for an unlimited time, anyone from anywhere who shows up in the city and declares himself or herself "homeless." In this case, a court orders the city to house the homeless, and the taxpayers end up paying lawyers to prevent the homeless from being housed. The city then pays lawyers to argue for housing the homeless - which the city had opposed until the original court order. The lawyers for the city and for the poor, in other words, have essentially switched sides. And instead of paying to house the homeless, the taxpayers find themselves paying for the lawyers on both sides of the issue.

Sometimes what the poor could really use is not "civil legal assistance" but a bed, a meal, and some words of wisdom, which the Doe Fund's founder, George McDonald, is ready, willing, and able to provide. This, however, isn't the agenda being pursued by Legal Services and its allies. According to Mr. McDonald, Legal Services is involved in the case on behalf of low-income Hispanic homeowners. And the Coalition for the Homeless, which is on the anti-shelter side, doesn't want any money to go to homeless shelters, according to Mr.McDonald. They want the money to go for permanent government housing.

"We're all very tired of that argument," Mr. McDonald told the Sun. "Fifteen-hundred people have graduated from our program and gotten housing, and the housing wasn't built by the City of New York," he said. "It was paid for with the money they made from their jobs."

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