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November 13, 2004
Mike's Tough Love

by George McDonald
Specific programs and policies aside, the most important contribution Mayor Bloomberg has made in this city's effort to truly help homeless people is respecting them enough to place expectations and responsibilities on them.

He did it when he went to court and won the authority to hold shelter residents to reasonable standards of behavior and "life plans" leading to self-sufficiency, lest they lose their "right to shelter" for 30 days. He has done it again, by taking shelter residents out of the running for Section 8 housing vouchers and creating a new housing assistance program for them that is both motivating and realistic.

What makes the mayor's plan revolutionary? He's applying the same principles to housing assistance that were applied to cash assistance during the welfare reform of the Clinton era -- time limits and personal responsibility.

That's a quantum leap toward moving homeless people away from a mentality of dependency and entitlement, toward one of self-regeneration and self-sufficiency. This leap was already taken with regard to welfare recipients, but, until now, homeless people were left out of the revolution.

The mayor's plan places a five-year limit on rental assistance for each formerly homeless person, with the aid declining by 20 percent each year. This makes perfect sense when coupled with his requirements that eligible homeless people be either employed or enrolled in substance-abuse or job-training programs.

In the past, homeless families jumped to the front of the line for scarce and coveted Section 8 vouchers, which can benefit low-wage working individuals, but serve as a disincentive for those who have not yet reached that point, who are unemployed, untrained and mired in substance abuse. Why change your ways if you can live, virtually, rent-free, forever?

You can't pay rent without a job (unless you have a trust fund, which most homeless people don't). You can't get a job without some marketable skills and experience and you can't hold it if you're hooked on drugs and alcohol.

In fact, Mayor Bloomberg is requiring of homeless men and women what the not-for-profit Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able program has been requiring of its participants for nearly two decades now, with great results. The Doe Fund drug tests participants and offers them relapse prevention services, while putting them to work cleaning the streets and sidewalks of the city, so they can not only earn some money to sustain them when they move to the private-sector, but have an easier time finding permanents jobs there.

Let's face it, most people coming out of the condition of homelessness are going to enter the mainstream workforce at the lowest level; their salaries will often fall below what is considered a "living wage" in this city. Even Doe Fund graduates, whose wages average around $9 an hour, have a hard time making ends meet in this high-rent, high-cost-of-living city.

The rental assistance offered by the Mayor's plan will help formerly homeless people get started and stabilized in the real world, decreasing as they work toward succeeding at their jobs and getting a few pay raises under their belts.

I applaud Mayor Bloomberg for one more step in a comprehensive and enlightened approach to the problem of homelessness. It is clear that he is trying to balance the needs of all his economically struggling constituents and not just empty the city's homeless shelters. He truly wants to craft a system that gives homeless people a fighting chance to make it back into the productive mainstream -- and stay there.

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