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January 23, 1989
Koch Administration Planning ID Cards for the Homeless

Would Be Used to Keep Track Of 'Shelter Clients'; H.R.A. To Allot Permanent Beds
Hayes Calls the Plan 'Stupid'

by Kay Lazar
The city plans to issue identification cards to the homeless starting next month, according to William Grinker, commissioner of the Human Resources Administration. Critics of the plan say it could have an adverse impact on an already troubled shelter system.

In testimony Jan. 10 before the City Council Committee on General Welfare, Mr. Grinker said all "shelter clients" would have an official shelter assignment and "would be provided with an ID for that shelter and would be expected to use that facility as their home base rather than returning to whatever facility struck their fancy on a given night."

Plan Misses the Point
Robert Hayes, counsel to the Coalition for the Homeless, characterized that as a "Grinkerism -- an unnecessarily crude and flippant crack," and said the city's plan misses the point.

"ID cards are stupid. If there is a good shelter serving people's needs, they will go to them. Period," Mr. Hayes said in a telephone interview. He added, "ID cards, in effect, might keep people out through bureaucratizing the system, which only serves to keep people on the street."

Mr. Hayes said he was encouraged, though, by other parts of the city program, which includes plans for job counseling and special services for mental illness, alcoholism and tuberculosis in many of the 25 shelters operated by the city that house a total of 10,400 single men and women. But Mr. Hayes said there was an "underlying alarm" in plans to offer those services, suggesting that the city "still doesn't understand that, by definition, shelters are temporary."

Evaluation and Testing
Under the H.R.A. plan, each resident will be issued a photo ID and an assignment to a particular shelter, based on needs determined in a 21-day assessment period, which, according to Mr. Grinker's testimony, will include psychological evaluation, vocational aptitude testing and a medical exam. The plan does not cover the 4,630 homeless families staying under city auspices in 40 other shelters and 41 hotels, according to Gail Gordon, first deputy commissioner of adult services in the H.R.A.

To obtain an H.R.A. shelter ID card, Ms. Gordon said, each homeless person will have to provide identification, such as a driver's license, birth certificate or Social Security card. "Once you are assigned to a particular bed, we would like you to be in that bed," she said.

Those who have lost their ID cards or show up at a shelter not indicated on the card will not be turned away, Ms. Gordon said. But that does not mollify critics of the plan.

"As a general proposition, we are extremely suspicious of government proposing any Big Brother action against the homeless," said Donna Lieberman, associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It smacks of a violation of their right to privacy," she said, adding that the N.Y.C.L.U. had not seen a copy of the H.R.A. plan to review its legality.

"I'm not sure that the governrnent is entitled to assign an individual to a particular shelter or restrict access to the shelter," she said. Ms. Lieberman also said the plan does not seem to provide a "justification" for requiring the homeless to carry a photo ID.

"It's another Reaganism -- another way they can disenfranchise people," said George McDonald, a prominent advocate for the homeless and an unsuccessful Congressional candidate last year.

Mr. McDonald said the idea for photo identification cards is just a small part of a much larger problem. "The whole premise I have to disagree with. I don't think the city should put another penny into temporary shelters. It is a scandalous use of taxpayers' money," he said, adding that the money would be better spent on low-income housing.

City Councilwoman Miriam Friedlander echoed that sentiment, saying the city should not continue "dormitory or barracks-type shelters." A member of the committee that heard Mr. Grinker's testimony, she said in a telephone interview later that the city's money would be better spent on housing and not shelters.

Just how much money the city will spend on the new program is still not clear, according to Ms. Gordon of H.R.A. She said it would probably amount to "normal, incremental costs" and she declined to elaborate.

Some of the people who will be asked to carry the H.R.A.'s new ID cards questioned the new plan.

"Most of the people here don't have any ID at all," said James, 45, one of about a half-dozen homeless men camped out in cardboard boxes, milk crates and mattresses at the Fifth Avenue subway station at 53rd Street. James and the other men interviewed at the station declined to give their last names. James said he had been living in the station for three months and found more privacy there than at his previous residence, the Wards Island shelter.

Added another man, Joel, "It's like common knowledge among homeless not to go to the shelters. It's unsafe, very violent." Of the ID cards, he said: "It's bureaucratic nonsense. It won't work."

Just then, five transit police came and asked the men to leave. One of the officers, who declined to be quoted by name, was asked what he thought of the new H.R.A. plan.

"It's a way of controlling it," he suggested. "Unfortunately, the Transit Authority doesn't want them down here. It's not a crime to be homeless," he said, as the homeless men picked up their boxes and bags and headed out into a rainy day on Fifth Avenue.

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