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January 30, 1989
The Homeless: A Problem Koch Wants to Lose

by Richard Levine
Among the many applause lines in Mayor Edward I. Koch's State of the City Message last week was this: "No one should turn away from the plight of the homeless. But neither should the homeless turn public streets, parks and buildings into de facto shelters. Under such a system no one is helped, nothing improves."

The Mayor also spoke of closing the mammoth armories where thousands of homeless are billeted and of building dozens of smaller shelters and drop-in centers around the city or, if neighborhoods balk, as many seem likely to, on city-owned islands. But in discussing his new plans for members of a bedraggled constituency who have plagued him politically and, perhaps, haunted him personally, Mr. Koch seemed to emphasize a strong desire for their departure even as he outlined the new destinations he had in mind for them.

"Public space is for all to use, and none to abuse," the Mayor said in his speech. And, a little later: "Society has a clear obligation to provide help to those in need. Now we must decide if the needy have an obligation to meet us halfway in accepting our offer of help."

Those are perhaps not surprising sentiments from someone who once urged New Yorkers to bypass panhandlers, lest donations be misspent, and to give to organized charities instead -- from someone who several times last year strode into City Hall Park, where a group of homeless people were encamped in a small but well-situated protest, and offered the services of the city's Employment Department, apparently in the belief that job openings were all that they needed.

But to some, Mr. Koch's speech and the reaction to it was a sign of a broader shift in attitude. George McDonald, founder of The Doe Fund, which helps homeless people, says he believes New Yorkers have grown frustrated that the problem, after all these years, seems farther from a solution than ever. And more frightening as well.

"It seemed like the applause was to stop them from taking over," Mr. McDonald said of the response to the Mayor's speech. "He plugged into a feeling that people have, that they are overwhelmed by the symptoms of government's neglect. Either you blame the politicians or you blame the victims."

The change, he and others say, is mostly due to crack, the potent cocaine derivative. And the fear, incubated on the street, is reinforced in the headlines.

The Partnership for the Homeless estimates that there are up to 35,000 single homeless adults in the city, with about 25 percent of them mentally ill and almost 40 percent of them addicted to crack. That means there are more than 3,000 of what Peter Smith, the group's president, calls "potentially explosive" people out there, ticking.

"There's no doubt that fear is now playing a part," he said. "The thing is we've been so busy in the last year in dealing with the homeless family problem, getting that somewhat under control, that we have forgotten what's really happening on the streets and subways. The single adult homeless have been virtually ignored."

But now the Mayor promises that "the movement of nonsheltered homeless from our parks, subways, transportation terminals and streets to appropriate shelter facilities" will be a "top priority."

His comments echoed those of his Parks Commissioner, Henry J. Stern, who reimposed a late-night curfew over his domain earlier this month, having previously observed that parks were for recreation, not habitation. And they were endorsed by David L. Gunn, president of the Transit Authority, which has asked the Volunteers of America to try to coax homeless people from its trains and stations.

Mr. Gunn's agency is trying to assess how many homeless it is host to, although it already calculates that from September to December their presence in one way or another caused more than 1,000 trains to be either late or abandoned. "It would be a rare day that I don't get at least one letter of complaint," Mr. Gunn said. "I don't get many letters sticking up for the homeless. In fact, I never get any of those letters."

Citing the debris left behind in the tunnels -- including needles and crack vials -- he said he thought many of the homeless "are near the end." To him, the Mayor's initiative comes at a good time.

But in another, perhaps critical, respect, the timing seems off. In his speech, Mr. Koch said that if his plan was to succeed, the state must furnish more beds in community-based residences and in psychiatric institutions. But this, after all, is the era of deinstitutionalization, and with Albany facing huge budget deficits, it is an era that hardly seems likely to end soon.

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