Helter Shelter

May 1 1997 3:30 AM

Helter Shelter

Just try to help the homeless help themselves.

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In 1983, a group called the Coalition for the Homeless began handing out sandwiches and fruit every night to the horde of homeless people who gathered around Grand Central Station. It was a pretty dismaying experience, straight out of Les Misérables: the tattered crowd, the forest of groping hands, the healthy-looking young guys who conned their way to seconds or thirds while the quiet or confused went home empty-handed. But at least the coalition was doing something. It was the coalition, too, that had won a court order mandating a "right to shelter," a signal victory in those Darwinian, early Reagan years. Throughout the '80s the coalition--and its founder, Robert Hayes, a former corporate lawyer--was the principal voice for the homeless, both in New York and nationally. Hayes insisted the problem of the homeless could be summed up in three words: "Housing, housing, housing."

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The coalition succeeded by turning homelessness into a simple, powerful moral equation, but the equation wasn't actually so simple. In 1992, a commission chaired by Andrew Cuomo, now the federal housing secretary, released a study showing that up to 30 percent of single homeless men suffered from severe mental illness, and 65 percent used drugs or alcohol. The numbers for families were smaller but still substantial. Homeless advocates had always known substance abuse was a problem, but they had rarely aired their knowledge in public for fear that it would shift public debate and blur the image of the homeless as victims of an unjust housing policy. They attacked the Cuomo study, though they couldn't discredit its findings. In 1993 Hayes, who had returned to private legal practice and had begun to question his old single-minded formulation, proposed to Mayor-elect Rudy Giuliani that the court order be revised so that the city would guarantee the homeless the "continuum of care" that Cuomo had proposed, and the homeless in turn would be obliged to accept counseling, work training, and the like. Despite Giuliani's interest the idea went nowhere since, Hayes says, it "created a grave sense of panic, at least in the coalition, because it was seen as undermining the ultimate entitlement to shelter." The coalition seemed to be painting itself into an ideological corner.

This past March, that corner became smaller still. George McDonald, another longtime homeless activist, filed suit against the coalition on the grounds that officials of the organization had engaged in "harassment and physical interference" of his rival program, called Ready, Willing & Able. The allegation would have seemed bizarre if it hadn't been familiar: Two years earlier, coalition officials had accused another nonprofit of using "goon squads" of homeless men to roust other homeless people from ATM vestibules--charges later found to be groundless.

Ready, Willing & Able, which runs private homeless shelters, requires participants to submit to frequent drug tests, abide by a range of rules inside the shelter, and make modest payments toward their own room and board. In exchange, they get jobs renovating apartments or cleaning streets for $5.50 an hour, plus, when they "graduate," a bonus that normally amounts to $1,000 to help them find permanent housing. McDonald is a former sportswear executive with a businessman's regard for the therapeutic power of the marketplace. The premise of his program was that since society will never pay for the kind of long-term drug treatment Cuomo and others have envisioned, and since such treatment so often fails, the most effective form of treatment is, as he puts it, "the positive reinforcement of a culture that's established around work, around earning money." McDonald says that half to two-thirds of single men on the street can benefit from his program. This sounds pretty optimistic, and Larry Rhodes, a formerly homeless man who does "intake" at the shelter McDonald runs in Harlem, says the program has succeeded partly because it screens out drug addicts and hard cases. In other words, McDonald may not have so much solved the Cuomo problem as avoided it.

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S till, Ready, Willing & Able provides not only work but what appears to be a relatively calm and secure environment, and it would hardly be surprising if this drastic change from the world of the streets, or even of the typical shelter, motivated men to turn around their lives. McDonald says two-thirds of those who graduate from his program hold down permanent jobs and apartments--an almost unheard-of success rate among single homeless men. Most of the nine or 10 men I interviewed at the shelter spoke of their experience in overtly moralistic terms: They talked about taking responsibility for themselves, for the money they earned, and even for the children whom they had fathered and then neglected. The program, with its combination of rules and incentives, had prodded them to do something they would not have done for themselves.

McDonald's problems began when he tried to impose his program on men in the Harlem shelter who were accustomed to getting their three squares with no questions asked. McDonald acquired control of the Harlem facility, widely considered one of the most dangerous and disorganized in the city, when the city turned over the shelter system to nonprofit providers. When McDonald took over, many of the men rebelled against the program's strictures, especially the random drug testing. Some left for shelters elsewhere. The coalition serves as the court-appointed monitor for the shelter system, and what McDonald alleges, and others at the shelter corroborate, is that the official who represented the coalition at the shelter worked actively with the dissidents who remained to disrupt the program. In a meeting of all the tenants in late January, the coalition's monitor allegedly called McDonald a "Nazi" who was enriching himself by exploiting poor blacks, and berated the black shelter manager as McDonald's lackey. Coalition director Mary Brosnahan supposedly stood nearby and said nothing. The dissidents, lead by the former head of the coalition's "client advisory board," urged the other homeless men to stop working and allegedly issued threats of physical violence.

McDonald claims the coalition is "ideologically opposed" to his program. Brosnahan has lent some credence to this charge by describing McDonald's work program as "indentured servitude." She declined to talk about this case, but her lawyer, Steven Banks, says the defendants deny making the statements McDonald attributes to them. It is true, Banks says, that the coalition was so disturbed about the program that it contemplated suing him. The reason, he says, is the $65 a week McDonald was withholding for room and board, in violation of rules that govern the shelter system. But since residents were free to go to a conventional shelter, it's hard to see what right was violated. And since the money was being deducted from salaries they otherwise wouldn't have had, it seems perverse to focus on the issue of rights in the first place.

The fundamental issue is whether it's permissible to impose obligations on the homeless in exchange for various goods, to regard them as something other than victims to whom certain rights attach. This is, of course, the same question we are now asking about welfare recipients. We have moved very swiftly from seeing welfare as an unconditional right to viewing it as no right at all. Perhaps we could have found our way to a middle point if welfare's champions had seen their way beyond the language of rights to a different, and more reciprocal, kind of social contract. The sad story of the Coalition for the Homeless, and of its decline from the moral pinnacle it once occupied, is a parable of that failure of vision.

James Traub is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College.