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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Advocates Of Excuses

Cities, Cities New York City

Mayor Bloomberg recently sought the input of New York’s two leading homeless advocates in understanding the city’s homeless problem.

He certainly went to the right source. No pair of individuals has done more to exacerbate the problem than Steve Banks of the Legal Aid Society and Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Before the mayor gets too cozy with these vagrancy entrepreneurs, he should ask them the following questions:

If the shelters are unsafe, who is responsible?

To his credit, the new mayor has reaffirmed the principle that there is no right to colonize public space. But he added a caveat: He would enforce rules against public camping and urination, he said, only if the shelters were safe. That parrots the advocates’ favorite excuse for why vagrants should be allowed to reside on city streets.

There are numerous flaws with this logic. First, it implies that the reason the hard-core street population refuses to be coaxed inside is fear of shelter crime. But the shelters could be policed by the Gestapo, and the resistant homeless would still not leave the streets. They insist on remaining there for the easy availability of drugs, a no-responsibility lifestyle, and their own fear of structure. Street living is hardly peaceful. Bums are forever beating and stealing from each other; violence between the sexes is particularly acute.

But let’s take the advocates at their word for a moment that “unsafe shelters” keep people on the streets. Whose fault is it that those shelters are “unsafe”? For years, the advocates fought against the Giuliani administration’s efforts to enforce shelter rules against drugs, violence and weapons, on the ground that the homeless have an unconditional right to shelter, regardless of their behavior.

Moreover, if the shelters are unsafe, it’s the occupants who make them so. If the homeless are a danger to each other, why should they be allowed to occupy the streets - and put the public’s lives in danger, too? Shelter users who commit an assault belong in jail, not on the sidewalk.

The final flaw with the unsafe shelters excuse is that it is untrue. Most shelters have managed to establish order over the last several years.

Why don’t you want the homeless to gain independence?

Steve Banks and Mary Brosnahan went into full war mode when Mayor Giuliani asked the able-bodied homeless to work in exchange for their free room and board. Unfortunately, Banks and Brosnahan won: A left-wing judge enjoined the mayor from seeking any productive behavior from shelter residents.

This attack on work ranks as the most destructive ever undertaken by the city’s poverty promoters. Nothing is better designed to keep the homeless marginalized and infantilized than a prohibition on reciprocal work. The homeless know this; only the advocates refuse its truth.

Several Thanksgivings ago, a 51-year-old woman in a Midtown drop-in center told me: “Anything the government gives you and it’s free, it’s not good for you. You get the program mentality and become a zombie.”

Advocates for the disabled and the mentally ill constantly push for their clients’ full inclusion in the workplace. Mayor Bloomberg should ask his new advisers why they alone reject the therapeutic value of work.

Why don’t you want the homeless housed?

Rudy Giuliani made the residents of the city’s shelters an offer they supposedly could not have refused: The city would find an apartment and pay the full rent for any alleged homeless person who agreed to perform some community service and look for work. Most shelter residents contemptuously rejected the deal, advised by their advocates to hold out for federal housing vouchers that require no effort from the recipient.

If the advocates are so committed to “housing, housing, housing” for the homeless, they should have been telling shelter occupants to jump at Mayor Giuliani’s offer.

Why shouldn’t claimants to free housing have their assets and income taken into account?

Contrary to appearances, New York’s budget for homeless services and housing is not infinite. Yet the city does not consider an applicant’s income or assets in deciding whether he is truly homeless. If, as the advocates claim, there is a crisis in affordable housing, it behooves the city to be more discriminating in allocating its free apartments. It should determine whether someone’s own resources (often public assistance) could support a home.

Mayor Bloomberg should seize this moment to restate the city’s social contract according to the following principles: First, given that the city is obligated to provide shelter to anyone who demands it, there is a corresponding obligation to use it, rather than sprawl on the streets. Law enforcement is an essential component of enforcing this pact.

Second, people receiving the city’s largesse should work towards their own independence and give something back to the city. Mayor Bloomberg should strenuously appeal the decision forbidding workfare, job search or even drug treatment as a condition of shelter.

Finally, the vast network of services that enable a homeless lifestyle - the soup kitchens, drop-in centers and delivery services that take food and toiletries right to people’s cardboard boxes - should introduce reciprocity into their programs wherever possible. To be sure, no-strings-attached charity is an essential part of any society’s safety net. Compassion demands that the victims of catastrophe, for example, get unconditional help.

But compassion also demands that people in need of charity through their own destructive habits be nudged towards rehabilitation, rather than maintained in a state of dependence. Mayor Bloomberg should ask all homeless providers to call on their clients’ capacity for self-help. Until that capacity is awakened, no amount of taxpayer-subsidized “affordable housing” will keep people off the streets.