What passes for an urban policy debate in New York can look surreal after a trip north of Central Park.
At the Ready, Willing and Able shelter on 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, a former homeless crack addict I'll call Tom walked me through immaculate, pleasantly furnished dormitories where books and telephones were kept by the beds.
He took me to the computer room where men were quietly studying for the G.E.D. He showed me the room where members of the program have their urine tested twice a week. There was no violence, no drugs and none of the filth and chaos that everyone remembers from the thousand-bed armory shelters in the 1980s.
Those were the days when the Coalition for the Homeless monitored conditions in the mega-shelters, steadfastly ensuring that there was three feet between each bed and at least one shower for every 15 people -- even if no one felt safe enough to use it. Lately the advocacy group has joined with talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell and other Celebrity Friends of Hillary Rodham Clinton to excoriate Mayor Rudy Giuliani for his policies on the homeless.
The barrage of criticism has eclipsed revolutionary improvements in the way New York deals with the homeless. Whatever you may think of the mayor's dubious record on police brutality, media and free speech, it is Rudy Giuliani who has brought that revolution about by implementing the suggestions of a 1990 report authored for then-Mayor David Dinkins by Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who was working for the alternative housing nonprofit H.E.L.P.
Sure, people are aware that there are fewer vagrants, panhandlers and muttering schizophrenics in Gotham these days. And though most have no clue how or why that came to be, they're generally so pleased by the change that Clinton and Co. have probably picked a losing political strategy. It's telling that only 1,000 people turned up at a demonstration against Giuliani's homeless policy in Union Square in early December.
And even with the mayor's strange genius for attracting negative publicity, the more New Yorkers learn about his genuinely humane and effective homeless policy, the more damaging it will be for Clinton if she makes it an issue in her New York Senate campaign.
With the help of the nonprofit organizations that now run 90 percent of New York's shelters, many homeless are getting their lives together and joining the mainstream. And when New Yorkers discover that the homeless haven't been chased out of town by the New York Police Department or packed into penitentiaries (though far too many mentally ill people do end up at Rikers Island, rather than in the asylums and halfway houses where they belong) but are instead rejoining the community of those who live according to the social compact, it will only help Giuliani's political prospects.
Yet it's the very programs that have most helped the homeless -- drug testing, work requirements and other programs that help acculturate them into the mainstream -- that make the Coalition for the Homeless and its allies wax hysterical. If you believe their most recent sallies, you'd think that requiring work from able-bodied, mentally healthy people in the city's shelters was the ultimate unspeakable act of a monstrously uncaring city government.
You also might be bamboozled into thinking the city's homeless policy is the product of financial stinginess. Yet New York now spends $800 million a year on the homeless -- with $438 million budgeted for the Department of Homeless Services and another $360 million that gets filtered through other agencies. And under Giuliani, even as the number of people on the streets has shrunk, the city's budget for helping the homeless has grown beyond what was spent under the supposedly more compassionate Mayor David Dinkins.
The most recent salvo in the battle between the mayor and the alliance of Clinton supporters and advocacy groups came from federal Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who since endorsing Clinton has apparently disavowed his own report, which was the foundation for Giuliani's policies.
In late December, Cuomo took control of the $60 million the federal government provides New York for its homeless programs. The housing secretary said his decision to resume control was a response to a recent federal court ruling that the city "improperly" blocked funds to the activist group Housing Works. But despite the mayor's often deserved reputation for punishing groups that criticize him, Housing Works actually lost its funds because it may have misappropriated a half-million dollars in 1998 grant money. (The organization denies any theft but cannot account for the missing $500,000.)
When the Doe Fund introduced its Ready, Willing and Able program in Harlem in 1996, the organization was picketed by the Coalition for the Homeless. Activists slammed the Doe Fund as "racist" and compared its program to "slavery." (It was, of course, the Coalition that had supervised the shelter in the halcyon days before the Doe Fund took it over, when crack was openly dealt in the parking lot and hallways.)
The homeless themselves tend to take a less theoretical approach to their situation. When I asked trainee Frank Simmonds, who lived on the streets for two years and used to hustle tourists at Kennedy airport for crack money, if he thinks the program is like slavery, he told me that the question is insulting, in fact crazy. "Work gives you your dignity back," he said.
It's one of the two phrases you hear from everyone at RWA, especially from the majority of staff members who themselves are graduates of the program. The other is, "I was tired," meaning tired of life on the street.
When I arrived at the shelter, work crews wearing the program's blue-and-white uniforms were heading out into vans, having had their breakfast and attended the morning's Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Since the program was first established in Brooklyn in 1990, Ready, Willing and Able workers have cleaned hundreds of blocks in Manhattan, and much of the program's noncity funding comes from businesses and individuals who heard about the program from the men sweeping the sidewalks on their streets.
The Doe Fund pays trainees a salary that starts at $5.50 an hour. Out of that salary they must pay $50 a week in rent and another $15 for meals; $30 is withheld for savings that are returned when a trainee graduates from the program. Many trainees are able to save additional money during their year to 18 months in the program, and if they manage to put aside $1,000 or more by graduation, Doe offers matching funds -- provided over a period of several months, with mandatory drug testing prior to disbursements.
The shelter stresses getting trainees ready to join the work force, by teaching basic life skills such as punctuality, workplace behavior and writing a risumi. Combined with drug testing and counseling that continues for five years from the time trainees enter RWA, the program has been a success. Some 62 percent of those who entered RWA
between 1994 and 1996 graduated from the program and still held jobs three years later, according to a study commissioned by the Doe Fund.
It's a particularly remarkable achievement when you consider that RWA's clientele is considered the most intractable segment of the homeless population: single men with histories of addiction and incarceration. The program is always full. And though there's a waiting list to enter RWA, an "alumnus" who's fallen back into the old habits can always get a bed.
Since many of the people who run the shelter once participated in the program themselves, there's no soup-kitchen unease, no resentment against white upper-middle-class volunteers handing out alms to less fortunate black folks. The people who work there have been on the streets and in the jails, and their belief in the program is the most impressive thing about the place.
According to them, the reason RWA works is that it allows people to regain the kind of dignity and self-respect that is impossible to find on the street -- or through the kind of no-strings-attached charity favored by the Coalition for the Homeless and the rest of those who have dissed the Giuliani administration for its homeless policy.
But the story that had Rosie O'Donnell (and other celebrities who just happened to be pals of Hillary Clinton) really savaging the mayor was the accusation that City Hall's newest homeless policy will cause children to be torn from the arms of loving parents and down-on-their-luck poor folks to freeze to death in the snow.
Giuliani's idea is merely to bring those who refuse work and day care for their kids over a long period of time to the attention of child protective services. His theory is that an able-bodied parent who refuses to work, despite the provision of a job and day care, could well be a less than adequate parent and should probably be checked out. A similar homeless policy has been in place in Suffolk and other New York counties for two years and not a single child has been taken away from its parents.
Here's the dirty little secret of homeless advocacy groups: Although they've pushed the public to accept their definition of "homelessness" as being the lack of a home, the vast majority of people dwelling in the streets of America's big cities have multiple problems, not merely the lack of shelter. We use the term "homeless" to describe very different kinds of people: old-style drunks and bums, schizophrenics pushing shopping carts, panhandling crack addicts, the relatively small number of eccentrics who like the free life of the open road and people who've lost jobs and for one reason or another can't find anywhere to stay except a free shelter.
For years the Coalition for the Homeless and its fellow travelers have tried to depict the average "homeless" New Yorker as an ordinary, respectable, working woman who has lost her apartment after being downsized. But it turns out that the majority of "street people" are actually mentally ill, drug abusers or both, rather than hapless victims of economic dislocation. Even the Coalition now admits that 40 percent of the homeless population is mentally ill -- an estimate that is almost certainly conservative.
Finding new ways to help the homeless who suffer with mental illness or drug addictions, and then acculturating them to function in mainstream society, would therefore seem to make more sense than just warehousing them.
Yet warehousing the homeless is exactly the policy favored by the advocates who have attacked the Giuliani administration and have long claimed that the problem is merely one of "shelter" -- as if it's merely the high cost of housing in New York that forces people to sleep under highways and in tunnels. But when destitute Guatemalan immigrants who barely speak Spanish, let alone English, can find and pay for shelter -- however less than ideal it might be -- that argument crumbles. It's clear that the problems of the homeless are behavioral, cultural, even spiritual -- not just a matter of lacking shelter.
As a powerful recent article by Heather MacDonald in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal pointed out, when the homeless outreach program of Times Square Business Improvement District (BID) tried to coax its 200 or so local homeless folk into temporary housing and generously subsidized permanent housing, most of them refused. Only 37 even agreed to visit the BID's "respite center."
Yet when the Giuliani administration orders the NYPD to enforce laws against sleeping on the streets and to draw the homeless into shelters or hospitals, it's attacked for depriving these unfortunates of their rights. But no genuinely compassionate society allows mentally ill people to starve or freeze.
As George McDonald, founder of the Doe Fund, points out, his program is designed to mirror the everyday routines of working, getting paid and paying rent. His critics rant about "dead-end jobs," as if cleaning the sidewalks or serving food is more demeaning than accepting handouts from charities, begging from passersby, or lying in your own filth on city streets.
It's understandable why the educated upper middle class who work in the nonprofit sector might have no sense of the dignity of such simple labor. But it isn't fair to allow elitist contempt to govern the way we treat our vulnerable homeless population. As the former Marxist historian Gareth Stedman Jones once wrote -- and I'm quoting from memory -- in "Outcast London," "Bourgeois philanthropy like bourgeois social-science invents its victims so as to sustain its practice."