Most government shelters for single homeless men in New York City are horrible. This axiom, which no one seriously debates, has produced a corollary: No one in his right mind would sleep in a shelter unless he had to. For ten years, that presumption has remained undisputed, leading many to believe that policies such as workfare, designed to instill individual responsibility, have no relevance for the homeless. Such programs are not necessary, they infer, since anyone who could move out of the shelters already has more than enough incentive to do so.

Developments over the past decade, however, challenge these conclusions. First, the number of single adults using the shelter system has jumped—from fewer than two thousand per year in 1978 to well over nine thousand in 1989, before leveling off to a little more than eight thousand in 1991. The cost of sheltering single adults has grown even more rapidly, from $6.8 million in 1978 to $185.7 million for fiscal year 1991.

Even more importantly, the mix of shelter populations appears to be changing. A 1982 Human Resources Administration (HRA) report, for example, found that almost one-fifth of the homeless men interviewed “had in the past been able to function at quite high levels, both occupationally and socially,” and that many did not appear to suffer from any present disabilities. By 1988, the number of apparently competent men living in shelters had grown substantially. In that year an HRA report found that fully one-third of the single adults using the shelters were “employable,” meaning that they did not suffer from any major barriers to employment, such as serious psychiatric, medical, or substance-abuse problems, criminal histories, limited education, or lack of work experience.

These employable residents would seem to be good candidates for programs stressing individual responsibility. The tragedy, however, is that the current shelter system, instead of offering such programs, encourages dependency, leaving thousands of able-bodied, able-minded men and women to a marginal, troubled existence.

This phenomenon is described in a 1988 study by the New York Psychiatric Institute, in which almost half of the shelter’s residents interviewed saw the shelter as their permanent home. The study reports that even shelter residents without mental or physical disabilities eventually gave up hope of returning to life on the outside. During their stay in the shelters, residents of all types “eventually gave up the battle and adjusted to permanent living in the shelter system.”

A 1990 study by a pair of researchers, one a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, shed further light on the dynamics of this “shelterization” process. According to their research, it is precisely the harshness of city shelters that causes residents to lose individual drive. To survive in such a difficult environment, a resident must adapt through “the assimilation of shelter themes, the acceptance of shelter ideas and beliefs, and an eroding will.” As time passes, “the shelterized resident has increasingly low self-esteem, loss of will and hope, a lack of interest in self-improvement, and a sense that he has no control over his life.” Once a resident reaches this point, the shelter becomes his home; he has little hope of leaving and little motivation even to try.

How can New York City’s shelters combat shelter dependency among the employable homeless? The city needs to take a cue from successful, cost-effective “workfare” programs by investing in improved employment training for the employable homeless and requiring them to participate. Some of New York’s private shelters recognize this. The Partnership for the Homeless, for example, runs a small shelter at St. Paul’s Chapel that has been particularly successful in helping employable residents take on personal responsibility. Residents sign a contract agreeing that, in exchange for the shelter and other services provided, they will work toward state individual goals. The goals usually include getting a job and an apartment, but may also include job training or education. Those who abandon their goals must leave the shelter. For the most part, according to Pat Burton-Eadie, director of the shelter at St. Paul’s, the men stick to their programs. Ms. Burton-Eadie estimates that 85 percent eventually get jobs, ranging from driving trucks to working in construction.

Many city officials, past and present, have also recognized the need to provide incentives for homeless adults. Karen Davis, former director of operations for the New York City Adult Shelters, concedes that “any way of introducing more structure would be helpful. We need to start creating some requirements, since right now we ask nothing of our clients.” Employment-related requirements make sense, Davis believes, so long as they include meaningful job placement and skills training.

The city, however, faces a problem that private shelters do not: the terms of the Callahan v. Carey decree, the New York Supreme Court ruling that governs the city’s shelter system. The Callahan decree arose out of a lawsuit brought in 1979 by a group of attorneys operating under the name of the Coalition for the Homeless. Their class-action lawsuit on behalf of homeless men against the City and State of New York sought to establish a legal right to shelter. The lawsuit turned on the notion—perhaps true then but certainly not true today—that practically all the homeless are severely incapacitated.

Article XVII of the New York State Constitution states: “The aid, care, and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state.” Since almost all homeless men in New York are incapacitated by mental illness or substance abuse, the coalition argued, they are “needy” under Article XVII, and the government must provide them with food and shelter on request. The coalition also relied on sections 62 and 131 of the state Social Services Law, which requires state and local officials to “provide adequately for those unable to maintain themselves.” Justice Tyler, presiding over the case in New York Supreme Court (New York’s trial court), accepted the coalition’s view of the homeless. The plaintiff class, he wrote, was “largely composed of individuals with histories of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental disorder, or combinations thereof. These conditions ... seriously preclude or prevent independent functioning.” He issued a preliminary injunction requiring the city to provide food and shelter on request. The city then signed a consent agreement, now known as the Callahan decree, creating an unconditional right to shelter.

The unconditional nature of the right to shelter is what really ties the city’s hands. While New York can provide job services to the homeless, the Callahan decree bars the city from using the only meaningful sanction at its disposal to ensure participation: declining to provide a bed to employable residents who refuse workfare.

To give the employable homeless an incentive to participate in job programs, the city currently relies, not very successfully, on a program known as “specialization.” After assessing new shelter applicants, the city assigns those judged employable to one of three specialized “employment shelters” that offer job services. Before entering the shelter, the new resident works out a “program contract” with a caseworker, in which he agrees to abide by a service plan. In theory, if the individual fails to live up to this service plan, the city can transfer him to a regular shelter, which is supposed to have fewer amenities.

Even at best, “specialization” would only help the self-motivated homeless; under Callahan employable homeless who have become “shelterized” would still be guaranteed room and board. In practice, specialization is even less effective. The main employment shelter, located at Sumner Avenue, is a no-frills, barracks-like facility. The threat of transfer out of Sumner Avenue to a regular shelter therefore means little to the residents. Nor can the city necessarily carry out even this weak threat, since administrators of other shelters are often unwilling to accept transferees, whom they see as difficult clients.

How can New York get around Callahan and help the employable homeless? The answer is straightforward: Go back to court and seek a modification of the decree, permitting the city to condition the right to shelter of the employable homeless on their participation in employment and training programs.

The city’s chances of winning are high. New York courts have held that such decrees can be modified “with a rather free hand.” Under New York law, an employable person who refuses to participate in job programs is not “needy.” New York State’s highest court conclusively decided this issue in Barie v. Lavine (1976), in which it ruled that “the Legislature may in its discretion deny aid to employable persons who may properly be deemed not to be needy when they have wrongfully refused an opportunity for employment.” Nor, the court concluded, did section 131 of the Social Services Law pose a bar to such a policy. Those who refuse to take part in programs designed to help them attain self-sufficiency cannot, the court affirmed, be described as “unable to provide for themselves.”

The Callahan decree is ripe for modification. As so often happens when social policy is litigated rather than legislated, changing circumstances have outpaced the slow movement of the judicial system. Justice Tyler’s 12-year-old opinion was based on the then-prevailing fact that almost all of the homeless were seriously incapacitated. Today, however, one-third of the homeless living in New York’s shelters are employable. Providing the most effective aid to these people requires a new approach. Revising the Callahan decree is the essential first step.


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