HomelessPress

Councilwoman Annabel Palma, center, addresses the crowd along with fellow advocates and a few other elected officials. Photo by Rachel Wise

Gov. David Paterson’s (D-N.Y.) proposed state budget recently revealed a plan to cut $65 million in annual funding for adult homeless services. And many elected officials and advocates aren’t taking that lightly.

On Monday, the Department of Homeless Services and the Coalition for the Homeless, along with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, councilwoman Annabel Palma and a group of advocates held a press conference to voice their fierce opposition to the proposed cuts.

“We have record homelessness in New York City right now. The governor’s cuts would absolutely decimate the adult municipal shelter system,” said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of Coalition for the Homeless. “This is exactly the wrong cuts at the wrong time. We need more help from the state, not less.”

More than 39,000 people in New York City seek shelter, according to the Department of Homeless Services daily census. Officials and advocates claim Paterson’s proposed cuts would drastically reduce aid to adult shelters, homeless-prevention services and safe havens.

“New Yorkers have seen the progress we’ve made in outreach program, drop-in centers, prevention,” said Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of homeless service agencies in New York City. “We’ve made significant milestones in reducing the number of people of the street and reducing the length of stay (at shelters), and we want to continue doing that.”

The officials and advocates who held the press conference at Bowery Residents’ Committee, 317 Bowery, made it clear they were very different from one another. Each was involved in some part of the homeless-services community but admitted they have been known to butt heads often.

“This is a diverse group. Many times, we have gone against each other in terms of policy and what to do,” said Palma, a councilwoman who was homeless only 18 years ago. “But today we are standing here together to send a strong message to the governor and to Albany that these cuts can simply not happen.”

New York City operates under a “right to shelter” mandate, which ensures shelter for homeless men, women, children and families. Because of this, the city would still be required to serve the same number of individuals but with significant less funding.

Some speakers at the press conference held back opinions of what they thought might happen to the homeless-services system if these proposed cuts were passed.

“I’ve really hesitated when I’ve been asked … what would happen as a result of these cuts … because it’s unconscionable. It would set the city back, in the area of homeless services, 20 or 30 years,” said Robert Hess, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.

Other advocates felt it was important to look to the past to predict what the system might turn into — a grim forecast.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, we never had a capacity crisis in the shelter system because (shelters) were just so horrible. People only went when they had to,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of Bowery Residents’ Committee. “They weren’t safe; they weren’t supportive; they weren’t caring; and they didn’t get results. And so when you make a two-thirds cut, you go back to that.”

Adding to this already-complicated issue is the fact that more and more people are becoming homeless as a result of the economic downturn.

“We need to step up and provide the services for the new people coming into the system,” Parque said. “Cutting the safety net for the people who are already hanging by a string is tantamount to condemning them to remain homeless and eliminating any opportunity for them to better their lives and return to a stable housing situation.”

Markus Spokane, a 46-year-old homeless man, has been in and out of shelters for more than four years. Spokane said he wasn’t aware of the proposed cuts but isn’t surprised.

“So many shelters are at capacity as it is. That’s why I’m here, sleeping on the sidewalk,” Spokane said. “The cuts are just going to hinder that even more. I don’t even want to think about how many others like me will be back on the streets — probably for good.”

While the cuts would certainly have a negative impact on the homeless community, advocates say the rest of the city will feel the change, too.

“These cuts aren’t just going to hurt our homeless neighbors; they’re going to hurt all of us because it’s going to decimate the quality of life here in New York City,” Brosnahan said.

These leaders and homeless-services advocates are calling on Paterson and the state Legislature to reverse the proposed cuts and restore funding to what they say is an integral community need.

“Is there going to be a broad abrogation of responsibility, and sort of running away from the problems in our state, or is there going to be some kind of lines in the sand drawn, where there is an understanding … the quality of life in this city could be fundamentally different if Albany fails to act?” de Blasio asked.

On Tuesday, de Blasio and Commissioner Hess will be in Albany, fighting to restore funding for the homeless population.

“We need everyone to call members of the Legislature, and to put all the pressure on possible to call on the governor to do the right thing,” Hess said. “We call upon them today with a coalition that doesn’t often stand together but believes, sincerely, that we cannot set this city back 30 years.”