Mayor’s homeless plan taking Bowery back to bad old days

Mayor Bloomberg’s new homeless policy has much to be applauded. He’s committed to slashing the city’s homeless shelter population by two-thirds within five years, while at the same time eliminating street homelessness. A key part of his plan is moving homeless people out of shelters and into permanent supportive housing; from an original pledge to build 5,000 units of supportive affordable housing, Bloomberg recently upped this number to 12,000 units.

And yet, one aspect of the mayor’s plan is clearly not working; that is the policy under which it is nearly impossible to transfer anyone out of a homeless shelter, even someone who is causing major problems. The effect of this new regulation has been felt noticeably in the East Village around E. Third St. and the Bowery where Project Renewal runs two shelters housing a total of 300 men.

Neighbors and local merchants say that within the past year some of the problem behavior formerly associated with the once notorious Third St. Men’s Shelter has crept back onto the streets. Project Renewal was rightfully hailed as a savior when it assumed control of the Third St. Men’s Shelter from the city in the early 1990s. Yet, now Renewal on Bowery, the renamed Third St. shelter, and the Kenton Hall, Project Renewal’s other facility on the Bowery, are, according to residents and shop owners, once again a source of quality of life problems. The condition isn’t as bad as it was before, yet things have slipped.

Clearly, Project Renewal was doing something right before. The positive effects were clearly visible in the neighborhood. It only stands to reason that if a shelter is to be well run, the operator must have the ability to remove troublemakers and people who are not ready or just do not want to get better.

Ironically, only a few days ago Mayor Bloomberg announced a new get-tough policy to remove public school students who are so disruptive or menacing as to make it impossible for classes to function. This is a long overdue idea that should help immensely in fostering productive, safe learning environments.

Yet, by not allowing facilities to transfer out problem cases, a whole shelter’s population, as well as staff, are negatively affected. We hope the mayor and Department of Homeless Services see fit to modify this regulation, which, while intended to keep homeless people from being shifted around excessively, in fact is hurting individuals trying to reassemble their lives. For someone grappling to become substance free, to have active drug and alcohol use — or even drug dealing — nearby is a terrible influence.

Some say the complainers are the newcomers, “gentrifiers.” Yet, while it’s no secret the Bowery is changing, people raising concerns about the shelters are mostly longtime residents, who know how well Project Renewal operated before these counterproductive strictures.

Until we eliminate the need for homeless shelters, we must ensure that they help the homeless get back on their feet, while at the same time without the shelters themselves becoming a problem for the surrounding neighborhood.

While most of the mayor’s homeless plan is a step in the right direction, this one rule is setting things back years on the Bowery.