New York City in court over homeless shelter policy

NEW YORK Fri Jan 20, 2012 7:31pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration went to court on Friday to defend its controversial new application process at homeless shelters, arguing no rules were broken when the policy was adopted without public scrutiny.

The city's Department of Homeless Services in November tried to reduce the number of individual men and women seeking a bed at a city shelter by requiring them to prove they had nowhere else to go, a move the city council speaker described as "cruel and punitive."

The policy would require adults seeking shelter to provide information, including documents where possible, about their recent housing history and financial resources.

Friday's hearing was the result of a City Council decision in December to file the first independent lawsuit against the Bloomberg administration since Christine Quinn, the council speaker, took office in 2006.

The council, led by Quinn, voted in December to sue the Bloomberg administration over the policy.

Quinn, who is expected to run for mayor in 2013, argued that the Bloomberg administration had not gone through the required channels, including consulting the council and the public. If it had, she suggested, the changes would never have survived.

Administration lawyers said at the hearing at state Supreme Court in Manhattan that the policy did not amount to a new rule as defined in the city charter, so the administration did not need to consult with the public before adopting it. They also said the policy was bringing the city in line with a state directive about shelter eligibility requirements issued in 1995.

The policy was along the lines of "instructions to staff," defense lawyers said, adding that shelter staff would still be able to use discretion to decide whether or not a man or woman was truly homeless.

Jeff Metzler, the council's chief litigator, disagreed, saying it was a dramatic policy shift that amounted to a rule change, and said it violated a requirement that the city provide shelter to anyone who needs it because of "physical, mental or social dysfunction."

Judge Judith Gische said she hoped to decide in about a month whether the policy was, in fact, a rule and would therefore have to go through the city charter's rule-making process. The policy is on hold in the meantime.

(Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston)

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