NEW YORK Nov 4 Six weeks before winter arrives, New York City has begun checking whether single adults arriving at homeless shelters can instead stay with friends or families, as the economic downturn makes temporary public housing more desirable, officials said on Friday.
The new shelter seekers are not limited to the working class.
"Most are lower-income New Yorkers, but there is a full range of New Yorkers coming into the system," Seth Diamond, the commissioner of the city's Department of Homeless Services, told Reuters.
The new applicants are "a lot of people who are working or capable of work, who may have gone through a little bit of a rough time -- their employer may have reduced their hours, or they may have lost their jobs," he said.
Over the past five years, the number of single adults who fit this description has risen to represent about 60 percent of the 1,700 people a month who apply to shelters, he said.
The number of so-called street people -- who otherwise may spend the night in a subway tunnel or under a cardboard box placed over a heating grate -- has fallen to less than 15 percent from about one-third of the applicants.
"We've been able to significantly reduce the number of people on the street," Diamond said.
This drop is due to intensive outreach programs, he said.
That decline is a controversial issue.
CRITICS CALL THIS 'IRRESPONSIBLE'
Homeless advocates say the city undercounts the population of street people -- and puts too much pressure on homeless families to turn to friends and families instead of emergency shelters.
For about 15 years, Diamond noted that families who come to shelters have been evaluated to see if they have other options.
The shelters should be reserved for those with no other options, in Diamond's opinion.
About 8,000 adults now live in shelters, which house a maximum of 200 individuals, in "groupings" of up to a dozen. Centers with employment and health services have replaced the former much criticized huge barracks, where crimes occurred.
The City Council responded with outrage to the sudden switch to screening single adults who seek shelter.
"This policy is an irresponsible 'no room at the inn' approach that does nothing to address the record number of people experiencing homelessness in New York City as winter approaches," Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a statement.
An emergency oversight hearing was set for Nov. 9.
Diamond said no one would be immediately turned away. There is a "conditional" period of 10 days during which people can stay while their circumstances are evaluated, he said.