City is Held in Contempt of Court for Continuing to Enforce Unconstitutional Law

For years, New York has continually enforced laws prohibiting loitering as a basis for arresting the homeless and the poor for panhandling, sleeping on the streets, or otherwise being present in a public space, despite the fact that these laws were ruled unconstitutional over two decades ago. But in a blatant disregard for that ruling, as of 2007, New York had arrested more than 2,300 people under these laws.

Yesterday a federal judge in Manhattan held the City in contempt of court for failing to stop enforcing these laws, citing the City had “unlawfully enforced the statutes tens of thousands of times,” and that enforcement had been specifically targeted at the poor.

In 2007, a homeless man spent months in a Westchester County jail after being arrested for loitering, just an example of the thousands who “had their constitutional rights violated,” according to Judge Shira Scheindlin of the United States District Court.

In addition to the unlawful enforcement by the police department, the State Legislature has still not rescinded these unconstitutional laws from the books. Judge Scheindlin scolded the State Legislature for this delay in action as an example of its “notorious dysfunction.”

We hope the result of this new ruling will prod both the Police Department and the State Legislature into more meaningful action against the enforcement of these laws. Surely the Judge’s ruling that the City would be fined upwards of $500 for every illegal summons may provide some incentive.

Remembering a Homeless Hero

In both life and death, far to many people walked past Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax.

But he’ll be remembered for heroically giving his life in an attempt to protect a woman from an attack in the Jamaica section of Queens.

The New York Times and other local news organizations reported how, as a police surveillance video shows, Tale-Yax was stabbed while apparently attempting to help a woman who was being attacked by an unidentified man who later fled the scene. Even the New York Post, which posted the video on its website here, described him as “a heroic homeless man” — and this from a newspaper that, in both its news and opinion pages, routinely and willfully uses the slurs “bums” and “vagrants” to refer to homeless people.

(For instance, here and here and here and here and…well, you get the idea.)

Tale-Yax, who was born in Guatemala, was one of New York City’s growing number of homeless day laborers (we’ve written about their plight here and here), largely Central American and Mexican immigrants who’ve been hit hard by the sharp downturn in the local construction industry.

To add to the tragic circumstances of Tale-Yax’s death, the surveillance video shows that after he was stabbed, he lay on a sidewalk for more than an hour before anyone called the police — and more than 20 people walked past him without stopping to offer help.

In the three decades since modern homelessness began, New Yorkers have grown far too accustomed to walking past men and women prone on the streets.  Last week one of those people was Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, who died heroically.

And like all of the other homeless people on our streets, he should be remembered.

Debunking the Myths about Charging Homeless Families Rent for Shelter

misinformed blog in the Huffington Post by Covenant House executive director, Jerome Kilbane fails to address the reality of the City’s plan to charge homeless families rent for shelter. Kilbane praises charging rent as a way to save for independent living and to teach homeless families the valuable skills of financial planning.

Unfortunately Kilbane’s article overlooks several key points in the City’s plan to charge homeless families rent for shelter.

1) The proposed rent payments are not “modest.” The city has proposed that families pay up to $926 a month to stay in a homeless shelter. In many cases, if they could afford this, they wouldn’t be in a homeless shelter.

2) Families will absolutely not get any of their money back upon their exit from shelter so the “rent” will in no way help them save for independent living. Moreover the money will do nothing to solve the City or State’s budget woes, so it is essentially an exercise in throwing away perfectly good money that could help alleviate the poverty faced by homeless families.

3) If homeless families do not comply with the new “rent” rules, they could be ejected from shelter to the streets. Subsequently, their children could be placed in foster care–causing both emotional trauma for families and an unnecessary tax burden on New Yorkers. This type of punitive system does nothing to encourage or teach families about “opening a bank account, keeping a checkbook, and maintaining a budget.”

4) Homeless families do not simply need lessons in budgeting. When your monthly income is $1200 a month before taxes and your rent is $1100, no amount of budgeting or number crunching will make this a feasible payment. What most homeless families need is a stable and sufficient housing subsidy to help them bridge the gap between their income and rent.

We would not dispute that financial planning and building savings are in fact good things for homeless families to learn and do. Indeed, these are especially important for the population that Mr. Kilbane serves–homeless youth. However, the Mayor’s plan to charge rent for shelter accomplishes neither of these goals and would only work to keep families in shelter longer and prevent them from building any savings for when they exit.

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