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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly

I read recently that the City of New York has come up with a way of making money off the growing problem of homelessness – charge rent to people who live in homeless shelters and have paying jobs.

Actually, according to The New York Times, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took his first stab at this bizarre policy about a year ago, based on a 1997 state law that reportedly was not enforced until 2009, the year after the world’s economy went into advanced meltdown.

That first effort was cut short by threats of a lawsuit from a homeless advocacy organization, the Legal Aid Society. It is being revived, apparently, because of a disastrous financial report from the city’s auditing firm and resulting pressures to find ways to either save or make money.

According to a story in the New York Daily News this week, the deal appears to mean that those affected will pay up to 44 percent of their earnings in rent.

Around a year ago, The New York Times quoted one shelter resident, Vanessa Dacosta, who earned $8.40 an hour as a cashier at a cafe. She received a notice under her door several weeks ago informing her that she had to give $336 of her approximately $800 per month in wages to the Clinton Family Inn, a shelter in Hell’s Kitchen where she lived. At the same time, she was paying for child care for her young daughter, and trying to buy food for the two of them, not to mention other incidental expenses that any family faces.

This time around, the New York Daily News reported, under a sliding-scale rent formula, a family of three earning $10,000 a year would have to pay $36 a month, while the same sized family earning $25,000 a year would have to pay $926 per month.

The paper reported that about 15 percent of shelter residents make enough money to have to pay rent, and that it is expected to generate a measly $2 million or $3 million a year in revenues – scarcely a drop in the bucket for the cash-strapped city.

I suppose some tightwad, neocon types out there see this as no problem. These shelter-dwellers obviously are not to be classed among the “productive” strata of society and they soak up resources, so why not make them pay something?

This ignores so many aspects of reality that it’s difficult to stay seated and reason it through, but I’m going to try.

First off, no one is eager to live in a homeless shelter, according to conversations I’ve had with downtrodden denizens of this subculture. They all hope to save enough money to get out, get an apartment or something, and begin to make a life for themselves. Charging them rent makes this harder, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the government ends up holding them in place rather than helping them out.

Plus, the bureaucratic costs of such a program, while not mentioned in the stories I read, undoubtedly will be significant, perhaps enough to actually eradicate any revenues gained.

A city official told a reporter that it’s not about the money, it’s about the “principle” involved.

Presumably this is the principle that holds we all must be working contributors to society, even a society like ours, in which is it a built-in feature that a certain percentage of citizens will always be jobless and, by extension, homeless, penniless and with grim prospects.

My first reaction to the story, which showed up on Slate.com., was to stare incredulously at the screen and ask, “Is this a joke?”

But it’s not, unless you consider Orwellian hypocrisy, elitism and inconsistency to be humorous.

I, for one, am not laughing.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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