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New York Floats a Plan to Place Homeless on Board Cruise Ships

November 21, 2002|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- They've slept on office floors, in jails and on school buses that take them to and from shelters at 3 a.m. But now homeless people in New York City might get a new place to spend the night -- on cruise ships.

City officials, faced with a rapidly expanding number of homeless and a court order that requires New York to provide temporary shelter for any person who needs it, have come up with the novel plan to use old cruise ships as just one of several solutions to a chronic housing shortage.

Linda Gibbs, homeless services commissioner, flew to the Bahamas on Wednesday along with other top aides on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's private jet to inspect several such ships. The expedition is "just a fact-finding mission, extremely preliminary," said her spokesman, Jim Anderson.

"The trip is to determine if the ships would be safe and applicable to shelter homeless clients," he said.

New York has more than 36,000 homeless people, the highest number in years, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. And although Bloomberg has dismissed the notion that the problem is getting worse, New York has been hard-pressed to find suitable housing for this growing population.

More than 16,000 of them are under the age of 18, and an additional 12,000 are mothers, according to agency figures. The city will conduct a census of the homeless this winter in an effort to arrive at a more accurate number.

"I thought I'd heard it all when it comes to New York dealing with the homeless, but I guess I haven't," said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst with the coalition. "I think most New Yorkers will hear this latest idea and say to themselves, 'There's got to be a better way than using cruise ships,' and of course there is."

New York is paying "a very stiff price" for the nearly 40% cutback in temporary housing assistance programs mandated by the previous administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, he said. Bloomberg has pledged to restore much of that funding, including renovation of city-funded apartments and federal Section 8 housing assistance programs, Markee added, "but right now we have an exploding homeless population and we need real programs to help them."

As of Oct. 31, the city operated 125 family shelters -- all filled to capacity -- in the five boroughs. Although the notion of putting homeless people on cruise ships may seem farfetched, New York has floated a similar idea before. In the early 1990s, city officials put several thousand homeless families on empty, little-used jail barges in the East River. The plan was shot down by a court, which ruled the ships an inappropriate site.

New York did, however, put prisoners on a converted barge in the early 1990s, to ease jail overcrowding, and the same ship was reopened in 1998 as a place to put juvenile offenders.

Exploring other options, the city has worked with several social service providers to open 18 new homeless shelters in failing hotels. The program has triggered angry opposition, however, from neighbors and community leaders who in many cases have said they didn't know about the plan.

Last summer, the city put homeless families in a Bronx jail as a stopgap measure. They spent 45 days there until a court ruled that the jail should not have been used for housing.

While New York officials did not disclose the potential costs involved in acquiring and renovating old cruise ships, officials have indicated that the price could be less than that of New York real estate, which is at record high levels. Most of the cruise ships being inspected would house from 1,000 to 3,000 people.

"We can't reject any idea that's being offered," Gibbs told WNBC-TV. "I think we have to be unafraid to think creatively and to explore options that maybe haven't been looked at in the past."

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