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Saturday, November 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Urban plight: NYC's homeless have reached record levels

The Associated Press

• While the numbers are up nationwide, dealing with Sept. 11 has aggravated the homeless situation in unexpected ways in New York. Anti-terror patrols have sealed off nooks in tunnels, bridge underpinnings and downtown alleys where the homeless once sought shelter.

On average, more than 37,000 people spend their nights in city shelters, the highest level on record, and uncounted numbers sleep outside.

NEW YORK — In the nation's largest city, a record number of people are homeless, sleeping each night in shelters and streets, on subway platforms and cathedral steps — and there are no easy solutions in sight.

The slowing economy has led to jumps in homelessness across the nation, in places as disparate as Rhode Island and South Dakota. But in New York, struggling with the aftermath of terrorism, the effect has been particularly acute.

On average, more than 37,000 people spend their nights in New York City shelters, the highest level on record. In 1998, city statistics show, the average was about 21,000. The number of homeless families sleeping in shelters has more than doubled over the same period, from 4,429 at the beginning of 1998 to 8,925 last month. And there are uncounted numbers of people who sleep outside.

"It's getting steadily worse out there," said James Inman, 54, as he finished Thanksgiving dinner at a Manhattan mission. "All the shelters are full. It's tighter than it's ever been."

The sluggish economy and rising rents have combined to produce higher homeless rates across the country, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The group puts the number of homeless people nationwide at 1 million.

In Los Angeles, police made about 200 arrests on "Skid Row" this month after business people called for steps to combat homelessness. In Rhode Island, rising rents were blamed for a 45 percent increase in homeless children over the past three years. Sioux Falls, S.D., is estimated to have more homeless people than the populations of three-quarters of the towns in the state.

In New York, dealing with Sept. 11 has aggravated the homeless situation in unexpected ways. Anti-terror patrols have sealed off out-of-the-way places — nooks in tunnels, bridge underpinnings, downtown alleys — where homeless people once sought shelter.

"The places where homeless folks have gone for cover are starting to be walled off," said Linda Gibbs, city commissioner of homeless services. "It limits their options, and it forces them into the open."

The situation is causing tension. An advocacy group sued the city this week, alleging police are sweeping the homeless off the streets by arresting them. Police acknowledge a jump in arrests, but say that is because officers simply have more contact with the homeless lately.

Solutions are elusive.

The city is banking on a strategy adopted in June that focuses on making sure enough shelter space is available and aiming to get people into permanent housing.

This winter, city social workers will conduct a homeless-population survey to get a handle on how many people are sleeping on streets and where.

Since taking office Jan. 1, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has boosted the number of permanent housing subsidies available to those in the city shelter system to 9,250 — an increase of 110 percent.

The city has also explored unusual options for shelter space, some of which homeless advocates have derided. This summer, a judge blocked the mayor's plan to use a former Bronx jail as a shelter. The city, bound by law to provide shelter, has also considered converting empty convents and community centers.

In perhaps the most unusual idea, city officials traveled to the Bahamas to inspect three cruise ships, beginning a study of whether docked ships could be used to house the homeless.

"We won't and we can't reject any idea," Gibbs said.

Homeless supporters want the city to build 100,000 new housing units and renovate 85,000 more over the next 10 years — at a cost of about $10 billion.

Bloomberg, facing massive budget deficits, said the problem is more complicated than writing a check. The city says it is trying to provide short-term solutions — guaranteeing food and shelter — while it explores a long-term fix.

Meanwhile, no one expects the numbers to drop soon.

"We're hustling to get food," said Larry Gile, who runs St. John's Bread and Life, the largest soup kitchen in Brooklyn, which served a record 19,500 meals last month. "We just get the feeling the demand is infinite."

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