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Court delivers win for New York City's homeless

Homeless people eat food donated by a charity organization called HomelessBus.org in New York September 12, 2010. REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz
Homeless people eat food donated by a charity organization called HomelessBus.org in New York September 12, 2010. REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz

By Daniel Wiessner

ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - New York state's highest court rejected New York City's stricter eligibility requirements for homeless shelters on Tuesday, a victory for the homeless and their advocates in a decades-long battle with the city.

The procedure, championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and approved in November 2011, would have required single adults seeking a bed at shelters to prove they had nowhere else to go. They also would have had to provide information about their recent history and financial resources.

Lower courts had said the city's Department of Homeless Services violated the City Administrative Procedure Act, or CAPA, in adopting the new rule. CAPA requires a public hearing and other procedural steps.

The Court of Appeals - the highest court in the state - agreed, rejecting the city's claim that the new requirements were not a "rule" under CAPA because department workers maintained some discretion in deciding who was eligible.

"The procedure itself is mandatory ... and many of the standards articulated in it are mandatory in the sense that their application will dictate whether an individual will or will not receive benefits," Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote for the court.

The City Council in 2011 filed a lawsuit challenging the mayor's policy, claiming it would force thousands to remain on the streets.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn called the decision a victory for the homeless and for the "principles of openness and accountability."

"As the court rightly held, the mayor cannot unilaterally impose policies that would have such significant impact without even notifying the public or receiving comments," Quinn said in a statement.

Thomas Crane, a senior attorney with the City Law Department, said the city was disappointed with the ruling.

"Shelter should be a last resort, when all other resources have been exhausted," Crane said in a statement.

The policy, intended to reduce the number of applicants to homeless shelters, would save $4 million a year, the city estimated.

The Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit organization that provides counseling to homeless people, praised the decision in a statement, saying it looked forward to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio "scrapping these disastrous rules for good."

As a candidate, de Blasio vowed to reform "unfair and overly punitive" eligibility rules for homeless shelters and to introduce new housing programs, according to his campaign website.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman)

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