NEW YORK -- The local shelter may not always have enough beds, but the nation's unmarried and childless homeless haven't had to prove that it's their only option when they show up at the door.
That could change under a policy proposed by New York City homelessness officials who want to begin turning singles away if the city determines they can rely on family, friends or other alternatives.
Caught between an unusual legal mandate to provide homeless shelters and a desire to preserve tightening resources despite increasing demand, the city's Department of Homeless Services plans to interview single shelter applicants to make sure they haven't exhausted other means of help.
It's a shift that critics worry could leave the city's most vulnerable individuals – many of them struggling with substance abuse and mental illness – out on the street.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his top aides say they're ensuring that the city helps only the truly needy. The approach has been in place for more than a decade for families.
The proposed rules have been challenged in court by the City Council and the Legal Aid Society. The city has delayed enacting them while a judge reviews the case.
The mayor has argued that shelter should be no different from other forms of public assistance such as food stamps and subsidized housing that are given only to residents who qualify. Catherine An, a spokeswoman for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said her organization was aware of no other governments with such a test for singles.
"The city is willing to reach into its pocket and make sure that nobody sleeps on the streets," Bloomberg said shortly after the City Council voted Wednesday to sue. "But that doesn't mean that we're going to pay everybody's rent."
It's a change that worries Thomas Harris, who had served about two months in jail for disorderly conduct and was released this week to find himself homeless and jobless. Standing outside a Manhattan shelter, he said that if the city told him he had to move in with his uncle or brother, both estranged, they'd never allow it.
More than a decade ago, he slept on the streets, he said, strung out on crack and oblivious to his surroundings. But now, after being clean and sober for 15 years, he says he doesn't know how he'd make it.
"It's much harder now," he said. "I'm 52 years old. I'm not in my 20s or 30s. I can't survive on the streets now. I'm asking the city for help."
While tight budgets have forced many U.S. cities to cut government services, New York's options are limited when it comes to homelessness. The city is legally obligated to provide shelter under court settlements reached over the last three decades. Massachusetts is the only other government with a similar mandate, which is imposed by state law.
Both places require families to prove they qualify for the assistance, and both have been coping with a growth in demand.
Other locations may not have shelter eligibility requirements, but they are allowed to simply turn people away when the public beds fill up. Because of those differences, it is impossible to make a fair comparison between New York and other cities, said Seth Diamond, the city's homeless services commissioner.
In Boston, single men and women get shelter with no questions asked. Jim Greene, director of the city's Emergency Shelter Commission, said that's a necessity because the system helps fill the gap created by the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill.
"It would be a nightmare" if single homeless people were required to qualify for shelter in Boston, Greene said. "Their ability to afford housing would be non-existent. We would see many more people on the streets."
Critics of New York's policy say single men and women are particularly vulnerable because they have higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness than their counterparts with families and more stable attachments.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn bristled at the suggestion that homeless singles would choose to stay in the dormitory-style shelters for any reason other than absolute need.
"With all due respect, it is not that great a place to be. It is a place of last resort," she said.
While New York officials say money is not the primary reason for the proposed policy change, it is part of an agency plan to cut back on spending. The $4 million in projected yearly savings represents less than 1 percent of the agency's budget. In the last fiscal year, the city placed 20,165 single adults in the shelter system for average stays of 250 days. That's up from 17,635 four years earlier.
In October, the city's daily shelter population count exceeded 40,000 people for the first time. A city count estimates that more than 2,600 people live on the streets, but advocates believe that many more aren't counted.
City officials say the existing policy, enacted in 1996, has kept struggling families out of the shelter system for as long as possible. City statistics show that so far this year, 36 percent of applying families with children have been deemed eligible for shelter on average each month – down from 43 percent five years ago. Others have either found other arrangements, with or without agency help, or have been deemed by the city to have other options.
Critics say the policy traps families in a bureaucracy that frequently denies them shelter because they can't prove it's their last resort.
Shaquoia Waring said she had tried unsuccessfully to convince officials that her family couldn't return to her grandmother's two-bedroom apartment in public housing, with nine people sharing two bedrooms. Her grandmother had asked them to leave, and in any case, mold in the bathroom made it unsafe for two of her children who have asthma, she said.
"Where do you want me to go?" she asked, standing outside the city intake center. "You want me to be in the street with my four kids?"
An agency spokeswoman said Waring's request was denied in part because the city housing authority said the grandmother could have requested that she and her family be allowed to stay with her, and because the authority said the apartment didn't require repairs.
Other families have been told they should return to locations known to an abuser, or to unsafe apartments, Legal Aid Society head lawyer Steven Banks said.
Diamond says such anecdotes don't accurately reflect the agency's efforts to help families. Case workers can reach out to relatives of family members who have been kicked out, and they can take into account other extenuating circumstances, like health concerns, if they are properly documented, he said.
Families with children who think they've been denied shelter unfairly can appeal; the city would extend that option to singles under its proposal.
Diamond says the proposed change is also a response to shifting demographics possibly tied to the economic downturn and housing crisis. Over the last five years, the percentage of singles arriving at shelters after living with family or elsewhere in the community has jumped from 39 percent to 66 percent.