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 away singles if the city determines that 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 on the street.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his top aides say they merely want the city to help the truly needy. The approach has been in place for more than a decade for families.
The City Council and the Legal Aid Society have challenged the proposed rules in court. 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,” Mr. 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.”
The proposed change worries Thomas Harris, who served about two months in jail for disorderly conduct and was released last week to find himself homeless and jobless. He said that if the city told him he had to move in with his uncle or brother, both estranged, they would 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 said, he doesn’t know how he would 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 past three decades. Massachusetts is the only other government with a similar mandate, which is imposed by state law.
Both places require families to prove that they qualify for the assistance, and both have been coping with a growth in demand.