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Tensions flared when lawyers on opposing sides in a legal battle over the city’s responsibility for the homeless spoke recently at a panel discussion, held for summer associates at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. None of the distinguished lawyer-panelists had likely ever experienced homelessness or hunger personally, and the 75 interns and summer associates gathered to hear them speak of abstract hardship had just finished a pizza luncheon. Which perhaps explains why a former paralegal currently residing at the Bowery Mission men’s shelter on Avenue D stole the show. “I’m the new face of homelessness,” said Dwayne Sorrell, formerly of Davis, Polk & Wardwell and a last-minute addition to the City Bar panel. “I made $60,000 a year, I’m educated.” Substance abuse, Sorrell explained, caused him to “lose my place.” As a result, he wound up in what he termed the city’s “huge and rambling” shelter system. “Imagine me being in bed and there’s a person across from me who’s schizophrenic and nothing is being done,” said Sorrell. “That’s what happening to me. “Everything is glossed over, everything is politicized.” Sorrell’s remarks followed a testy exchange between Commissioner Linda I. Gibbs of the city’s Department of Homeless Services and attorney Robert M. Hayes, a corporate associate at Sullivan & Cromwell in the 1970s who was a founder of Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition’s crusading litigation in Callahan v. Carey resulted in the city signing a State Supreme Court consent decree in 1981 promising shelter on demand — and consequently the need of Gibbs’ administrative agency. Hayes accused the current Republican administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and that of his Republican predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, of attempting to “re-impose bureaucracy [to] create obstacles for the most vulnerable people.” When the so-called Callahan consent decree took effect, he added, times were much different, what with the city and state of New York under Democratic administrations. “What’s different and disappointing [is that] I sit here defined as the enemy,” countered Gibbs. “It damages our ability to have a conversation and find solutions.” Sitting to the right of the commissioner, Sorrell shook his head as Gibbs told summer interns that some of the city’s homeless clientele are “extremely disruptive” and otherwise take advantage of the city’s hospitality, even when they have the wherewithal to live someplace besides a rent-free shelter. “A person who has a $50,000 salary — we can’t charge,” said Gibbs. “I can’t imagine anyone with $50,000 in a shelter,” snapped Hayes. “That’s exactly what we’re asking the court to clarify,” said Gibbs. “Well, you’ve got counsel for the plaintiff right here,” said Hayes. “It’s simply not true.” On June, Gibbs had a last word of sorts with success in her partial challenge to the Callahan consent decree. A panel of justices in the Appellate Division, First Department, ruled unanimously that single adults who are homeless are not entitled to shelter on demand, and that Gibbs is now free to commence evictions in certain circumstances. Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society, lead counsel for a group of advocates for the homeless, said an immediate appeal would be filed. Perhaps anticipating an adverse ruling as he spoke at the City Bar’s panel, Hayes said, “Putting people back on the streets will create havoc.” Sorrell appealed to the audience of interns and summer associates to help the homeless of New York City. “Advocacy has to come from new blood,” he said. Angry new blood, suggested another panelist, attorney Nicholas Scopetta, who is currently the city’s fire commissioner. Scopetta quoted from a commencement address delivered last month at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., by cartoonist Garry Trudeau: “Civilization is advanced by shimmering waves of discontent.”

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