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Norman Siegel goes way back with Eric Adams — now he’s out to prove the mayor wrong on homelessness

GOTHAMIST, Elizabeth Kim, March 23, 2023

Their conversations invariably begin with small talk: Where did you grow up? What high school did you attend? How long did it take you to grow that mustache?

Before finally: Would you consider accepting shelter?

Since August, a group of roughly 25 volunteers, including those who were once homeless, have been applying this delicate approach when speaking to people living on the streets. The volunteers’ goal is offer people a way into the city’s shelter system by building trust — never through coercion.

Known as the Street Homeless Advocacy project, the effort is the brainchild of civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, a longtime critic of city government but ally of Mayor Eric Adams. The initiative, which is premised on securing consent, began four months before Adams floated a plan to forcibly move people believed to be mentally ill into hospitals.

As a result, the project has become both a counterpoint to the city’s position and a test of Siegel’s 30-year friendship with Adams. Over that time, both men have rallied around a host of seemingly intractable issues ranging from police brutality to affordable housing, but have disagreed on how to best address homelessness and mental illness.

But the group has showed promising outcomes so far. Volunteers have successfully engaged with around 380 homeless New Yorkers, according to Siegel. Of those, 116 agreed to accept the offer of a bed in a non-congregate shelter. That amounts to a more than 30% success rate.

The 79-year-old has represented a long list of underdog clients: homeless New Yorkers, Adams when he was an outspoken NYPD captainpublic housing tenants, individuals fighting redevelopment,  and even Gothamistduring its blogger days.

But Siegel now finds himself in unfamiliar territory.

“Most of my career has been being the outsider,” Siegel said. “But now there’s an opportunity for me to be a little in the inside, have some access, but also still be who I am, which is the outsider, the gadfly, the troublemaker causing questions that need to be raised.”

Siegel, who formerly led the New York Civil Liberties Union, argues the mayor’s approach is not only bound to fail due to a lack of sufficient mental health services, but also violates the constitutional right to liberty.

The plan also offends him as an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ way to ease the public’s feelings of discomfort and fear toward homeless people.

Read More: Gothamist