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Three fires in New York City have something in common
Deadly toll of budget cuts

By Petrino DiLeo | February 4, 2005 | Page 2

THREE FIRES during a recent stretch of brutal cold in New York City claimed three firefighters' lives and wiped out subway service on one train line for up to five years. Though they took place in different parts of the city, the fires have one thing in common: They could have been avoided if not for the city's budget cuts.

One fire that destroyed a subway signal room in downtown Manhattan was initially blamed on a homeless person trying to escape from the bitter cold (city officials backed off that line after two days).

The response from New York's media was merciless. The liberal New York Times called for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to evict all homeless people from the subway system. "Blaming homeless people is the oldest diversion tactic in the book to cover up for unsafe workplace conditions and the fact that the MTA does nothing to put its enormous revenues into providing services and making safer conditions," said Jennifer Flynn of the New York City AIDS Housing Network.

What's more, the Times and the rest of the media neglected to address the larger issues: the shortage of shelter space and the homeless crisis plaguing New York.

The shelter system is handling a record 38,000 people a night. Of that, 79 percent are families. In addition, tens of thousands more people live on the streets, putting New York City's homeless population at its highest levels since the Great Depression, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

The homeless population has increased 27 percent since billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office. In response, a man who could build housing for all of New York's homeless out of his own pocket has instead cut back homeless prevention programs and legal services, and initiated a program to expel single men from shelters.

"Shelters are all filled to the maximum with more people then beds," Flynn told Socialist Worker. "In New York state, there is a right to shelter, which means that the city cannot deny shelter to anyone. But obviously, given the dangerous conditions in the shelters, many individuals choose not to utilize the system."

To escape the streets, some New Yorkers turn to cheap flophouses. One such apartment in the Bronx was the site of a fatal fire that claimed the lives of firefighters John Bellew and Curtis Meyran.

A single apartment had been converted with a maze of partitions to create a total of four tiny bedrooms. It housed six adults and three children, who paid between $50 and $100 per week in rent. The partitions proved deadly, blocking firefighters from reaching the fire escape when the blaze cornered them. They were forced to jump from a fourth-story window. Two were killed in the fall, and three others were severely injured.

In another part of town, a resident had turned to a space heater for additional heat. The heater caused nearby material to catch fire, setting off a deadly blaze that killed Brooklyn firefighter Richard Sclafani.

Every winter, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are forced to turn to dangerous space heaters because of inadequate heating in their apartment. Nationwide, space heaters are responsible for more than 20,000 fires and 300 deaths annually. Others turn to even more dangerous alternatives--such as using their stoves, or starting fires within their apartments.

In New York, the city's 311 help line has been deluged with calls this winter--up to 65,000 a day--most from residents with no heat or hot water. One 180-unit apartment building in Queens had no heat or hot water for an entire week recently, even as the thermometer dipped to single digits for days. Residents to pull in their local city councilman for help. The city had not responded to dozens of calls to its 311 line.

Though few are caught in the act, many landlords periodically shut off heat and hot water in buildings to save on energy costs. But even if they are caught, the penalty for such acts is meager: a $500 fine.

In the two fires, inadequate equipment for firefighters contributed to the deaths. In the Bronx flophouse fire, firefighters had to give up their hose to comrades on the third floor. When the fire suddenly flared up where they were, they had no way to fight it, and were forced to jump.

Moreover, up until 1999, each of New York's firefighters had their own harness and safety rope. But the city began taking them back that year, saying the manufacturer guarantee had run out. Now, there are only five such devices per ladder, meaning they have to be shared by as many as 20 or 30 people. In the Bronx blaze, two of the firefighters used their own personal ropes to lower themselves 10 feet from a window before jumping--both survived. The others without ropes were forced to jump from the window.

Generally, the fire department is more stretched for resources than ever. Bloomberg forced the closure of eight firehouses in 2003, and staffing at other firehouses has been cut 20 percent. The mayor and his allies have been pushing further concessions on firefighters, teachers and other municipal workers.

At the same time, Bloomberg is stumping to get a new $1.4 billion stadium for the New York Jets and a convention center complex built on Manhattan's West Side, and he is supporting a $2.5 billion project, including a new basketball arena, in Brooklyn that would displace 1,000 residents. He also wants to spend up to $7.2 billion to bring the Olympics to New York in 2012.

And to top it off, Bloomberg is trying to use $350 million from the Battery Park City Authority to pay for the football stadium and convention center--money that is supposed to be used for affordable housing, but has been sitting, untouched, for nearly 40 years.

In response to the housing crisis, a large coalition of community groups, local unions and housing and homeless advocacy organizations have a called a march and rally for February 2. Some groups will march over the Brooklyn Bridge, and the rally will begin at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall. Endorsers include 1199, UFT, AFSCME DC 37, ACORN, Coalition for the Homeless, NYC AIDS Housing Network, and Make the Road By Walking.

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