Edward I. Koch

A Winter’s Tale … and More

VTR Date: January 17, 1988

Guest: Koch, Edward I.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Edward Koch
Title: “A Winter’s Tale…and More”
VTR: 1/17/88

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. No question: At one time or another an awful lot of people get angry at, are annoyed by, say to today’s guest: Don’t ask” when he asks: “How’m I doing?” Yet, there emanate from hizzoner, Ed Koch, the Mayor of New York, personal qualities that clearly endear him to Americans everywhere, not just here in the Big Apple, and that here help him garner ever larger and larger majorities every time he runs for office.

It was said about Theodore Roosevelt that he had the psychology of the mutt: and somehow I think that Mayor Koch does, too. We ay question his judgments at times, wish that at this moment or that he’d perhaps restrain his tongue, that perhaps he’d raise the level of public discourse rather than personalize it so. But I think that one could say about the mayor what Lord Morley said about TR: He’s “An interesting combination of St. Vitus and St. Paul”. And…”Do you know the two most wonderful things I have seen in your country?” Niagara Falls and the President of the United States: both great wonders of nature!”

Well, in his own way, Ed Koch is a wonder of nature, picking at our heartstrings and empathizing with plain folk as few other public figures ever have…which may explain the absolutely mind-boggling response to his last appearance here on THE OPEN MIND. He had completely recovered from his stroke – but it had tempered his thinking, no doubt…and a not subdued – no, never a subdued Ed Koch, that’s a contradiction in terms – but a very thoughtful, introspective Ed Koch, burdened like all of us when we age, mature, and start to think about what next, told me what he would have as his epitaph. And the American press went absolutely bananas. Front page stories in the New York papers, for gosh sakes, and a lot more copy all around the country.

Well, that was for Hizzoner’s thoughts about eternity. Let’s see now what the scribblers do with the here and now. For today I want to ask the Mayor about the harshest kind of too-much-with-us reality, one that reaches far beyond America’s cold belt…where homeless people freeze to death, and were efforts to remove them from the streets raise real questions of personal liberty.

Mr. Mayor, welcome again.

KOCH: It’s always a pleasure.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, it’s such a puzzlement for me to see the battle you have to wage on this question of freezing to death vs. personal liberty. How do you explain it?

KOCH: Well, it is interesting and I think that there was a time when the position of the New York Civil Liberties Union – which effectively is: let them out there and if they want to die, let them die – was the position of a large numbers of Americans. It’s changed, and I think I have something to do with the change. I have been speaking on this subject now for five years and what I have said is, in America, if you want to commit suicide and if you’re not going to take anybody else with you, you are allowed to do that. And even if you fail, you are not subject to criminal punishment in the State of New York, although you once were in the early 1900s. But you have to have the mental judgment that allows you to make that decision – informed judgment. So we have begun a program in the City of New York, which has become now quite celebrated and mostly accepted by most people, and that is to take the most hapless, hopeless, the most disturbed, those in danger in the foreseeable future – to themselves or to others – who won’t take help on the streets and to bring them, even against their will, to a hospital setting. And we have actually gone out and taken 70 people, as of this moment, from the streets, after examining about 170 and choosing the most hapless. And the choices are made by a psychiatrist and a social worker who go out and who know al of these people. Then they are brought to a hospital, in this case Bellevue, and we have a special unit that examines them again and if the doctors believe that they should stay, they stay, and they’re given treatment. Now, our most celebrated case, if you will, is that of Billy Boggs, and it is now in the courts. By the time this program is heard, maybe the Court of Appeals will have spoken, but the trial judge said that he could not decide who is right amongst doctors that were brought as experts, and therefore he relied solely on her testimony – and she’s become quite lucid compared to where she was…if she is in good condition today, I want to have some of the credit, because when I saw her the first time, she was lying in her own feces and she was lying on a grate where she had been for months, and she has a history of psychiatric instability and was actually hospitalized in New Jersey. She is one of our best New Jersey cases, but we don’t discriminate in terms of our treatment. And she now was entitled to a second hearing after the Appellate Division overruled the trial judge and said, “No, she should say and receive treatment”. After the judge said that – the Appellate Division – then we had to go through a second hearing and the second hearing…I mean, this is what America is all about, and I’m for it – great protection…she resists taking medicine and the judge sent her case to another doctor, independent of everybody, and that doctor said she is seriously in need of help – she is mentally disturbed. But giving her medicine against her will, in his judgment, wasn’t warranted because she won’t get the benefit of it and, ultimately, when she leaves, she won’t take it because of this bad history, and therefore the judges said, “We’re not going to give her medicine”. So we are in a real quandary. The highest court to speak says that she is mentally disturbed and requires institutionalization, a lower court has now said, “But you can’t give her medicine against her will”, and so the question is: should we release her back to the streets or should we keep her? I think we’re going to wait the for the Court of Appeals decision and then make a judgment on that.

HEFFNER: Okay. You’ve explained this position. I thought then maybe what we ought to do is have Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union here, but that is not really the case. You are a fair person. Having said what you said, let me ask you what you feel might be considered the downside of the position you and the city have taken.

KOCH: Sure, subject to abuse. In the Soviet Union…we condemn the Soviet Union and say for political purposes they have institutionalized their critics. It hasn’t happened here. In the Soviet Union you don’t have an opportunity, when you are brought into the hospital against your will, to demand and to receive a trial by the Supreme Court of the State of New York and have lawyers provided to you, free of charge…in the case of Billy Boggs, the New York Civil Liberties Union represented her. And then if you don’t like the adverse decision, as was the case with Billy Boggs ultimately, you have the right to go to an even higher court. So the danger is there, but I think the courts will protect us from that danger. The other side of that coin is, shall you leave people out on the street to die? In the case of Billy Boggs, you even have a history…as I say, she was institutionalized in New Jersey…her family comes in and says to the New York Civil Liberties Union, “Please, please don’t stop our sister from getting treatment – we want her to be treated”. So there is a balancing of interest. But surely, if it were your mother, or my mother, in another state, lying on a grate in the snow, you would want whoever was in charge to say, “Let’s help this woman – she can’t help herself”.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, what about the argument that this is, in itself, a kind of diversion – it’s a diversionary program? Entirely aside form the question of, may she, won’t she, will she – can you prevent this woman, or any other person, from lying there?

KOCH: I’ll tell you what you’re echoing – you’re echoing Norman Siegel’s argument. He says, “There are so many people out there who want…

HEFFNER: …Mr. Mayor, I’m not echoing it, I’m raising it.

KOCH: Okay, fine. That wasn’t intended to be pejorative, but I’ve heard this argument so many times. Norman Siegel and some of the advocates say, “There are so many people out there who want help, why don’t you help them?” We do! And what they say is, “Oh, they have to wait for a bed”. They may have to wait 24 hours, but they’re not let out of the institution. And if there isn’t a bed in the psychiatric division, they’ll put them into what they call a medical bed or a maternity bed, or some other bed that is empty and available because there is a shortage of psychiatric beds. But nobody is left out in the cold and they are treated while they are waiting for a physical bed. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that those who come in who don’t need institutionalization, we will arrange for out-patient care. The special program that Billy Boggs has made famous…and whether they let her out or not doesn’t in any way cast doubt on the program…because 13 people out of the 70 have demanded hearings and all 13 cases have been found to be properly institutionalized by the courts hearing those cases. So if they let her out…as my mother would have said…gezunta heit! I made her better (chuckle) by instituting this program. So we do not let people out who need help because of a lack of facilities. And then we get the State to help us too. So there is no diversion on our part – we have simply created a special program for the most hapless, the most in need of care.

HEFFNER: That isn’t quite what I meant by diversionary…and that isn’t what a lot of people mean…they mean that taking them off the streets diverts our attention from what is a phenomenon in this country.

KOCH: Well, I’m sorry. That’s another argument which the New York Civil Liberties Union raised initially to their eternal shame: they said it was a racist program – that we were taking blacks out of white neighborhoods. That’s an outrageous statement because it happens that more than half of the people who have been picked up from the streets happen to be white. It’s irrelevant, their color. And then they said, “But you are doing it in particular neighborhoods”. You bet! We’re doing it at Grand Central, we’re doing it at the bus terminal, because that’s where these people congregate. We also have a program in thither boroughs, but the vast majority of the homeless living out on the streets are living out on the streets on the East Side and the West side of Manhattan or in the terminals. And as Willy Sutton said, “Why do you rob a bank? Because that’s where the money is”. So that’s the area that you go to find those in need of help.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk about where the money is, and let’s talk about a larger social question of America that permits the phenomenon of these people, homeless in the first place.

KOCH: Okay. Now you have to differentiate in the various groups of homeless. You don’t find family people – a mother and two or three children, which is the family unit, regrettably, there is no father generally – and those people are in our hotels, which is another issue which, if you want to, we can get into. Those are not the people who are coming into our facilities for mental assistance. The people who are coming in are the single individuals. Now, tonight, because it is an average night, there will be 10,000 single individuals, 15% of them are women, who will be in our dormitories. And we provide them with 3 meals a day and medical care where needed and sanitation facilities and a shower and a warm bed and sheets and a blanket. And most of them are regulars. They come back every night. We reserve the bed for them. And we even have gotten several thousand of them jobs — it’s unbelievable that we have done that – no other city in the nation has done what we have done to try to bring these people back into mainstream. We have a special unit…a housing unit dormitory for veterans. Regrettably, about 25% of the homeless men in the streets are veterans from the Korean and Vietnam war, with great problems – mental problems, problems of alcoholism, drug problems. And so that group of the homeless – 10,000 – are very special, very fragile, and we have to do something about it. Now the next question is, and some of the advocates say, “You have got to give them their own apartment”. Well, we can’t! We cannot give every single homeless individual or every single homeless family their apartment. It just happens I read over the weekend an article that appeared in one of our very first rate papers, Newsday, and they talked about a woman and her family. She had separated fro her husband in New Jersey, near Fort Dix, and she left him. And then she was on her own for a little while, and then finally, because she couldn’t cope with paying rent, she had to give up her job and so forth. She left New Jersey and she came to New York – you know, Mayor Koch will take care of you. And we put her into a hotel – we never ask people where they came from, and if it’s a woman with children or a pregnant woman who is alone, we give them special facilities – they’re not first rate hotels, and they cost a lot of money, not on a per person basis, but on the length of time – it costs us $16 a night, on the average, for each person. And with four in a room – mother and two or three children – it costs on the average, $65 a night to house that family in a hotel. That’s with all this outrage about we’re paying too much – go find a hotel that will take 4 people for $65 a night! Not a first rate hotel, I want to assure you. So this particular family from New Jersey – they were praising us because they had stayed in the hotel an extended period of time and now we’re giving them their own apartment, because we do that. Four thousand families a year are taken from the hotels, or immediately before they came into the hotels from substandard housing, and we put them into their own apartment, at the rate of 4,000 a year, and in the last three or four years we’ve taken more than 12,000 families out of those circumstances. And when we started the program of placing them in their own apartments, we only had 2,200 families in the hotels. And today, having removed 12,000 families, or 50,000 people, we have in our hotels tonight, 5,100 families! Now, if we had a position which some of the advocates would like us to advocate, which is that every family that doesn’t have their own apartment, that every single individual who doesn’t have their own apartment…to the families we will give two or three bedroom apartments and to the single individuals a studio apartment…two things – one, we would go broke, and two, who wouldn’t come into our system from all over the country?

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, I hear you when you say we’d go broke.

KOCH: Yes.

HEFFNER: What happens to us if we don’t provide better for these people?

KOCH: We have to provide as much as we possibly can, recognizing that…there are a lot of tax payers out there and people don’t seem to care about the tax payers. I’m talking about low working poor tax payers, low income people, middle income people. Those are the people who truly get shafted. They don’t have Medicaid that guarantees that if they have an illness of any kind that they can go to doctors. I bet you that the people who have the least medical care in this country are the working poor, and then next would be the middle class, because they have to pay for it. And if you are on welfare, you don’t pay for it. Most of these people are on welfare. So it is true that there is misery – and there has been misery for thousands of years. I think there is less misery in the City of New York for these people who are in the worst of economic situations, but I’m not going to tell you that it is my job, or that I can expect to make everybody middle class in the years that I remain on as Mayor.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but when you say that there has been misery for thousands of years…

KOCH: …I want to lessen it, but I can’t eliminate it.

HEFFNER: Okay. Nobody is talking about eliminating it. What we are hearing mostly though is what can’t be done. And I’m accustomed to hearing you – I think of Congressman Ed Koch – and I know you once said on this program, and you’ve said it elsewhere: you could never, now, as a congressman, make the points that you made then because you know what’s possible and what’s impossible.

KOCH: Of course! That’s exactly it! Listen, if it could be done, I would be doing it. That is to say, if I could provide every single family in need of an apartment with such an apartment when there is only a 2% vacancy rate, I would do it tomorrow.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but elaborate a little upon that and let’s take it on another level – what can this country do?

KOCH: I’ll tell you! We’re not talking about housing – there are a lot of other problems – but I just want to talk about housing – because I want to say something about employment. You know, we have the lowest unemployment rate in something like 17 years. Do you know that today there isn’t a person in this city who is capable of holding a job who can’t get a job if they want a job? And I’m talking about people on welfare, I’m talking about able bodied women whose children are over 3 and where we would provide them with daycare service, or a single individual, male…there isn’t a person in the city who…providing they’re mentally able and physically able…who can’t get a job, because there is a shortage of people. It’s just that they don’t want to take any jobs.

HEFFNER: What then do we do, Mr. Mayor, with people, let’s say, who don’t want to take any jobs?

KOCH: Well, that’s a real problem, and I believe you have to put in sanctions. That’s really what I believe. But we are not capable of putting in sanctions.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by sanctions?

KOCH: Well, I will tell you – we have a program, as I told you, 4,000 units a year, and I said to people…you know, when you take people into those units, you should take those who have been there the longest. And they said to me, do you know that when we show some of these units to people they say, we don’t want them – it’s not in the right borough, there aren’t enough rooms, we don’t like the condition of the building? And I’m not going to tell you that we’re going to give, or are capable of giving, first rate accommodations, but surely better than living in a hotel, and people turn us down. And then I say, well, you have to develop a program that would have sanctions, and if they turn you down you give them two chances, three chances, in terms of the rooms that you can make available. Then, at that point, you have to say to them, you have to leave our hotels.

HEFFNER: And then what?

KOCH: Well, that’s the problem.

HEFFNER: Then it’s a sanction against us.

KOCH: Well, that‘s the problem. How can you ask a woman with children to leave the hotel – she may be on the street. Nobody is going to permit that. And if you went further and said, well, listen, that’s her own doing and maybe she’s abusing her children – maybe we ought to put the children in foster homes – people would say we were heartless, so we don’t even think of that! So, then I said, well, why can’t you have a lesser facility – what we call a congregate shelter, where instead of having a private hotel room, which they have, we could put them in a large dormitory? And so we really set that up. And then the State of New York said, well, you are going to have what they call fair hearings. It takes months! The apartment is no longer available by the time the person has, in fact, had a hearing as to whether or not they were arbitrary in not selecting the apartment or refusing to even look at the apartment. So that program which was intended to provide sanctions is a failure, not because of me, but because of the State agency that has jurisdiction. You see, the City of New York can’t do whatever it wants to do – we are subject, like a vassal city, to the State of New York that creates policy. And if they don’t like what we’re doing, because they have the opportunity to turn off the monies that come in because these programs are funded in part, either 25% or 50% depending on the program, by the State, they have us at the throat. So we make the proposals and they turn them down. It has had some positive impact because simply annoying them by saying, you have to go to these hearings after they’ve turned down, inappropriately we believe, these apartments they’ve been offered, they understand they are going to have to go through something, so we see more willingness to get on the van and to look at these apartments. Now what I’m simply saying is, there are no sanctions anymore and I don’t know what the sanctions should be. But you have to build them in, and our society isn’t willing to build them in. the advocates…they’re not in control, that would be an overstatement, but they have so bullied us, you know, and the papers…any time the government does something and you can show that it screwed up, so you beat the hell out of them and you oppress the spirit of the administrators who are there. They don’t like to be called Attila the Hun! And the advocates are very good at this.

HEFFNER: You know, the real trouble is…the advocates are good at it, you are very good at calling the…

KOCH: Well, I’m defending myself.

HEFFNER: Okay, but the real question of where in the world are we, and what do we do, is not addressed.

KOCH: Yes it is addressed.


KOCH: Well, I’ll tell you. I believe that he next Congress will allocate money for housing…I just want to talk about just housing now…and the last time we had any federal housing was under Carter, and I’m not a big fan of Carter’s.

HEFFNER: So I remember!

KOCH: But the fact is that I like the spirit of President Reagan – I don’t like his policies, but I like him so much better than I liked Carter. He’s a mensch! Strong guy of great feeling about positions. And I think that he truly wants to do the right thing but it’s just that he doesn’t know how. But we are not going to have him for very long so let’s treasure him while we do. Now…and honor him after he’s left. But at this particular moment, he’s provided no money for housing. The last housing budget that the Congress adopted was 30 billion dollars in, I think, 1980, under Carter…or maybe ’81. And then Reagan just ended it…and that was 30 billion under Carter. Under Reagan, 7 billion, recently and that only provides money for a very limited number of senior citizen units – to be exact, 800 – whereas under Carter they built 2500 in a year, and major emergency repairs. So the Congress has to address this issue of housing, and then you have to get the unions. You know, the unions hold back the technological advances that could cut costs anywhere from 20 to 40%. They just don’t want to do it! Even though there would be enough jobs for everybody, they keep the old technology rather than the new technology. So, I don’t know the answer to getting everybody to do their part, but it is possible to do it.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mayor, if we were totally alone…I don’t know how many people are watching…but if we were totally alone – you’d go off and meet with yourself and your advisors, do you think that there is any way this country, as now constituted, is going to be able to deal with these huge social problems? Do we have the ability?

KOCH: Yes, I do. I believe that we have moved considerably in the direction of a more structured life. You know, we went through a period when anything went. I mean, it’s not in any way to say that a spirit of the 60s and the 70s was all bad – there were lots of good things about it – but here is a certain anarchy that is involved. And maybe it is because I’m a little older today that I see the failures of anarchy and the failures of requiring people to meet certain standards. I think that you have to address the problem of illegitimacy. That’s a word that you are not even allowed to use any more – children that don’t have a father by name. There has to be something done there. What happens when a young girl in her adolescence becomes pregnant? That child is going to have a very high mortality in the first year because the child of a young woman who is an adolescent, and particularly is she is on drugs or alcohol, that child is going to die more readily and more quickly than otherwise would be the case in the first year of life.

HEFFNER: You say something must be done – we have forty-five seconds. Is there any indication that we have…

KOCH: …Standards, standards, and we’ve got to have the nerve to impose them and not be put off by the advocates who scream ‘civil liberties’ because…I’m a civil libertarian but they scream it inappropriately.

HEFFNER: But if you have standards, Mr. Mayor, you’re implying sanctions and a moment ago you said, hey, forget it, we can’t have sanctions.

KOCH: Well, but hope springs eternal and I believe that if you talk long enough about it…when Secretary Bennett said you have to put back the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic and the basic books that all of us used to read, and bring back Latin into high school and a second foreign language – he was absolutely right!

HEFFNER: Can you imagine what the headlines are going to say – now never mind epitaph – “KOCH WANTS LATIN BACK IN THE SCHOOLS”?

KOCH: Well, I had Latin in high school!

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today, Mr. Mayor.

KOCH: It was a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about what the Mayor has said about today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.