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Cruise ships may shelter homeless

They've slept on office floors, in jails and on school buses that take them to and from shelters at 3 a.m. But now homeless people in New York City might get a new place to spend the night: on cruise ships.

City officials, faced with a rapidly expanding number of homeless people and a court order that requires New York to provide temporary shelter for any person who needs it, have come up with the novel plan to use old cruise ships as just one of several solutions to a chronic housing shortage.

Linda Gibbs, homeless services commissioner, flew to the Bahamas on Wednesday along with other top aides on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's private jet to inspect several such ships. The expedition is "just a fact-finding mission, extremely preliminary," said her spokesman, Jim Anderson.

"The trip is to determine if the ships would be safe and applicable to shelter homeless clients," he said, adding that the team would brief the mayor after it returned.

New York has more than 36,000 homeless people, the highest number in years, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. And although Bloomberg has dismissed the notion that the problem is getting worse, New York has been hard-pressed to find suitable housing for this growing population.

More than 16,000 of them are under the age of 18, and an additional 12,000 are mothers, according to agency figures. The city will conduct a census of the homeless this winter in an effort to arrive at a more accurate number.

"I thought I'd heard it all when it comes to New York dealing with the homeless, but I guess I haven't," said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst with the coalition. "I think most New Yorkers will hear this latest idea and say to themselves, "There's got to be a better way than using cruise ships,' and of course there is."

New York is paying "a very stiff price" for the nearly 40 percent cutback in temporary housing assistance programs mandated by the previous administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he said. Bloomberg has pledged to restore much of that funding, including renovation of city-funded apartments and federal Section 8 housing assistance programs, Markee added, "but right now we have an exploding homeless population and we need real programs to help them."

As of Oct. 31, the city operated 125 family shelters _ all filled to capacity _ in the five boroughs. Although the notion of putting homeless people on cruise ships may seem far-fetched, New York has floated a similar idea before. In the early 1990s, city officials put several thousand homeless families on empty, little-used jail barges in the East River. The plan was shot down by a court, which ruled the ships an inappropriate site.

New York did, however, put prisoners on a converted barge in the early 1990s, to ease jail overcrowding, and the same ship was reopened in 1998 as a place to put juvenile offenders.