New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, under attack for his own controversial program to care for the city's mentally ill homeless, lashed out at the Reagan Administration Wednesday for what he called its inattention to the problem and urged an expanded federal role in providing help for these "pitifully sick people."
But the mayor expressed doubt that the Administration will act. "All we can do is wait for Reagan to leave and Cuomo to come on the scene," Koch said in a free-wheeling talk at the National Press Club, as he predicted that New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo will be drafted for the Democratic presidential nomination and then win the 1988 general election.
Reagan "will go down in history as someone who moved the country," Koch said, but moved it "in the wrong direction in care for the mentally ill homeless." Reagan's "major problem today is lack of concentration," the mayor said.
Neglect Charge Disputed
After Koch's speech, a federal official disputed his contention that the Administration has neglected the homeless. Loretta Haggard of the National Institute of Mental Health said that federal aid for homeless shelters has increased during Reagan's term and cited a $355-million program for homeless shelters authorized for this year through the Housing and Urban Development program.
Koch sought to depict himself in the speech as a committed advocate for the homeless, but he was criticized sharply by activists for street people in Washington, where freezing temperatures this week have forced officials to open several city buildings at night as emergency shelters.
Koch's assertion that "no one is ever turned away from our shelters" in New York sparked a shouting match in the lobby after the talk between Mitch Snyder, a local homeless activist, and Koch aide Lee Jones. Snyder, charging that thousands of homeless people remain unhelped in New York, denounced Koch's "cheap political maneuvering" and called him "a liar."
'Help Me Find a Home'
And an elderly woman in worn clothes, who said later that she was from New York City, called on the mayor to "help me find a home." Koch told her, "You gotta go to the mayor of Washington," as he walked away.
Koch has been both praised and condemned for his Project Help program, started in New York last year, in which social work professionals were directed to round up homeless people seen as potentially dangerous and commit them for institutional care.
The plan has drawn fire from civil liberties groups and is now being tested in court, but Koch defended the effort Wednesday "in the name of . . . human decency," saying: "It is our duty to help the helpless."