Out of Sight, out of Mind: New York City's New Homeless Policy

Article excerpt

New York City's new homeless policy

The van moved swiftly across New York City as Princess Brown looked out of the window into darkness, clutching her two-year-old daughter, Ariel. No one told her where they were being driven. A nameless man had woken them earlier from a fitful sleep on hard plastic benches of a South Bronx warehouse ironically known as the Emergency Assistance Unit, the registration center for the city's family shelter system. There, Brown had been interrogated multiple times about her personal life, where she came from, her nearest relatives, and why she was there. In hostile and unfamiliar surroundings, she had been too scared to eat, too scared even to go to the washroom. At long last, the (still nameless) man had ordered her into the van without explanation. It was a sweltering June evening, near midnight, and Ariel was hungry.

An hour passed as others in the van were dropped off one by one. Brown and her daughter were the last, and the driver finally told her where she was: Flatlands, a decrepit city-run shelter in outermost Brooklyn. There was no food that first night, but more than anything, Brown remembers the smell of her room -- a wretched stench unlike anything she ever experienced. No amount of cleaning could get rid of it, she says, and no amount of cleaning could ward off the rats that scurried across the floors and countertops.

Eight months later, having been shuffled from Flatlands to a privately run shelter called St. John's, Brown is still waiting for a Section 8 voucher from the city's housing department that will subsidize her family's move out. But here's the best part: While Princess Brown waits, the city is paying an average of $2,400 a month in rent to keep her sequestered within the shelter system. This same amount could fetch a chic Fifth Avenue sublet or a three-bedroom apartment in one of New York's outer boroughs. Princess Brown, of course, desires nothing so regal. She simply wants help obtaining a modest apartment for herself, her daughter, and the new baby who arrived in January -- seven months into her shelter stay. This is something the government could provide at easily a third of the cost of putting her up at St. John's. But in the new New York City, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani prefers that Princess Brown wait months or even years in a transitional shelter before she is even considered for permanent housing subsidies. The mayor's decision has almost nothing to do with economics -- and almost everything to do with politics.

Keep Out

Transitional shelters are intended to be a step up from makeshift shelters of the past, providing social services and rooms for those awaiting public housing. Typically consisting of converted hotel rooms, 82 of these "tier II shelters" make up the New York City shelter system for homeless families. Most are run by nonprofit agencies, such as the American Red Cross or Homes for the Homeless, and provide services like job training, parenting classes, and day care. The assumption, which mirrors the federal Housing Department's "Continuum of Care" initiative, is that the homeless need more than just an affordable apartment.

This arrangement is admittedly a significant improvement over the days when the homeless were crammed into school gymnasiums or the lobbies of office buildings. But even staff members working in the best of the shelters complain that families today are getting stuck there far longer than they need to as the housing bureaucracy lumbers along. Five thousand families are currently doing time in this system. The average shelter stay: 298 days. As of Feb. 1, Brown was at day 282, and still waiting on the city to produce a piece of paper proving she is pregnant with the child she gave birth to months ago.

As hard as it is to move out of the shelters, getting into them is almost as tough. The tier II system doesn't have enough space to house even 2 per-cent of the 300,000 poor New York City families who lack their own living space. …