White House Affair

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Eric Groomer looks over toward the White House Hotel, where he stays, and sighs. This Bowery single room occupancy hotel has been a decent home to him for the last 11 months. But lately, with the threat of eviction hanging over his head, it’s become almost more trouble than it’s worth.

At the White House, one of the few remaining SROs on the Bowery, about 220 men pay $10 a night to stay in six-foot-long cubicles. It’s clean, it’s relatively safe, and until recently, it was a fairly stable home for Groomer, a 50-year-old, out-of-work waiter.

But during the last few months, an unexplained welfare benefit shut-off has left him and 50 other White House men on the verge of eviction.

The city welfare office used to provide Groomer with $85 for living expenses like food and a $215 monthly housing allowance, which covered most of his $300-a-month rent. Like most of the other men, he got his check from the Waverly Center branch of the city Human Resources Administration (HRA), a center that recently converted from an “Income Support Center” to a “Jobs Center.” That bureaucratic change, many welfare advocates claim, has been accompanied by an increase in benefits being arbitrarily ended.

Last August, with no warning or explanation, Groomer’s housing allowance simply stopped coming. Over a period of several months, so did the checks for the other men, say White House employees. Groomer reports that he called his caseworker “about 80 times” since the checks disappeared, but he got no explanation.

Groomer and many of the others sought help from Urban Justice Center attorneys, who convinced the White House to hold off on evictions while they worked to get the checks restored. UJA lawyer Patrick Horvath says the only explanation he was given was that a new employee at HRA had been giving benefits improperly. In November, with rent on some cubicles six months behind, the White House started handing out eviction notices.

“Waverly is painting this as some sort of fraud prevention,” Horvath says, “when it’s actually that they don’t know what they’re doing.” One HRA employee, who refused to give her name, read City Limits a December 2 memo from headquarters stating that “a clearance was obtained” to start giving White House rent subsidies again. A few weeks later, some of the 50 men had received their checks. Groomer is still waiting for his.

Now, Eric Groomer has to figure out how to come up with the back rent he owes: $831, due by January 4. “I don’t where I’m going to get [it],” he says. “I’ll have to go back to court again. I don’t know what’ll happen, but it’ll definitely slow me down again before I’m trying to get out of here and work.”