Losing Home Run

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Mary Saunders loves her family, but the birth of her own next generation, 1-year-old Cheyenne, has put those ties under a cracking strain. The two of them share a double bed in an eight-by-nine room, surrounded by the accoutrements of a new life: a laundry hamper, a stack of Disney DVDs, a tiny tricycle. Two small adjoining rooms, perhaps five-by-seven feet each, bunk Mary’s two younger brothers and a sister.

Mary and Cheyenne owe their own cozy situation to Mary’s mother, who now sleeps on the living room couch, even though it makes her back hurt. That’s just one of many burdens of life among seven kin. At 21, Saunders has to carefully coordinate visits from Cheyenne’s father, so they can spend time together–and alone. There’s nowhere for Cheyenne to play, never mind ride her trike.

Then, in the fall, economic disaster. The Food Emporium, where Saunders’ mom works, shut down three stores and cut her schedule from six days a week to three. Meanwhile, Mary lost a job supervising children’s activities for the Salvation Army; next, a Macy’s holiday job did not result in an anti-cipated permanent position. Welfare’s out of the question; when she was on it before, “they deducted me so many times it’s not even funny.” She wants to enroll in a nursing program at Bronx Community College but in the meantime can’t bear being a burden on her mother any long. Says Saunders: “It’s time for me to go.”

Saunders has tried living on her own before. A couple of years ago, she and two friends sublet an apartment nearby, in Harlem’s Bradhurst section. But rent of $900 a month, at a time when they were partly relying on public assistance, was too much.

Now, Saunders sees just one alternative. This winter, she plans to go to the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU), just over the 145th Street bridge in the Bronx. She knows from her ex-roommate Ebony, who did the same thing about a year ago with her own infant, exactly what she can expect there.

For 10 days, she and Cheyenne will have to virtually live at the EAU, a grim bunker packed with other families in similar predicaments. Late every night, they’ll be taken to a temporary shelter to sleep, then bused back in the early morning, to spend another day sprawled on white plastic benches, surrounded by bundles of their possessions. At the end of the 10 days, investigators will likely reject their application for emergency housing, on the assertion that they already have someplace to stay. And then they will have to start the process all over again. A 1999 survey of applicants found that 62 percent were reapplying after being found ineligible. Overall, just 26 percent of applications are approved.

Mary’s insisting on hope. After proving there was asbestos in her boyfriend’s sister’s basement and that the only bed for her and her soon-to-be-born child was a couch, Ebony got a slot in a family shelter, then an apartment on Bathgate Avenue, helped by a federally funded rent subsidy that keeps her own obligation to a manageable $200 or so a month.

“The question is, will they help me?” asks Saunders. “I’m scared to go. It’s a last resort–what you do if you can’t do anything else.”

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Saunders is hardly the only young parent in New York right now who can’t take that most basic of life steps–finding an apartment, or even just a rented room, to call her family’s own. The waiting list for public housing remains about eight years long. There are more than 100,000 would-be households on the waiting list for the federal vouchers that help poor families pay private rents; from 1995 to 1998, there were no new vouchers at all.

(An increasing number of voucher-holders find them useless anyway, because many landlords don’t want the hassle of following the regulations.) And forget about finding an apartment without a public subsidy or another family to share with: According to a 1999 Census Bureau survey, there were just under 2,000 apartments on the private market renting for under $400 a month, about the amount a low-wage worker can pay. Only about 5,700 were available for less than $500. Whether these apartments are in any condition to house a family is a whole other question; about two-thirds of the units the Census bureau found to be “physically poor” rent for less than $600.

So it surprises no one that there are now a record number of families seeking assistance at the EAU–62 a night on average last year–and a record number of those actually in the homeless shelter system, 6,786 in December 2001.

But if the whys are well understood, the lives and choices of the women who flock here night after night are far more obscure to anyone who hasn’t heard it from them directly. The Giuliani administration, so successful at politicizing what goes on behind the EAU’s doors, played an unmistakable role in muddying public understanding of why families seek shelter. (Journalists, and for that matter virtually all outside observers, are barred from the EAU.)

Vowing in 1996 that the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) would reject families from applying for shelter unless they could prove beyond a doubt that they were homeless, Mayor Giuliani explained the thinking behind the policy: “When you really ask questions and you do things like we have done with welfare–you go and investigate–you find out that a large percentage of people that were coming to that unit were not homeless. They were looking for other accommodations.” He singled out advocates for the poor as part of the problem, saying that they “are unwilling to acknowledge the fact that there are two realities about welfare and homelessness. There are very needy people who need help and people who don’t need help but who seek it anyway.”

On the defensive as families began being turned away in droves, the natural response for many advocates was to avoid confirming the mayor’s characterization. Even as housing costs rose sharply and availability shrank, there was little public discussion of the complex reasons why families seek emergency help with housing; the focus tended to be on the sick, the abused, the most desperately needy.

Today, quite a few of families who turn to the EAU are homeless by anyone’s definition: they are refugees from domestic violence (just over 1,600 in fiscal year 2001), or had marshals throw them onto the street (about 10 percent come straight from their own apartment, according to surveys). Mental illness persists as a factor for some. Some parents struggle with drug and alcohol problems, but not, say longtime observers, on the scale that they did during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when epidemics of crack and family homelessness coincided. “This time, it’s less driven by substance abuse and more by economic factors,” says Bobby Watts, assistant executive director of the health group, Care for the Homeless. “[Drug] cases seem to stand out more now.”

In truth, the vast bulk of business at the EAU is nothing more than low-income families seeking public assistance with housing–something for which they are almost all legally eligible. There simply isn’t any other place to go. In that, it hasn’t changed much at all since the 1980s, when Beth Weitzman and her colleagues at the Wagner School for Public Service conducted a city-funded study asking where exactly the then-record numbers of homeless families were coming from. They found “a lot of young women in their twenties that had never broken into the housing market,” recalls Weitzman. “They were doubling up with people who were themselves in difficult housing circumstances.”

Weitzman’s research helped lead the Koch administration to embark on ambitious efforts to rehabilitate thousands of apartments for homeless and other low-income families (though never enough, as far as many affordable housing advocates were concerned). She remembers the optimism that came with swift declines in the numbers of families coming to the EAU in the early 1990s. Says Weitzman, “We thought we were getting a handle on the problem.”

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Then, just as quickly as they went down, the numbers of families in the city shelter system increased, despite efforts by the Giuliani administration, both legal and illegal, to keep out everyone it could. The reversal had everything to do with the increasing scarcity of apartments affordable to poor people. But while they’re coming for the same reasons and from the same situations as those in the 1980s crisis, families now are different in one significant way: Consistent with the decline in welfare rolls, a growing number of those seeking help with housing are not receiving public assistance prior to their arrival at the EAU.

Weitzman recalls that the homeless families surveyed two decades ago were invariably on welfare. “It used to be virtually all families–over 90 percent,” she says. Two years ago, one estimate put the proportion at nearly 75 percent. Now, 70 percent take home TANF checks, according to DHS; a source who monitors EAU usage estimates that, of the rest, unemployed adults outnumber those with jobs. The EAU has reportedly been seeing small but increasing numbers of parents who’ve lost their jobs since September 11, particularly in food service and hotels.

The mass departures from the welfare rolls have left a hefty housing bill for the Bloomberg administration. While the federal government pays 50 percent of shelter costs for people on public assistance, it pays nothing for those who aren’t, contributing to a 12 percent increase in city spending last year on emergency shelter for the homeless, according to the Independent Budget Office. Families who don’t receive welfare are also not eligible for many of the subsidies for permanent housing that are available to people receiving public assistance, including Jiggetts and the Emergency Assistance Rehousing Program (which places thousands of homeless families each year into permanent housing), making it difficult for them to get out of the shelters once they’re in there.

But no one can speak more vividly to certain consequences of welfare reform, New York-style, than the women waiting at the EAU. Success stories don’t end up here. As they hopelessly try to get their kids to sit still all day in cramped waiting rooms and crowded hallways, they also have a lot of other things to worry about. For many of these parents, employment is an unrealized goal, child care is a constant need, and unpredictable welfare sanctions pose a constant peril.

Ana Ferrer, 25, had little trouble getting the Department of Homeless Services to approve her application for emergency shelter: Her Red Hook apartment was rendered uninhabitable in a burglary, and her 7-year-old son, Alfred, is, among other things, autistic, mentally retarded, and epileptic. They spent just three days at the EAU before going to a hotel on Boston Road; after about a year in temporary housing, they moved to Park Avenue Thorpe, a building for homeless families with special needs. Here, she’s getting assistance placing Alfred in a special school, as well as day care for her 3-year-old, Joshua.

Ferrer guesses that her welfare case has been sanctioned “every two to three months,” because caseworkers consistently failed to acknowledge her ongoing exemption from work mandates–an arrangement that had been made to allow her to care for Alfred. (When she gets him situated, she wants to obtain a GED and become a teacher for children like him.) Now, she and the authorities have arrived at an understanding: She has to bring Alfred to the office every three months–“in case he got better,” explains Ferrer with a smile that hardens into a grimace. “It’s one of the worst systems on the planet.” Each time, she pulls Alfred out of school, and together they endure the line at the welfare office–he screaming and banging his head against any nearby wall, she standing resolutely next to him. Explains Ferrer, “There’s nothing you can do.”

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But as far as DHS is concerned, most families do not have such a clear-cut entitlement to emergency housing. In August 1996, it became city policy to deny emergency housing to families who have been doubled up with relatives, unless the situation was demonstrably dangerous. Most families whose friends have kicked them out are also asked to go back to those situations.

The Legal Aid Society has been fighting the policy ever since, on the basis of a longstanding court order prohibiting the city from consigning families to housing that is unsafe or overcrowded; the city can now reject only those applicants who “have other housing actually available to them.” At the time the rules were implemented, Legal Aid presented evidence that no other shelter was available for 83 percent of families (a figure the city disputed).
DHS has persisted in ruling families ineligible. The consequences have been clear: In fiscal year 1996, which ended just before the new rules went into effect, 9,516 families were approved for shelter, or 80 percent of total applications. Two years later, only 4,622 families were admitted, representing just 19 percent of applications; it had become the norm to have to apply repeatedly, waiting for days at the EAU each time.

Nothing much has changed since then. If anything, the scope of the problem may have gotten worse. “Starting this past summer, we started seeing a lot of young moms coming in after being turned down for emergency housing,” says Mónica de la Torre, legal director for the youth advocacy group the Door. She had never had a single such case before. “One was being asked, ‘Why isn’t your mom providing housing?’ She kept being told she could go to mom, and she had an order of protection against her mom!”

Mary Pagan had problems with her mom, too: the house they lived in was decrepit, with broken pipes, problems with heat and hot water, and peeling paint. Pagan, now 22, has gone to the EAU “like a thousand times” since she was 18 and been rejected repeatedly. “It was so bad at the EAU that when I left, I had a nervous breakdown. Every time someone mentioned the EAU, I’d start shaking.” When she finally resolved to go back at the end of 2000 with her two young boys, she was also armed with two crucial items: a Bible and a photo of the conditions at her mother’s house. They got accepted to shelter.

Doubling up has become so institutionalized that city social workers even offer counseling to beleaguered hosts, attempting to do what they can to make a temporary situation work out while they seek permanent housing for a family–anything to keep families out of the EAU, where they legally must receive shelter. Frank Braconi of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council has noted remarkable evidence of how doubling up has affected entire communities of New Yorkers: 1 in 20 black middle-class families now has another family living with them.

The city does make one notable exception to its double-up directive. Families who were living with other families in public or other federally subsidized housing are virtually guaranteed to receive emergency shelter. This serves the city’s interests as much as the tenants’. Having residents who are not on an apartment’s lease is a violation of federal department of Housing and Urban Development rules, because rents are set based on family size. In the mid-1990s–the last time it checked–the city Housing Authority estimated that there were 105,000 families living doubled up in its apartments.

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Acceptance to the EAU is crucial because it’s the ticket to housing subsidies, mostly the result of court orders and agreements over the years, that are available only to families who are officially homeless. Two independent studies analyzing the final destinations of thousands of families who came through the EAU in the 1990s found that more than 90 percent of families who obtained permanent housing with subsidies remained housed; those who did not receive subsidies were much more likely to become homeless again.

But lately those subsidies have not been keeping pace with demand. From 1998 to 2002, as the number of families in the shelter system increased 53 percent, the number of families who moved into permanent housing each year declined by about 20 percent. About 3,000 homeless families a year move into new homes as a result of EARP. But landlord participation has plummeted in recent years–despite mass mailings to building owners and an increase in cash bonuses–as opportunities on the private market have grown more lucrative. (The city itself offers an attractive alternative: it has also been paying some landlords $3,000 a month to use apartments as homeless shelters

A new city initiative intended to move families out of the shelters, known as the Employment Incentive Housing Program, has attracted more than 80 families so far, but it has Legal Aid and other advocates for the homeless worried–after two years of subsidized rent, formerly unemployed families are expected to pay rents of up to $980 a month (for a family of three) on their own.

An opportunity to earn her own rent money is all Mary Pagan is looking for right now. But she was recently ruled ineligible for public housing, because the father of her children, who had been included on a previous application she filed several years ago, is now in jail. Her welfare case is currently closed, because this past fall she discovered, too late, that welfare and college don’t mix. “I was willing to comply, but they want me to work full-time and I was in school full-time,” she says of her months in a GED/higher ed program at Monroe College. Pagan ended up with neither. “I messed up,” she says. “I failed the whole semester.” For now, her family lives on the $568 a month from her older son’s SSI check. “I can’t afford to start working now,” she’s convinced. On a high school dropout’s wages, “I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, food, care for the kids. I’d be struggling.”

Pagan recounts what she told the Housing Authority when she filed for an appeal of her rejection, which is still pending: “I’m in a shelter with two children. I don’t smoke and I don’t drink. I do the right thing. I’m going to school for a GED, so when I get my own apartment, I can get a good job.”

Alyssa Katz is editor of City Limits.