Shelter Skelter

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It’s been almost a year since Shantel Watson first visited the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit in search of a place for herself and her three sons to live. After two years of navigating around the gaping holes in the floor of her Crown Heights apartment, she reached her limit when a closet door crashed down on her 5-year-old, breaking several bones in his face. Trips to the hospital to deal with swelling in his eyes and a broken sinus are now routine, and scouting out a permanent and affordable apartment is the only job she has right now.

Last April, to buy time until Watson could find a long-term situation, the city Department of Homeless Services moved her family to a one-bedroom in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx. The city paid the landlord $100 a night, or $3,000 a month–six times the median rent in that neighborhood–to take the Watsons in.

Not all of that went into the pockets of the owner, 1101 Holding Corp., which is registered at the office of attorney Morris Barenbaum in Borough Park. Manager Kalman Tabak was required to hire a caseworker to make sure the kids got to school and to help Watson with one of New York City’s greatest challenges: hunting for an affordable home.

But that’s not what Watson got. The caseworker showed up the mandated once-every-two-weeks, but never offered a word of advice on how to find a permanent home. Watson didn’t have much need to have her hand held, she says now; “I just thought someone was going to be there to help me find an apartment.”

Instead, her stay in Mount Hope, which the city says was supposed to last no more than 30 days, extended to seven months, and cost the city about $21,000.

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The Watsons’ high rent was no accounting mistake. New York City is currently housing more than 1,300 homeless families in private apartments, and paying the owners of more than 250 buildings handsomely for the service. With record numbers of families seeking shelter–December saw 6,800 families in the city’s emergency shelters, up 25 percent since last winter–the Department of Homeless Services is desperate to find a place to put them all.

At the places where the city has long sheltered homeless families, demand far outstrips supply. “Tier II” shelters, most of which are run by nonprofits and offer a bedroom along with on-site services such as day care and job training, have room for about 3,500 families. In late December, the city placed 1,900 families in hotels, which the city resumed using for shelter in large numbers in the late 1990s, reversing a much-heralded Dinkins administration effort to phase them out.

One reason Tier IIs are so full is the increasing difficulty their residents are having in finding permanent housing to move into. Under Mayor Giuliani, city efforts to house the homeless focused on continuing federal subsidies to private landlords, but in a tight housing market owners choose to avoid the bureaucratic hassles.

As a result, say Tier II operators, the families are staying in the shelters for longer and longer periods of time. A year ago, the average length of stay at Tier IIs was about seven months; today, it’s nearly a year. “There’s no place else to put them,” says Colleen Jackson, director of the West End Intergenerational residence in Manhattan, a Tier II that houses more than fifty 18- to 24-year-old single mothers and their children. Jackson’s shelter in Manhattan recently welcomed two new tenants to fill the first vacancies she has seen in several months.

Paying private landlords to accommodate the overflow in what DHS terms “scatter-site” apartments appears to have been an unplanned measure, one for which the city is paying top dollar. The rent bill for January 2002 alone was $3.4 million.

But at a time when finding affordable permanent apartments is proving more difficult than anyone can remember, the arrangement may actually be making it even harder for homeless families to make the transition into permanent housing, forcing them to stay in the shelter system longer. Social workers for scatter sites report that DHS asks them to move families to Tier IIs, hotels or permanent housing within 30 days. But many tenants end up staying in these “temporary” apartments–some sparkling, some rat-infested–for as long as a year.

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Other than their astronomical rents, scatter-site apartments are no different from any others in poor neighborhoods. Some buildings are packed with them; others stand alone. So far, about 10 landlords are supplying apartments, most of them Brooklyn-based owners with large holdings of apartment buildings in poor neighborhoods. Their buildings range from six-story walk-ups like Watson’s to the mammoth 59-building Vanderveer Estates complex in East Flatbush.

Living conditions in scatter sites depend largely on landlords’ compliance and a little bit of luck. The Department of Homeless Services says its inspectors make regular, unannounced visits to the buildings and hold them to standards higher than those used for apartments subsidized through HUD Section 8 vouchers. That works in many cases: Watson says her building on Manor Avenue was immaculate compared to her previous apartment.

The city’s own housing code violation records show, however, that other properties are plagued with rats, peeling lead paint and leaky ceilings. High crime rates are also a problem–Vanderveer, for one, is infamous.

Uncooperative landlords are a persistent issue. As director of client services for Consumer Information and Dispute Resolution (CIDR), a group hired by several property managers to provide social services at scatter sites, Joe Morris oversees social workers for 425 families living at dozens of scatter site locations in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. While he says some of the buildings they work in are in excellent shape and are run by cooperative management, with others, he and his caseworkers spend much of their time fighting for repairs.

“You have large old complexes that were rat infested and continue to be rat infested,” he says. Ice cold radiators, inoperable refrigerators and cockroach infestations have also vexed occupants.

When that happens, “we call the management company, and if it doesn’t get fixed, we write a memo,” Morris adds. Even then, however, problems persist: “We have tons of memos that we send out to these people.”

The time and energy social workers spend on such efforts is that much less they have to help tenants move into permanent housing. Each has a caseload of 25 families, for which landlords pay CIDR $6 per family per night. They must make contact with a new family within 48 hours after DHS tells the agency a new family has moved in.

After that first encounter, the city expects the caseworker to meet with the family at least once every two weeks. To do that, they must tailor their hours to the clients’ schedules and locations. “In scatter site, you spend a lot of time looking for people,” explains Morris. Much of a caseworker’s day consists of commuting on buses from building to building.

DHS instructs caseworkers to strive to move families out of the scatter-site apartment within 30 days, but tenants can stay until they find other temporary shelter or permanent housing. Once a month passes, the tenant has squatter’s rights and can stay until a housing court judge says otherwise–a situation Morris has had to deal with a couple of times.

Indeed, not every family is anxious to leave right away. “A lot of our job becomes trying to motivate them to do it,” says Morris. “A lot of people don’t want to apply for city housing; they want to wait for Section 8,” vouchers that can take months to obtain.

To make sure tenants are moving toward finding another apartment or shelter, the city sends notifications to social workers if a client has not completed the necessary housing applications. As Shantel Watson discovered, not all of them follow through with efforts to help residents secure permanent homes. But at CIDR, finding apartments is serious, intensive business. Two staff housing specialists make sure the families are on the list for Tier II shelters, walk them through applications for public housing, Section 8 or EARP, and put them in touch with realtors connected with landlords who accept housing vouchers.

Yet there’s more to it than moving families into long-term housing. “Sometimes they show up with nothing,” Morris says, and need to be directed to the local food pantries and soup kitchens. They often arrive with incomplete public assistance applications.

What’s more, if a family has moved from another borough, which often happens despite DHS’ efforts to meet geographic needs, parents need to register their children in the local school or make arrangements for them to commute to their current one.

But not all scatter-site social workers do that, say family workers at the Board of Education. They are supposed to make sure the homeless families in transitional housing send their kids to school, but keeping track of families’ whereabouts is a persistent challenge. Some of the landlords’ social workers contact the Board of Ed about new tenants right away, says Robert Diaz, director of the Board’s Attendance Improvement Dropout Prevention and Students in Temporary Housing programs. But then, he adds, “certain ones don’t.” His social workers have on a number of occasions arrived to meet with a family only to find they’ve moved someplace else. While he would not get specific, he says there have been times like these “when kids have been hurt as a result.”

To deal with the increase in school-age children in scatter site apartments–as of mid-January there were 8,369–the Board of Ed increased its budget for dropout prevention to $6.75 million this school year from $4 million in 2001. Right now, Diaz’s office is funded for 23 full-time scatter-site caseworkers, but he needs more.

“We’re still trying to get a handle on where the youngsters are,” says Diaz. He estimates that between 50 and 100 kids are not accounted for. In December, Diaz requested a meeting with DHS. He’s still waiting to hear back.

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Families could get the services they need, Morris and others contend, if the city put temporary scatter site housing in the hands of nonprofits, and built more permanent housing for homeless families on top of that. In Morris’ view, the current landlords are motivated by profit, not the families’ well-being. “I don’t think contracting with realtors is necessarily the better way to handle the families,” he says.

In fact, New York City seems to be unique in securing emergency housing from private landlords and then relying on them to hire social workers. “If you’re going to put somebody someplace temporary, it’s better to have someone in an apartment. They have a kitchen, bathroom, it’s in a neighborhood,” acknowledges Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But, she adds, “the more typical model is a nonprofit that had experience dealing with homeless families would select the landlord to provide the housing, and [the nonprofit] would provide the services. I’m not aware of anywhere else where the landlord is given that responsibility.”

That responsibility can be serious. Social workers report that scatter-site residents include domestic violence victims, for whom security and counseling may be priorities. They are also families who’ve been knocked off the public assistance and food stamps they need to feed and clothe their children. “For scatter site, you really need to have an absence of real problems,” says Louis Rodriguez, executive director of the St. John’s Place Family Center, a Tier II shelter in Brooklyn. What makes Tier IIs work, he argues, are the readily available services on site.

The city began building those shelters in the 1980s for just that reason. At that time, the armory-style temporary family shelters, called Tier Is, were unsafe and overcrowded, and the 21-day maximum stay too short for most families to find permanent housing. “It was felt that a new model needed to come into play to provide more privacy for pregnant women, and a more extended stay,” remembers Rodriguez.

The Tier IIs are private nonprofit residences. Most are regulated by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, and they are required to provide a family not only with a room of its own but with health services and assistance with finding a long-term place to live. They must also make sure children are going to school–the city has at times offered incentives for good attendance rates–and that parents are getting the public assistance they qualify for. Most of this, as well as child care, is provided on site.

The city has shied away from creating more of these facilities. For one thing, they are not cheap: Like the scatter sites, they cost $100 per family per night. But even for administrations inclined to help the homeless, it’s a zero-sum game: Every dollar spent on expanding shelter accommodations is one dollar less to invest in affordable housing. “Building more shelters is the last thing we should do,” observes Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The more homeless beds you provide, the more homeless people there are.”

There are a few instances in the five boroughs in which the city has asked a service group to supply the housing, instead of landlords to supply social services. Two years ago, Women In Need faced a severe housing crunch in its own shelters. “Getting together a whole building is hard,” says Bonnie Stone, the group’s executive director. So instead, she asked the Department of Homeless Services to contract with them to rent apartments in nearby buildings and provide the families with the services they need to survive day-to-day and to find permanent housing.

“They were hesitant at first,” she remembers. But today, the group serves 48 families living in 10 different buildings, all within four blocks of WIN’s central office in Brooklyn. There, the parents and kids go for services from child care to counseling, housing assistance to job training. But the lack of permanent housing options outweighs even these efforts: The average length of stay, says Stone, is nine months to a year. But once they find that long-term housing, she says, they are there for a while: According to WIN’s website, 95 percent of the women who leave one of its shelters for permanent housing are still in that housing two years later.

How the Bloomberg administration will deal with the growing homeless family population has yet to be seen; new DHS Commissioner Linda Gibbs did not respond to City Limits’ requests for an interview. But Giuliani left City Hall with a few quick-fix proposals to consider. In late December, DHS was considering implementing a furlough program that would pay a family up to $1,500 if it leaves the shelter system for two months. The family can return to the shelter system at any time during that period, and get back on the waitlist for space in a Tier II shelter, hotel or scatter-site apartment.

Critics of this plan say it would encourage families to double up, and lead victims of domestic violence to return to dangerous situations. “Paying people to go away for a couple of weeks does not address the underlying problem of a lack of affordable housing,” says Steve Banks, the lead attorney for Legal Aid in McCain v. Giuliani, the major lawsuit seeking adequate shelter for homeless families. Should the city move ahead with this plan, threatens Banks, it could find itself back in court. At press time, Gibbs had yet to decide if she would implement the proposal. Banks, for one says he is hopeful for the future, having just been to the mayor’s side of City Hall for the first time in eight years for a meeting with Gibbs.

Shantel Watson certainly could use some allies downtown. After seven months in a scatter site, she was moved to another temporary home, at a Tier II on the Grand Concourse. In late January, she was still waiting to hear whether she would get into a Section 8 apartment back in her home borough of Brooklyn.

Jill Grossman is a senior editor at City Limits.