Imagine sending your two teenage kids to school in the same clothes every day for a whole week. Imagine not being able to get them school supplies, books and pens and erasers. Imagine pulling your two teenage kids out of their accelerated high school program every 10 days because you were illegally evicted and now you are applying for emergency shelter. Every 10 days the City tells you they can’t verify your two-year housing history. Despite the mound of documents you’ve presented to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to prove your housing history, every 10 days your whole family hauls back to the shelter intake center in the Bronx to re-apply. Each time a family applies for emergency shelter all family members must be present, including schoolkids.
This is what happened to Ms. M, a strong mother at the end of her rope, now relocated to a shelter in another borough where her children commute hours to their accelerated high school program.
The family application process pulls students out of school, interferes with parents’ ability to show up for work, and, on a larger scale, destabilizes families. But this is not just the story of the arduous application process DHS requires of families in need of emergency shelter. This is also the story of housing court procedures gone wrong. This is the story of a tenant with no legal representation in housing court and how the lack of legal advocacy left Ms. M and her family on the New York City streets. Across the country, 90 percent of tenants appear at housing court without representation while 90 percent of landlords do have legal representation, according to a New York Times article.
Mrs. M’s story begins, she says, with her landlord stealing her mail for months. This prevented her from receiving notices that she owed back rent and needed to appear in housing court. When Ms. M finally realized she had a housing court date, it interfered with a scheduled medical procedure. The judge refused to adjourn for a different day. And on the day Ms. M was evicted, she returned home from an outpatient procedure with her husband to find the marshal standing with her fourteen year old daughter. The family quickly packed up what they could and were forced to leave their apartment.
What if her family had been paired with an advocate familiar with housing court procedures, the attitudes of landlords’ attorneys and overworked judges? .
In 2004, DHS initiated Homebase, a program to assist people with rental arrears and prevent tenants from entering the shelter system. But Homebase’s limited success is just a small piece of the picture in the larger landscape of New York City’s current homelessness crisis.
According to an article in City Limits, 44 percent of evicted families enter the New York City’s shelter system. Legal services have proven to prevent evictions.
I propose that in this time of crisis, city agencies expand their homelessness prevention efforts to increase funding for housing court advocates and attorneys for New York City’s low-income tenants. Although DHS currently allocates some funding for housing court representatives for tenants, it is clearly not enough. Ms. M’s story is not unusual. There are many families facing eviction with little to no knowledge of the housing court process, let alone familiarity with their rights as tenants.
Providing legal representation for tenants is not just DHS’s responsibility. As Robert Hess, former DHS commissioner, previously stated, addressing this issue requires inter-agency initiative and cooperation
It is in the best interest of quite a few agencies attesting to assist low-income families maintain stability, agencies such as the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to band together with DHS and prevent low income families from facing eviction and homelessness.
As the numbers of homeless people in New York City rest at an all-time high and the average stay in shelter stretches over 365 days, it is time for City agencies to band together and embrace a new approach to homelessness prevention.