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A court-accredited monitor of the city’s family shelter system has confirmed what most advocates have long suspected: that many truly desperate homeless families are being denied shelter because the city arbitrarily decides their plight is not quite desperate enough.

The study, by medical anthropologist Anna Lou Dehavenon, is based on lengthy interviews with a random sampling of 122 families at the Bronx Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU). Of those families surveyed since last August, the majority had returned repeatedly to the Bronx office because they were in dire need of housing– only to be rejected again.

On August 3, the city began refusing shelter to families who have recently lived doubled-up in apartments with friends or relatives, arguing that these families have alternatives to the shelters. Dehavenon, who has produced annual reports on the city’s homeless families since 1976, writes that placement of families in shelters is now slower than at anytime since 1986.

All but two of the 22 families Dehavenon interviewed after the policy started said they were “denied shelter repeatedly” and had instead slept in subways, building hallways, hospital emergency rooms–or had sneaked back into the EAU.

Department of Homeless Services officials responded they don’t reject shelter applicants without a thorough investigation of each case. But two weeks ago, state Supreme Court Justice Helen Freedman criticized the city’s system and ordered a more thorough effort in assessing eligibility.

Dehavenon’s report includes several comments by DHS shelter workers who expressed anger at the city’s revolving-door shelter policy. “They find them ineligible six or seven times,” said one EAU worker. “They tell them to get a document and then tell them it’s no good. They go to the police to get documents and are told they’re not good. They go back for a letter from the family they stayed with, bring the letter here, and it’s still no good. It’s crazy. It’s like a time bomb.”

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