In the city that never sleeps, the number of families spending their nights in emergency shelters has reached a 10-year high: over 18,000 women and their children each night this January. Typically, families that show up at the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx–the main port of entry to the city’s shelter system–are being driven there by unaffordable rents or untenable doubling up with other households.
But an increasing number are fleeing domestic violence, and a severe shortage of beds is locking them out of the secure shelters they need.
The city currently provides places for about 450 families in private domestic violence shelters, funded under city contracts. At least 500 more, the city estimates, have landed in the regular family shelter system. Workers at the city’s domestic violence hotline say they’ve been forced to send desperate families to the Emergency Assistance Unit because there’s often nowhere else to put them. “The last resort is always the EAU,” says Bea Hanson, vice-president of domestic violence programs at Safe Horizon, the nonprofit that runs the hotline. “If a woman who’s a victim of domestic violence has no place to go, she ends up in the homeless system.”
Though the city is responding to the crisis, the measures it is taking are likely to make the journey to shelter even more harrowing, say advocates for the homeless. Its Human Resources Administration is now requiring agencies that provide shelter for domestic violence victims to take 40 percent of their referrals from the EAU. This new policy makes it much more likely that women calling the domestic violence hotline looking for shelter will be sent to the EAU for help instead, forced to journey to the chaotic Bronx facility. What has until now been a crisis response will become institutional practice.
“It’s just a shell game,” charges Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society, who is the lead attorney in a longtime suit challenging the city’s treatment of the homeless at the Bronx office. “Reserving slots in shelters for families referred from [the Department of Homeless Services] means that 40 percent fewer families will get placements when they call the hotline.”
HRA did not return calls seeking comment on its new policy. But opening its own direct conduit to the shelters has one clear benefit for the agency: It keeps it out of trouble with the law. Without domestic violence shelters to move into, families are staying overnight in the Bronx intake office, in violation of a longstanding court order. “I have clients sleeping up to five nights at the EAU,” laments Jill , an attorney with Manhattan-based Sanctuary for Families. “There are no beds [for victims of domestic violence], and there are apparently no beds in the normal shelter system. I called all the cheap hotels, all the Ys. There is nowhere to sleep right now.”
The swell of families may be overwhelming the homeless office now, but those in the business of housing them say they saw it coming. Ad campaigns for the hotline have led to an almost 60 percent increase in calls since 1997, while bed space in domestic violence shelters has expanded just 14 percent. Demand for shelter has gone up, too. In the second half of 1999 the hotline averaged from 27 to 37 requests for shelter a day; in 2000, the daily number of requests jumped to between 39 and 47.
“The problem that compounds it is the absolute lack of affordable housing,” says Hanson. “If a woman is being abused, chances are she’s not going to be able to move out on her own.”
The city’s housing shortage doesn’t just push families into the shelters; it also makes it difficult for them to leave once they get there. About 20 percent of shelter beds are reserved for transitional housing, where women who’ve moved out of a dire emergency can pull their lives together and find permanent homes. But there’s not nearly enough transitional space to meet the demand. As a result, emergency shelter space becomes transitional housing, too. Families can stay there for 90 days, with the possibility of a 45-day extension. Shelters frequently grant additional extensions, keeping precious emergency beds occupied.
The families that can’t get into domestic violence shelters have ended up in standard family shelters, which provide a place to sleep but don’t have the counseling and classes available at domestic violence shelters. And safety is always a concern. “It’s extremely dangerous to keep them there waiting that long,” cautions . “The addresses are not confidential; the security is not as tight.”
Advocates also shudder at the idea that the bedraggled Emergency Assistance Unit, and not the Safe Horizon hotline, could become the gateway of first resort to domestic violence shelter. The city’s Department of Homeless Services is under strict orders from the Giuliani administration to deny shelter to people who cannot prove a need, and sources say women arriving with stories of domestic violence are cut no slack. The unit that screens families for admission, contends Legal Aid’s Banks, “frequently says that survivors of domestic violence are not survivors of domestic violence and tells people they can go back and stay in the very locations from which they fled.” In one case, he says, a woman who had an order of protection against her abuser visited the EAU five times over the course of several weeks, her children in tow. Each time she was told to return to a relative’s house, where her abuser knew she might go.
As HRA launches its effort to route families through the EAU, it may also finally be doing something to make sure they have somewhere to go from there. In February, it solicited proposals for new shelters and beds; how many remains to be seen.