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When the city and the Legal Aid Society settled a decades-long lawsuit last January over how the city treats and serves its homeless families, many heralded the decision as a breakthrough. Rather than hacking through every issue in court, the two sides agreed to work with a special panel to investigate and address problems within the homeless services system.

But as summer draws to a close, advocates say the changes have been all but invisible at the Emergency Assistance Unit, the city’s notorious intake point for homeless families, located in the Bronx. More than 100 people protested outside the center on August 14, describing conditions reminiscent of months and years past.

“They try to place as many families in overnight [shelter] as possible, but there are too many families and not enough overnights,” said José Salamanca, who has spent three months shuffling between the EAU and various temporary placements with his pregnant girlfriend, Melissa, and 2-year-old son.

He and other clients said they had slept at the EAU or been sent to overnight shelters at 4 a.m., having to return to the assistance unit three hours later just to start the process again. They told stories of mice scurrying around at night, broken water fountains, poor air conditioning, and inedible food.
Anna Lou Dehavenon, a medical and urban anthropologist who has monitored the EAU since 1986, backed up their claims. “I haven’t seen any improvement at all in physical conditions for families at the EAU,” she said. “It’s a disaster.”

The Department of Homeless Services said it is working hard to keep the center clean and move families into permanent housing as quickly as possible, given that it has approximately 9,000 homeless families to serve. “We’ve met our legal obligation and, in most cases, exceeded it,” said agency spokesperson Jim Anderson. He noted that DHS placed a record 5,539 families in long-term housing during the last fiscal year, a 57 percent jump over the year before. He said families only spend the night at the EAU if they arrive very late.

While Legal Aid attorney Steve Banks admits the settlement, which he helped broker, is not a cure-all, he remains hopeful. “Certainly there are problems,” he said, pointing to the situation late-arrivals find themselves in, and unresolved issues regarding who is considered “eligible” for shelter. But, he adds, “There are ongoing discussions with the master panel and the city on how to address them.” Panel member Daniel Kronenfeld agreed: “It’s hard to be disappointed in six months work when you know something’s been going on for 20 years.”

Still, some system watchdogs say the city could do more. John Talbutt, assistant to the president of Local 371, which represents case workers stationed at the EAU, thinks the only way to fix the assistance unit is to decentralize it. “When you have upwards of a thousand people using that building, you could have 2,000 people cleaning it and it would still not be healthy,” he said. “They need to open another EAU.”

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