Every few minutes, Jacquene Miranda closes her eyes and puts a hand on her stomach, wincing. She’s having contractions, and her husband, Angel Correa, hovers attentively nearby.
Miranda tried to go to the hospital this morning but wasn’t dilated enough to be admitted. So she returned to the Brooklyn homeless shelter where she and her family were staying, only to learn that their temporary placement had ended.
Now she and Correa, with two children and several bags in tow, are back where they started a month ago, at the Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU), the city’s intake center for families reapplying for shelter.
“I hope my water breaks in there,” she says, nodding toward the squat brick building. “Then they’ll have to give me a placement.”
Like most people at the EAU, Miranda isn’t officially “homeless.” The city has repeatedly rejected her request for long-term assistance, saying she could live with her mother in Bushwick. Miranda insists she can’t. She pulls out a folded letter, addressed from her mother to the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Carefully handwritten and notarized, it concludes with one definitive line: “P.S.: Do Not Send Them Back Here Again!!!”
DHS investigators weren’t convinced; they recently found Miranda ineligible for the third time, which is why she’s at the EAU. Though she doesn’t qualify for housing, DHS will provide her with an overnight room for as long as she continues to reapply.
Yet Miranda’s last resort may not last much longer: The city is seeking permission from the court to stop using shelter as a safety net and turn some families away.
In January 2004, Mayor Bloomberg vowed to reduce homelessness by two-thirds over five years. So far he’s on target. The shelter rolls have started to shrink as DHS moves thousands of families into permanent housing. The city is also investing in prevention, with a $12 million HomeBase program spanning six city neighborhoods.
But there’s still a bottleneck at the EAU, says DHS, thanks to families like Miranda’s that keep coming back. Not only do they clog the system, says DHS Commissioner Linda Gibbs, but they become its victims, unable or unwilling to fend for themselves. “Ultimately what we want is a shelter system that provides options to people who have no other option,” says Gibbs.
As the city awaits the court’s decision, homeless advocates are blasting the new rule, saying it erodes a longstanding right to shelter. Besides, they add, it’s not so easy to determine exactly who is truly homeless.
New York has roughly 8,000 homeless families, but that doesn’t include 120,000 more who are living in doubled-up households. Without leases, they are at constant risk of eviction–and homelessness. Sometimes it’s a personality conflict, sometimes a suspicious landlord, sometimes just a host who’s tired of stepping over mattresses on the floor. Inevitably some, like Miranda, lose their fragile foothold and turn to the city for help.
Formerly doubled-up families make up more than half the city’s shelter population. And that poses a number of thorny questions for local policy makers: Can the city ever meet the demand for affordable housing? If not, how can it figure out which families are worst off? And what happens to the ones who don’t make the cut?
To understand the problem, spend some time at the EAU, an infamous symbol of homeless policy gone awry. For years, families were crowded into the Bronx facility, forced to camp on its floor overnight as their applications were processed. Though families no longer sleep at the EAU, they continue to languish there, often all day, sprawled on hard benches or clustered on the sidewalk outside. Every evening, they haul their belongings onto school buses that take them to shelters. Roused at 6 a.m., they return on the same buses to repeat the process, again and again.
Everyone–the city, homeless advocates, the families themselves–considers the EAU a disaster. But no one is quite sure what will happen if and when it gets shut down.
In November, DHS opened up a new office known as the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Intake Center (PATH), reserved for families applying for shelter for the first time. By all accounts, it’s a big improvement: Instead of the 20 hours it takes to process an application at the EAU, at PATH it takes only six. Eventually, DHS plans to transfer all its remaining families to PATH and then raze the EAU in January 2006. It has already hired renowned architects, Polshek Partnership, to build a $30 million replacement.
But DHS won’t close the EAU until it has the court’s approval to limit the pool of applicants. To do this, DHS wants to deny shelter to families found ineligible within the past 90 days, unless they’re in immediate danger. Otherwise, notes Gibbs in her court affidavit, PATH will be overwhelmed–and turn into another EAU: “PATH improvements will be undermined, and then vanish,” she writes, “as the failed approach of the EAU is gradually imported into a new and now high-functioning facility.”
Advocates disagree. They say that ejecting ineligibles could fuel the city’s overcrowding epidemic–or, worse, leave families on the street. In 1996, then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani initiated a 24-hour lockout for families deemed ineligible. The city was forced to reverse the policy after three months when families were found sleeping on the subway, in an emergency room and in a van.
Since then, the city’s process for determining eligibility has improved dramatically. DHS reports that, over a four-month period at PATH, 86 percent of families that qualified for shelter were correctly identified the first time they applied.
But homeless advocates cite a different statistic: An estimated 44 percent of ineligible PATH applicants who tried again within 90 days were ultimately found eligible. That means nearly half of repeat applicants aren’t trying to bilk the system, the advocates argue. They just aren’t as skilled at proving their need.
Pamela Yearwood, a lanky young mother with a gravelly voice, says she’s applied for shelter almost 70 times over two years, ever since aging out of foster care when she turned 18. She and her two toddlers have become fixtures at the EAU. “This is my life,” she says. “I didn’t choose it.”
Anthony Ramos, 28, and his family are in a similar bind. He says they can’t move into his mother-in-law’s apartment because it’s too small and they aren’t on her Section 8 lease. Once a butcher, Ramos says he’s eager to work again but now spends every day at the EAU, trying to build his case.
Still, nearly all the applicants at the EAU acknowledge that at least some of their cohorts aren’t homeless. So how can DHS tell the difference?
Miranda thinks the agency simply needs to look beyond the paperwork. “If you see that I keep coming back over the same thing, that means that I can’t stay there. I really can’t stay there,” she says. “There’s no place for us to go.”
Steve Banks, attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society of New York, insists that most people at the EAU are telling the truth. But that’s his job. He’s represented homeless families in litigation against the city for over 20 years. Now he’s taking on the 90-day rule.
“Any city policy initiative that has as its aim that some families will end up on the street, almost as a way to prove a point, is unlawful,” says Banks, a small man with wispy brown hair and rimless glasses.
One of Banks’ earliest cases formed the basis of a now-legendary lawsuit, McCain v. Koch. Yvonne McCain was a 34-year-old woman with four young children, trying to escape her abusive husband. But when McCain sought help, her application was initially denied.
Legal Aid’s suit was based on a provision in the state constitution that guarantees “aid, care and support of the needy.” For single adults, who have a shelter system separate from that of homeless families, that clause was interpreted in an earlier case to confer the “right to shelter.” When Banks won McCain in 1986, the right to shelter was extended to families as well.
McCain has spawned dozens of motions and resulting court orders–permanent rules the city must now abide by. Intended to protect homeless families, they’ve also provided shelter for ineligible applicants, as long as Banks could prove a potential for error. “The only thing that stood between our clients and the streets were court orders,” says Banks. While families can always sue, he explains, the orders make it easier to demand immediate relief.
For years, that’s kept the city and advocates for the homeless at war. In January 2003, after a rapid volley of litigation, the two sides struck an unprecedented compromise. Legal Aid agreed to halt litigation for two years while a Special Master Panel analyzed the city’s homeless system and made recommendations for reform.
In its second report, the panel dealt with the issue of ineligibles: “Multiple applications lead to multiple overnight placements, which compromise child well-being, disrupt family life, and result in considerable costs to the city,” it wrote. The panel suggested that DHS “develop a process for handling families who are ineligible for shelter, offering assistance to ease their transition back to the community without shelter.”
The city had what it needed. Citing the panel’s encouragement to leave some families “without shelter,” it moved forward with the 90-day rule. But another recommendation proved far more significant: In January, the panel called for an end to court oversight.
Though the panelists differed on precisely when the city should be free to proceed on its own, the mayor heralded their announcement as full vindication. At a February press conference, he lashed out at Legal Aid. The group, he said, has “stifled progress for years with counterproductive litigation that has hurt homeless families and has robbed the public of their right to self-govern.”
Banks, predictably, has a different reaction to the panel’s conclusions. Legal Aid is willing to consider a settlement, he says, but only one that keeps some of the court orders in place beyond Mayor Bloomberg’s term. He compares it to a custody agreement in a divorce, where the two parties can avoid court as long as they both stick to the deal.
While he’s quick to praise the city for its reforms, Banks isn’t ready to call them an unmitigated success. It’s unclear, he says, just how well the city is helping ineligible applicants “transition back to the community,” since many still seem to end up at the EAU. He and other advocates are also concerned about the long-term impact of Housing Stability Plus, the city’s new rental voucher for homeless families, which declines by 20 percent each year and ends after five. “The city’s current plan is very much a work in progress,” says Banks.
And as for the 90-day rule, Banks says it’s unnecessary considering the relatively small number of families–60-70 at press time–who continuously reapply. Instead, he suggests giving these applicants more intensive help. “Bureaucracy makes mistakes,” he says. “They’re hitting a fly with a sledgehammer and innocent children and families are getting caught under that sledgehammer, too.”
Commissioner Gibbs seems poorly cast in the role of the heartless bureaucrat. Dressed in a pink and black dress, with snowy hair cascading to her shoulders, she has the soothing presence of a social worker or favorite aunt. But Gibbs is also a bulldog, a notoriously tough advocate for her agency, which now commands a $700 million budget.
When she took over DHS in 2001, Gibbs was fresh off a major success at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). During her stint as a deputy commissioner, ACS reduced the foster care census from 43,000 to 28,000 and instituted community-based preventive services that are a model for her work at DHS.
“I don’t want to be in the position four years from now as being known as the commissioner who only added more resources and built more beds,” she told a New York Times reporter in January 2002, shortly after her appointment. “My goal is to see fewer people using the shelters, not because it saves money, but because it means they are back in their own homes.”
Three years later, her vision is partly realized. The number of families staying in shelters has started to drop, and fewer are walking in the door. Under her watch, DHS has cut its use of pricey scatter-site shelter rooms in half and moved more than 15,000 families into permanent housing. Gibbs says most of those changes happened only because Legal Aid was taking a breather. Now back under the threat of litigation, she’s hit a wall.
“Court orders lock practices in place regardless of outcomes,” she says. “They put what should be a flexible environment into a straitjacket.” The EAU, she explains, is a perfect example. The city already has a directive, issued by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, that grants it permission to deny ineligible families shelter, unless they can prove they were evicted or are in danger of domestic violence. But the city can’t implement the change because it knows Legal Aid will sue.
That limitation, she says, punishes both the agency and its clients. “A lot of the harm is to ineligible families that have a false promise of shelter,” she says. “We want to deal with people in a more humane way.”
Part of that, says Gibbs, is helping clients become more self-sufficient. That was one of the reasons DHS decided to stop offering Section 8, its most generous subsidy, to homeless families and instead give them Housing Stability Plus, which is time-limited and requires compliance with welfare’s work mandates.
It’s also a good reason, Gibbs suggests, to institute the 90-day rule. Ineligible families will be directed to a resource room staffed with 16 social workers, and referred to community-based organizations.
They can also use HomeBase, a new $12 million program with offices in six neighborhoods that, combined, produce 25 percent of the shelter population: the South Bronx, East Tremont/Belmont, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East Harlem and Jamaica. Charged with serving 400 clients per year, they offer a range of services designed to keep families housed.
HomeBase workers do extensive outreach in the community, says Tom Hameline, senior vice president for programs at HELP USA, which runs the East Tremont HomeBase. Since opening last winter, his office has helped families settle arguments, access welfare, fight evictions, find work, or even just buy bunk beds to make a crowded room more livable.
Every family that avoids shelter saves the city an estimated $25,000 per year. Though leaving families doubled-up is less than ideal, Gibbs says, it may be unavoidable. “The government,” she says, “is never going to be responsible for building an apartment for everyone who wants to come here and live in New York.”
From a distance, Gibbs and Banks are at polar ends of a spectrum, yet both essentially want the same thing: to end homelessness. And both see prevention as a far better tool than shelter for making that happen.
Yet while HomeBase is clearly meeting a need, it isn’t yet reaching its target population. So far it’s mostly serving older primary leaseholders, admits Gibbs, not the doubled-up households most at risk. Many families coming into PATH haven’t even heard of HomeBase.
“The double-ups are more of a silent population,” explains Hameline. “What they call a non-service-seeking population, and they are flying pretty much below the radar. They’re not on a lease; they’re not on a mailbox; and they may not have public assistance. They may not even have an address anymore.”
Assuming they’re located, New York’s archetypal homeless family–a young mother with children–may need more help than HomeBase can offer. “If someone has a high school diploma, we can get that person a job,” says Hameline. “The problem is if you have a single-parent family and the adult really doesn’t have a vocational history. They may have to go back to the system.”
Beth Shinn, professor of psychology at NYU, thinks a different approach is needed, one that emphasizes permanent housing and tackles broader economic inequities. Her landmark 1998 study of 266 families entering the New York City shelter system showed that unstable housing, including double-ups, was the single largest predictor of homelessness, far more significant than mental illness or drug use. Five years later, the team revisited its subjects and found that the only constant among families that stayed housed was a subsidized apartment. “I’m somewhat skeptical that services alone will help,” she says.
While Mayor Bloomberg has made housing production a priority and announced plans to build 12,000 units of supportive housing, very few of the units completed so far have been aimed at homeless families. In 1988, thanks in part to a glut of abandoned buildings the city took over, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development built or renovated 4,042 units of homeless housing. Last year, it created just 309–the most since Bloomberg took office.
Of course, the housing landscape has changed significantly since Koch’s era. The city has less property at its disposal and federal funding for programs like Section 8 is drying up. At the same time, real estate prices have skyrocketed, making it far more expensive for the city to subsidize rent.
But despite her study’s most tangible finding, preventing homelessness doesn’t necessarily mean providing a free apartment for every family that asks, Shinn explains. “Housing problems are the gap between income and housing costs,” she says. “Anything you do that narrows that gap helps some.” Rental assistance is good, she says, but “I wonder whether [the city] wouldn’t be better off doing more large-scale economic development efforts.”
Arnold Cohen, president of Partnership for the Homeless, a direct service and advocacy group, agrees. Real, lasting prevention, he says, would address the fact that income and rents are completely out of whack. An average two-bedroom now costs $1,075, more than the entire monthly salary of a minimum wage earner. Welfare provides a three-person family just $400 for rent. “As a city we need to think larger than just the shelter system,” says Cohen. “You can’t have commissioners running their own little spheres.”
Cohen considers it shortsighted to turn families like Miranda’s away. He thinks one more year of court supervision would give DHS time to develop a better plan for reaching vulnerable doubled-up households before they appear at its door. Still, he’s impressed with the city’s progress thus far. “For 20 years it was a battle of the wills. Now we’re talking about permanent solutions,” he says. “This isn’t just the same old stuff.”
Despite advocates’ worries, New York City is one of the nation’s most generous when it comes to homelessness: While any family seeking shelter here will get it, a December 2004 survey of 27 cities found that 22 had turned families away in the past year, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Fifteen required families to break up to seek shelter. Some cities, like Philadelphia, are able to shelter most of their homeless; others, like Los Angeles and San Diego, have huge numbers of people living on the street. The hot topic of late: chronic homelessness, a scourge that the federal government has set out to eradicate with new grants and programs. City Limits gives you a quick look at how other cities deal with people who have no place to go:
Region Population: 8,085,742
Sheltered Homeless: 36,448
Street Homeless: 4,395 (as of April 2005)
Sheltered Families: 8,670
Sheltered Singles: 8,783
New strategies: The city recently created six HomeBase centers to help prevent homelessness in high-risk city neighborhoods. They offer mediation, legal help and temporary rental assistance.
Region Population: 2,871,499
Sheltered Homeless: 4,988
Street Homeless: 1,727
Sheltered Families: 774
Sheltered Singles: 2,337
New strategies: Combining government and private funding, Chicago recently broke ground on more than 700 units of supportive housing. Taking a holistic approach, the city has also created an interagency council that convenes city agencies to discuss how housing, transportation, sanitation and public health impact the homeless.
Los Angeles County
Region Population: 9,178,685
Sheltered Homeless: 9,875
Street Homeless: 73,472
Homeless Families (includes street homeless):7,551
Homeless Singles (includes street homeless): 63,382
New strategies: The county is directing resources at specific high-risk groups, such as homeless people with HIV/AIDS, drug addicts and the mentally ill.
Washington, D.C, Region: Nine counties including the District of Columbia
Area Population: 4,449,595
Sheltered Homeless: 14,357
Street Homeless: 1,087
Sheltered Families: 1,842
Sheltered Singles: 8,539
New strategies: D.C. is creating a database to track people who cross county lines, to determine patterns in service use and migration.
City Population: 1,465,762
Sheltered Homeless: 6,477
Street Homeless: 176
Sheltered Persons in Families: 956
Sheltered Singles: 3,141
New strategies: Wary of expanding emergency shelter units, the city has created new transitional housing for youth, victims of domestic violence and ex-convicts. The city is also trying to reduce chronic street homelessness through individualized outreach.
County population: 2,930,886
Sheltered homeless: 4,027
Street homeless: 4,762
Sheltered Families: 388
Sheltered Singles: 1,909
New strategies: A downtown homeless court offers drug rehabilitation and job training.
One might assume that homelessness rises as housing production drops, and vice versa. In fact, it’s a lot more complicated. The city’s shelter population depends on three factors, explains Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition on the Homeless: The number of families coming in, the number going out, and their length of stay in the system. In the mid-1980s, as the homelessness crisis emerged, the city struggled to increase production. That work paid off: When recession hit in the early 1990s, a combination of public housing, rental subsidies and newly created units helped keep the shelter numbers under control. Yet when the economy faltered again after September 11, housing for the homeless was in decline, hence the rapid rise in shelter use.–CF