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Citizens Union

Housing

A Tax Shelter For The Working Poor


More than half a billion dollars in federal money is there for the taking by almost a quarter of a million New Yorkers who need it most, but they either don’t know about it, or don’t know how to get it; in either case, the money remains unclaimed.

This is just one of the odd consequences of a program designed to give tax breaks to the working poor, which is not working the way it is supposed to.

The federal program is called the earned income tax credit. It enables a family of four earning up to $34,692 to receive a tax refund as high as $4,204, with an additional refund given by New York State.

“There are 230,000 New Yorkers eligible for the [earned income tax credit] who didn't claim it last year,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in January. “If they did this year, the credits they would earn would pump more than $540 million into our neighborhoods.”

But even many of those who did claim it were victims of exploitation. In 2002, some 174,000 New Yorkers signed up for what the commercial tax payers called an “instant refund” but was actually a very high-interest loan. The average fee paid -- a whopping $250. The typical customer who paid this fee, according to a report, earned less than $15,000 a year.

WHY PEOPLE DON’T CLAIM FREE GOVERNMENT MONEY

There are many reasons why the earned income tax credit is being underused, and abused.

For one, the rules governing who is eligible are complex and changing. Navigating those rules often requires expert help, but this is expensive. H&R Block, the largest tax preparer in the city and nation, charges a minimum of $46 for filling out a federal 1040-EZ form and $36 for the corresponding state tax form. Potential customers cannot get estimates over the telephone for the full cost of preparation and filing. The second largest commercial preparer, Jackson Hewitt, quotes a total of $86 for the simplest federal and state forms, plus $100 in fees for filing and handling the returns.

More to the point, many of those eligible have little reason to know about the benefit. Workers who don’t owe any income taxes do not have to file tax returns. A full-time minimum-wage job pays so little that a single parent with one child would have less than zero taxable income, and thus would not owe any taxes. A worker in this situation may never have filed a tax return, and may not be aware that filing could bring her $3,311 in combined federal and state refunds.

“IT’S YOUR MONEY, COME AND GET IT”

There are alternatives to paying a commercial tax preparer. Community organizations offer free tax preparation to low-income people at 42 locations throughout the five boroughs. Many sites offer services in Spanish, and several offer services in Chinese or Russian. A list of sites and their hours is available from the Department of Consumer Affairs on its Web site , or by dialing 311.

 

The city has launched a campaign to make people more aware of the tax credit. The motto for its campaign is “It’s Your Money, Come and Get It,” and this is plastered in bold letters on flyers in ten languages, which are being distributed by a coalition of nonprofit agencies, schools, city departments and corporate partners. According to Gretchen Dykstra, Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, the motto will soon be “on television and the radio, in ads, utility bills, paystubs, subways, McDonald’s placemats, and more.”

Last year, free tax clinics operated by the Community Food Resource Center helped 10,000 low-income families prepare and file their returns. The organization hopes to assist 25,000 families with their returns this year. To qualify for free tax preparation, a family must have earnings less than $35,000 for 2003; an individual with no children must have earnings under $15,000.

HIGH-INTEREST LOANS

Because the earned income tax credit is used only by very poor people, they are likely to have unpaid bills, have too little money to pay a tax preparer’s fee, or have other reasons for wanting a refund as soon as possible. In New York City, nearly one in four taxpayers filing for the credit receives their refund through a loan. These low-income filers make up 40 percent of the customers for so-called “refund anticipation loans,” for which the average interest rate last year was an astonishing 222.5 percent -- about 10 times that of a credit card.

For years, consumer advocates and government regulators have been trying to get tax preparers to tell customers the true cost of getting a refund in two days, and that alternatives include receiving a refund by direct deposit from the Internal Revenue Service within as little as two weeks.

Last year, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs reached the largest settlement in the agency’s history in a lawsuit against H&R Block. The company agreed to pay over $2.7 million in restitution to 61,700 low-income consumers who were eligible for the tax credit. H&R Block had to pay the city itself over $1,000,000 in fines, legal costs, and support for the city’s outreach campaign for the tax credit, in addition to $475,000 for H&R Block’s own educational and outreach materials, which now require approval by the city.

“I think everyone has learned that they have to use the word ‘loan’,” says Lisa Donner of ACORN, a nationwide community organization. ACORN demonstrations targeted H&R Block offices in 30 cities last month. Using the correct term, Donner warns, doesn’t mean that consumers understand what they are getting for their money. Linking “rapid refunds” to the earned income tax credit has muddled the nature of the credit to many recipients. “It’s magic to them,” she says.

Commercial tax preparers are legally required to give each customer a copy of the Consumer Bill of Rights Regarding Tax Preparers(in pdf format). As of April 2003, more than half of the tax preparers surveyed by the Department of Consumer Affairs did not give out the Bill of Rights when asked.

CONFUSION ABOUT ELECTRONIC FILING

Taxpayers who want a rapid refund directly from the Internal Revenue Service must deal with companies like H&R Block, because the fastest refunds go to those who file their returns electronically. On-line filing through the federal “Free File” program can only be done on websites of selected commercial tax preparers. Consumers filing from participating websites are barraged with offers for additional services.

The Internal Revenue Service’s corporate partners limit free services to groups of consumers based on income, age, military status, or whether they are entitled to the earned income tax credit. Each company has different standards, and taxpayers may not find out that they do not qualify for free services until they have already filled out a series of electronic forms and are about to send off the completed return.

NEXT UP: THE REFUND CARD

Some tax preparers are offering refunds in the form of pre-paid cards, which can be used to make purchases and withdraw cash from automatic teller machines. Tax refund cards could be a helpful new option for people who have no bank accounts. However, it is not clear how much issuers will charge for them.

 

“What people really need,” says Donner of ACORN, “are bank accounts. These refunds could be the biggest lump sum payment they see in a year, and a bank account is the best way to encourage them to save it.” Instead, tax preparation is becoming a sideline for car dealers and check cashing services, encouraging people to spend their refunds as soon as possible.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.

Bush's "Temporary Worker" Program


Henry Ho made up his mind that he wanted to stay in New York shortly after he arrived here from Taiwan as a graduate student a year and half ago. That is why, just three months short of getting his M.B.A. from Baruch College, he regards with a bitter irony the Bush Administration's new proposals to help immigrants.

“They would give out green cards to the illegals but not someone like me,” said Ho.

Ho was referring to the Bush Administration’s proposed “temporary worker" program, which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a three-year work permit with their employers’ sponsorship, and enjoy other rights, such as minimum wage and union benefits. The proposal is widely believed to benefit low-skilled workers who are unable to get a work permit through regular channels.

“They make it so difficult for those who want to do it the right way but make it easy for those who are unskilled and illegal,” said Ho, who is hoping to get a visa for skilled workers, called an H-1B visa, through his future employer. However, it has gotten increasingly difficult, with many employers reluctant to sponsor because of the complicated paperwork, and the number of visas issued has been reduced by nearly half last year.

But can the new proposal really bring salvation to the large underclass of illegal immigrants? To many, this program is far from perfect and has raised both hopes and confusion.

Elsa Vergara, who came from Ecuador in 1977 and worked under a fake Social Security card that she bought for $400, said the purpose of this program is unclear.

“It is probably Bush’s plan to control people and collect more taxes,” Vergara said. “I heard discussions on this subject on the radio every morning but no one seems to know whether it is safe to join the program.” Those who want to join the program would have to pay taxes and pass a background check by the Department of Homeland Security.

One of the proposal’s biggest controversies that keep many undocumented workers from endorsing it is that the program does not offer a path to eventual permanent residency or citizenship. Although the permit can be renewed for an unspecified number of years, workers have to return to their home countries when their permits expire, and would have to apply for green cards through regular channels.

But under current U.S. immigration law, it is almost impossible for unskilled workers to obtain work visas because their levels of salary and position simply would not qualify (with the exception of seasonal agricultural jobs).

“Most of the illegal workers are here to stay,” said Vergara, who eventually obtained permanent residency through an amnesty program in 1986. “That’s why I doubt many would actually come forward because they are afraid to be deported.”

Immigrant groups say the proposal provides cheap, exploitable labor for the American economy but disregards the future of immigrant workers.

“Under the guise of immigration reform, the president has proposed a temporary worker program which does not lead to permanent residency and citizenship and essentially says to the immigrant community ’work hard, pay taxes, and then get lost,’” said Margie McHugh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.

Meanwhile, many believe that this new proposal would encourage illegal immigration, forcing more people out of job.

“The U.S. government should take care of the people who are already here,” said Ling Zhang, a native of Zhejiang, China, who works as a home health aide. “There are only so many jobs here but more and more people are coming here every day.”

Many Americans also opposed the proposal, saying it only benefits countries like Mexico but does no good for America.

“Mexico exports its poorest people to America,” wrote B.J. Sullivan of San Francisco in a letter to the New York Times. “They work for low wages; they send money back to Mexico; and they use our social services, our hospitals and our schools.”

On the other hand, some critics denounced the program as a re-election campaign effort to appeal to the Hispanic community, which is the fastest growing sector of the electorate. The Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, make up the majority of the eight to 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

“Latino voters will not be fooled,” said Moises Perez, executive director of Allianza Dominicana, the largest organization serving New York’s Dominican community. “President Bush’s proposal is a dead-end, not an opportunity.”

But some say the program is well-intended, though it will take time to develop.

“I think it is still good news to the illegal immigrants,” said Annie Yeh, a longtime New York resident who came from Taiwan 30 years ago. “Maybe there will be a follow-up bill in the future that will help them eventually get their green cards.”

A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Larry Tung, a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and video artist, is a frequent contributor to the Citizen.

Battered Women And Their Fight To Keep Their Children


When severely battered women Sharwline Nicholson, Ekaete Udoh and Sharlene Tillett went to court on behalf of themselves and their children, they began a legal journey that would eventually become a class action lawsuit, travel through the federal and state court systems of New York and have reverberations around the country. (See account in Gotham Gazette's children's topic page December update) The litigation, now in its fourth year, involves the rights of victims of domestic violence whose children were taken from their custody by the City of New York's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) even though the mothers had not been found unfit, neglectful or to have engaged in domestic violence. They were simply victims of assault by domestic partners. The practice and policy of removing children who had not themselves been assaulted, and who had not been harmed by their victimized parent meant some battered women might resist calling the police for protection for fear it would lead to the removal of their children.

Following extensive hearings, federal judge Jack Weinstein of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, found that "the evidence reveals widespread and unnecessary cruelty by agencies of the City of New York toward mothers abused by their consorts, through forced unnecessary separation of the mothers from their children on the excuse that this sundering is necessary to protect the children."

Referring to the legal maze in which the mothers are thrown as Kafkaesque, Judge Weinstein detailed the ironies and inequities of blaming the victim who is usually powerless to control the violence in the home. "The limiting factor on what a battered mother does to protect herself or her children from the batterer is usually a lack of viable options, not a lack of desire," the judge wrote, referring to institutional protection and support for victims of domestic violence. As advocates for battered women have argued for more than thirty years, the judge said, "Accusing battered mothers of neglect aggravates the problem because it blames the mother for failing to control a situation which is defined by the batterer's efforts to deprive her of control. ...It's an ill-conceived way to think about this issue of neglect and it further victimizes women who are victims of domestic violence."

The decision in the case, which is now known as Nicholson v Scoppetta, forbids the Administration for Children's Services and various other defendants from removing children who had not been physically harmed, threatened or neglected by the mothers who were victims of assault.. While the city took the position that removal was consistent with protecting the children and that failing to prevent their witnessing violence, was itself a form of neglect, Judge Weinstein found that the Constitutional rights of the mothers and the children had been violated . The court recognized the parental interest in the "care, custody and control of their children as perhaps the oldest fundamental liberty interest". Unless the parent is unfit to care for the child, the judge wrote, "there is a constitutionally protected interest in preserving family integrity and a right not to be separated by the government." Judge Weinstein took particular exception to the failure to focus on removal of the batterer/assailant from the home, provide alternatives for the mother and children, and recognize removal of the children as the most extreme and undesirable resolution to domestic violence, one which would, in his view, and the experts he relied upon, have greater negative impact on the children than would the witnessing of the original violence. He concluded that removing children under the circumstances of these cases should be the very last resort.

In some cases Family Court orders of removal were obtained; in others ACS proceeded without court intervention. Both situations involve policy decisions and interpretations of the Family Court Act and what constitutes neglect, whether removal is available where there is no "imminent risk or imminent danger to the child's life or health, and how these factors are balanced with the "best interests of the child."

On defendants' appeal to The United States Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit, the federal appeals court permitted the injunction to stand but did not reach a conclusion. Rather, in late 2003, the circuit court identified several open legal questions, and referred them to the New York State Court of Appeals for both constitutional reasons and in deference to the state court's expertise in family law. The questions yet to be answered are, under state law:

• Is the definition of "neglected child" meant to include instances in which the sole allegation of neglect is that the parent or guardian allows the child to witness domestic abuse against the caretaker? (It has previously been determined that the batterer can be charged with endangering the welfare of a child by assaulting the victimized parent.)

• Can the injury or possible injury, if any, that results to a child who has witnessed domestic abuse against a parent or caretaker constitute danger or risk to the child's life or health as defined in the Family Court Act?

• Does the fact that the child witnessed such abuse suffice to demonstrate that removal is necessary in the child's best interests, or must the child protective agency offer additional particularized evidence to justify removal? The key question appears to be whether the emotional trauma of witnessing violence is the type of danger that is sufficient to warrant removal from the non battering spouse.

It is not known when the New York Court of Appeals will address the questions. However, according to Carolyn Kubitschek, counsel to the Nicholson plaintiffs, the city is complying with the injunction.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Rules for the Homeless


Families sleeping on the floor of the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx. Although people no longer stay overnight at the facility, it remains crowded, with parents and children going through long waits to get housing. The people's faces are covered to protect their identities.
(Courtesy, Coalition for the Homeless)
Like most people, Evelyn Hennings likes to sleep lying down. But she doesn't have this luxury every night. For four months last year, Hennings, 49, slept upright in a white plastic chair at Grand Central Neighborhood, a midtown drop-in center where some 200 homeless adults, schlepping tattered bags of belongings, stop in daily for hot food and a place to sit.

In late September Grand Central found Hennings a rotating spot in a church bed, one of many that are swapped among the homeless individuals who use the city's drop-in centers. Hennings gets the bed four nights a week. The other three evenings, she's back in her chair. And yet, Hennings says, "being here is much better than being in a shelter."

Hennings, whom a Grand Central employee says has an undiagnosed mental illness, is among the many homeless adults who avoid the city's temporary residences while they search for permanent housing and jobs. She abandoned her bed in a Brooklyn shelter last May when a caseworker wanted to transfer her to a site offering specialized care for the mentally impaired. She can't remember how long she lived at the Brooklyn shelter but knows she was tired of moving. "I'm not interested in bouncing from shelter to shelter," she says.

Long-term shelter residents like Hennings make up roughly 17 percent of single adults in shelters and use about half of the resources. They are one of the targets of a new city policy called Client Responsibility Standards that aims to curb dependence on the shelter system and spark a sea change in the culture of the homeless. (For an article on programs for homeless families in New York see Stephanie Carberry's story on the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx.)

So far, the program, which was officially launched in November, has had little effect. The city says it could eventually spur single adults to take more control over their lives and, simultaneously, alleviate crowding in the 49 adult residences. But the policy has evoked outrage from advocates, who worry it will force thousands of people, particularly the mentally disabled, into the streets.

THE NEW RULES

The standards allow shelter operators to evict residents for a minimum of 30 days if they break general rules, like those requiring sobriety, or do not follow their personalized set of guidelines requiring them to search for employment and housing. Until now, unruly adults who start fights, for example, or refuse to stay clean in a drug-free program, have merely been transferred to another shelter.

Client Responsibility, long sought by the city, comes as the number of homeless in New York continues to rise. On January 20, the city counted 38,583 homeless individuals, including 8,896 single adults. (On February 23, the city will conduct a survey to determine the number of homeless people on the streets.)

As a result of a 1981 court ruling, New York is the only city in the nation where homeless people have enjoyed the "right to shelter" - and so could not be evicted from the shelters. The Guiliani administration tried unsuccessfully to reverse the ruling. But last June an appellate court ruled that the city Department of Homeless Services could set rules and requirements for shelter residents to follow.

For a resident to be evicted, a caseworker must suggest it. Then, a social services director reviews the request and sends it on for endorsement by the department. There the assistant commissioner, the commissioner and a suspension committee examine the case. In the meantime, the resident can request a fair hearing and vow to change.

But despite these safeguards, some homeless advocates fear that Client Responsibility will discourage many who need shelter from seeking help.

The mere prospect of eviction after 30 days "will result in many individuals just saying, 'you know what, I'm just going to go to the streets,'" says Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, which brought the 1981 case.

FEARS FOR THE MENTALLY ILL

"We're very concerned about the safety of people, particularly people with disabilities," says Lauren Bhola-Pareti, executive director of the Council for Homeless Policies and Services, a coalition of shelter providers.

She and other advocates are particularly concerned about the mentally ill. Homeless services has about a thousand beds for mentally ill homeless, according to its own reports, perhaps fewer than is needed. Many shelters do not employ staff psychiatrists, and most caseworkers have little training in mental-health issues, says Susan Neibacher, executive director of Care for the Homeless, which provides mental health service in homeless facilities. She worries that many mentally ill residents, particularly those who have not been diagnosed, could face eviction for breaking rules or failing to show an effort to find permanent housing.

But the city insists that the mentally ill will be spared. "The standards don't apply to those individuals who have a mental impairment that prevents compliance," says Jim Anderson, spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services. "We can't and we wouldn't hold someone to a standard that they can't understand or aren't physically able to comply with. That certainly isn't the point. We're looking at individuals who are able but unwilling to comply. The standard is: Does the mental impairment in and of itself prevent compliance?"

Still, there are other ramifications, such as for those outside the shelter system, predicts Laurel Tumarkin, a policy analyst at HELP USA, a shelter operator. "The public does not want to have people sleeping on the streets or park benches or in the subways," she says.

In the two months since Client Responsibility took effect, there has not been a single eviction. "It's business as usual for us," said Verona Middleton-Jeter, executive director of Henry Street Settlement, a provider.

ENCOURAGING RESPONSIBILITY

The Catholic Home Bureau, another shelter operator, is pleased with the policy so far. "It has supported us in terms of getting the clients to do something for themselves," said Dolores Ortiz, assistant executive director, who believes it has made them more accountable.

Many residents seem to agree. "If people don't comply with rules, places like this aren't going to be able to function at all," says Andre Smith, a 29-year-old resident of HELPUSA S.E.C., a substance-abuse shelter on Wards Island. "It creates structure for a person, giving him a basic idea of what's required in the real world. We shouldn't be around people that are constantly violent or using."

The policy "helps us," says shelter director Edwin Cruz. "It's a little negative incentive, negative reinforcement."

Some shelter operators hope the policy will help adults who have used the shelter system at least 24 months over the past four years to move on. "I think it's going to motivate people to utilize the services available to get out of the system," says Jerry Heaney, social services director at the HELP USA shelter.

Some employees of shelters that offer therapeutic services have complained that, with homelessness at such a high level, the city has sometimes forced them to house adult residents who do not follow treatment regimens and are a bad influence on others who are trying to comply. Some shelter residents "just want a hot and a cot," says Cynthia Stuart, a spokesperson for Project Renewal,, where a "sizable number" of people got beds in the last year and a half but, she says, showed no interest in the program.

"I don't want this to sound cold, but every person that I'm continuing to allow to stay in for non-compliance is either going to end up dead, in jail, or severely damaged from their drug abuse," explains Anthony Benedetto, vice president of programs and services, at Samaritan Village, which operates shelters that offer substance abuse programs. "I don't want to see anyone die. But I know that when people are spinning out of control, somebody has to stop them from spinning."

Melvin Alvarez remembers the day he lost control. "I was in the Bronx, on a street curb, my jacket was up the block, my Walkman was over there," he points, "and the cops were asking me who the president was. I answered everything to the fullest, but I must've had a deranged look on my face." It was January 7, 1999, the day Alvarez overdosed on heroin after 18 years of using drugs, and many years on the street. When he was placed in a shelter a couple of months later, he says, he was ready to demonstrate responsibility, follow rules, work with a street-cleaning detail and save money.

Alvarez, now 36, is earning an accounting degree at Hostos Community College. He has a studio on 142nd Street, a Honda Prelude, a 401(k) pension plan, bonds and a savings account. He has just been promoted to social services director at Ready, Willing & Able, a shelter run by The Doe Fund.

Others at Ready, Willing & Able say they too are en route to finding apartments and holding steady jobs because they know they would be transferred otherwise. One, Robert Kennedy, 50, kicked a 20-year crack habit, and moved into Ready, Willing & Able seven months ago. He hopes to be hired by the shelter, after another round of training, as a dispatcher for the street maintenance crews.

"If you're not going to follow rules, I think you ought to be out on the street," says Kennedy. "Because they can't help you if you don't follow the rules."


Related Articles:

• The Permanent Emergency For Homeless Families by Stephanie Carberry
• In NYC Books: Grand Central Winter: Stories From The Street

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Rules for the Homeless


Families sleeping on the floor of the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx. Although people no longer stay overnight at the facility, it remains crowded, with parents and children going through long waits to get housing. The people's faces are covered to protect their identities.
(Courtesy, Coalition for the Homeless)
Like most people, Evelyn Hennings likes to sleep lying down. But she doesn't have this luxury every night. For four months last year, Hennings, 49, slept upright in a white plastic chair at Grand Central Neighborhood, a midtown drop-in center where some 200 homeless adults, schlepping tattered bags of belongings, stop in daily for hot food and a place to sit.

In late September Grand Central found Hennings a rotating spot in a church bed, one of many that are swapped among the homeless individuals who use the city's drop-in centers. Hennings gets the bed four nights a week. The other three evenings, she's back in her chair. And yet, Hennings says, "being here is much better than being in a shelter."

Hennings, whom a Grand Central employee says has an undiagnosed mental illness, is among the many homeless adults who avoid the city's temporary residences while they search for permanent housing and jobs. She abandoned her bed in a Brooklyn shelter last May when a caseworker wanted to transfer her to a site offering specialized care for the mentally impaired. She can't remember how long she lived at the Brooklyn shelter but knows she was tired of moving. "I'm not interested in bouncing from shelter to shelter," she says.

Long-term shelter residents like Hennings make up roughly 17 percent of single adults in shelters and use about half of the resources. They are one of the targets of a new city policy called Client Responsibility Standards that aims to curb dependence on the shelter system and spark a sea change in the culture of the homeless. (For an article on programs for homeless families in New York see Stephanie Carberry's story on the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx.)

So far, the program, which was officially launched in November, has had little effect. The city says it could eventually spur single adults to take more control over their lives and, simultaneously, alleviate crowding in the 49 adult residences. But the policy has evoked outrage from advocates, who worry it will force thousands of people, particularly the mentally disabled, into the streets.

THE NEW RULES

The standards allow shelter operators to evict residents for a minimum of 30 days if they break general rules, like those requiring sobriety, or do not follow their personalized set of guidelines requiring them to search for employment and housing. Until now, unruly adults who start fights, for example, or refuse to stay clean in a drug-free program, have merely been transferred to another shelter.

Client Responsibility, long sought by the city, comes as the number of homeless in New York continues to rise. On January 20, the city counted 38,583 homeless individuals, including 8,896 single adults. (On February 23, the city will conduct a survey to determine the number of homeless people on the streets.)

As a result of a 1981 court ruling, New York is the only city in the nation where homeless people have enjoyed the "right to shelter" - and so could not be evicted from the shelters. The Guiliani administration tried unsuccessfully to reverse the ruling. But last June an appellate court ruled that the city Department of Homeless Services could set rules and requirements for shelter residents to follow.

For a resident to be evicted, a caseworker must suggest it. Then, a social services director reviews the request and sends it on for endorsement by the department. There the assistant commissioner, the commissioner and a suspension committee examine the case. In the meantime, the resident can request a fair hearing and vow to change.

But despite these safeguards, some homeless advocates fear that Client Responsibility will discourage many who need shelter from seeking help.

The mere prospect of eviction after 30 days "will result in many individuals just saying, 'you know what, I'm just going to go to the streets,'" says Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, which brought the 1981 case.

FEARS FOR THE MENTALLY ILL

"We're very concerned about the safety of people, particularly people with disabilities," says Lauren Bhola-Pareti, executive director of the Council for Homeless Policies and Services, a coalition of shelter providers.

She and other advocates are particularly concerned about the mentally ill. Homeless services has about a thousand beds for mentally ill homeless, according to its own reports, perhaps fewer than is needed. Many shelters do not employ staff psychiatrists, and most caseworkers have little training in mental-health issues, says Susan Neibacher, executive director of Care for the Homeless, which provides mental health service in homeless facilities. She worries that many mentally ill residents, particularly those who have not been diagnosed, could face eviction for breaking rules or failing to show an effort to find permanent housing.

But the city insists that the mentally ill will be spared. "The standards don't apply to those individuals who have a mental impairment that prevents compliance," says Jim Anderson, spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services. "We can't and we wouldn't hold someone to a standard that they can't understand or aren't physically able to comply with. That certainly isn't the point. We're looking at individuals who are able but unwilling to comply. The standard is: Does the mental impairment in and of itself prevent compliance?"

Still, there are other ramifications, such as for those outside the shelter system, predicts Laurel Tumarkin, a policy analyst at HELP USA, a shelter operator. "The public does not want to have people sleeping on the streets or park benches or in the subways," she says.

In the two months since Client Responsibility took effect, there has not been a single eviction. "It's business as usual for us," said Verona Middleton-Jeter, executive director of Henry Street Settlement, a provider.

ENCOURAGING RESPONSIBILITY

The Catholic Home Bureau, another shelter operator, is pleased with the policy so far. "It has supported us in terms of getting the clients to do something for themselves," said Dolores Ortiz, assistant executive director, who believes it has made them more accountable.

Many residents seem to agree. "If people don't comply with rules, places like this aren't going to be able to function at all," says Andre Smith, a 29-year-old resident of HELPUSA S.E.C., a substance-abuse shelter on Wards Island. "It creates structure for a person, giving him a basic idea of what's required in the real world. We shouldn't be around people that are constantly violent or using."

The policy "helps us," says shelter director Edwin Cruz. "It's a little negative incentive, negative reinforcement."

Some shelter operators hope the policy will help adults who have used the shelter system at least 24 months over the past four years to move on. "I think it's going to motivate people to utilize the services available to get out of the system," says Jerry Heaney, social services director at the HELP USA shelter.

Some employees of shelters that offer therapeutic services have complained that, with homelessness at such a high level, the city has sometimes forced them to house adult residents who do not follow treatment regimens and are a bad influence on others who are trying to comply. Some shelter residents "just want a hot and a cot," says Cynthia Stuart, a spokesperson for Project Renewal,, where a "sizable number" of people got beds in the last year and a half but, she says, showed no interest in the program.

"I don't want this to sound cold, but every person that I'm continuing to allow to stay in for non-compliance is either going to end up dead, in jail, or severely damaged from their drug abuse," explains Anthony Benedetto, vice president of programs and services, at Samaritan Village, which operates shelters that offer substance abuse programs. "I don't want to see anyone die. But I know that when people are spinning out of control, somebody has to stop them from spinning."

Melvin Alvarez remembers the day he lost control. "I was in the Bronx, on a street curb, my jacket was up the block, my Walkman was over there," he points, "and the cops were asking me who the president was. I answered everything to the fullest, but I must've had a deranged look on my face." It was January 7, 1999, the day Alvarez overdosed on heroin after 18 years of using drugs, and many years on the street. When he was placed in a shelter a couple of months later, he says, he was ready to demonstrate responsibility, follow rules, work with a street-cleaning detail and save money.

Alvarez, now 36, is earning an accounting degree at Hostos Community College. He has a studio on 142nd Street, a Honda Prelude, a 401(k) pension plan, bonds and a savings account. He has just been promoted to social services director at Ready, Willing & Able, a shelter run by The Doe Fund.

Others at Ready, Willing & Able say they too are en route to finding apartments and holding steady jobs because they know they would be transferred otherwise. One, Robert Kennedy, 50, kicked a 20-year crack habit, and moved into Ready, Willing & Able seven months ago. He hopes to be hired by the shelter, after another round of training, as a dispatcher for the street maintenance crews.

"If you're not going to follow rules, I think you ought to be out on the street," says Kennedy. "Because they can't help you if you don't follow the rules."


Related Articles:

• The Permanent Emergency For Homeless Families by Stephanie Carberry
• In NYC Books: Grand Central Winter: Stories From The Street

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Permanent Emergency For Homeless Families


Families sleeping on the floor of the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx. Although people no longer stay overnight at the facility, it remains crowded, with parents and children going through long waits to get housing. The people's faces are covered to protect their identities.
(Courtesy, Coalition for the Homeless)
What I remember most vividly about the city's center for the homeless, where my mother brought us after having run out of friends and family to take us in, was how important it was to stay in your seat, if you were lucky enough to have found an empty one. The place was so crowded that people sat all over the floor, and the walls were covered with people leaning against them.

As exhausting as it had been to walk the streets of Brooklyn, we were far more tired during the few days my family and I spent at what I later learned was called the Emergency Assistance Unit. That is because every moment we were there, we were hoping for help. Behind a large door, there were people who could provide us with a place to live. Instead, we had to wait. When they finally called my mother's name, she emerged an hour later and told us that we needed yet another piece of paperwork or another interview with another supervisor.

I was seven years old when my family turned to an Emergency Assistance Unit, then located in downtown Brooklyn.

Eighteen years later, the Emergency Assistance Unit remains the first place families with children must turn to get shelter. In the years since I was there, thousands of families have been forced to spend the night sleeping on the floors of the one remaining "intake unit" in the Bronx. That practice was brought to a halt a few months ago, the city finally complying with city law. It is a change that the mayor cited this month in his State of the City address: "This past summer, for the first time in modern memory," the mayor announced, "no one slept on the floors of the Emergency Assistance Unit."

Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless is not impressed. "This is a bare minimum," he says, "not something to be having a party about." Critics like Markee say that continuing conditions at the facility, along with the strict requirements for emergency housing, discourage many desperate people from getting the shelter they need.

DICKENSIAN CONDITIONS

When my family was homeless, the city had several facilities where families with children could go. Only one remains, on the corner of 151st Street and Walton Avenue in the Bronx. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, crowds of people stand around its looming double gray doors, waiting to see if they pass muster with the Eligibility Investigation Unit and can be referred to a shelter for the night.

The number of homeless New Yorkers in city shelters every night has reached a record high of more than 38,000 homeless men, women, and children.

Thousands of other New Yorkers, most of them single adults, are homeless but not in shelters, sleeping instead on the streets, in parks or on the subways.

Families without children now go to the Adult Family Intake Center at 29th Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan. Five centers- three for men and two for women - handle single adults. (See related story by Kristen Hinman on new rules for homeless adults in the shelter system.)

But the thousands of families with children must go to the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, a place with a history of crime and violence and a reputation for poor treatment -- abuse by the guards, a cafeteria so unsanitary that it has made many people sick.

Though the city does not allow reporters in, two years ago, journalist Jack Newfield snuck inside. "It was something straight out of Dickens or Jacob Riis," he wrote in The Nation.

The city says it is making efforts to improve conditions and to provide routine maintenance, including "deep cleanings." But it cautions against looking for instant solutions. The unit “is what it is because of years of Band Aid-style quick fixes and court orders,” says James Anderson, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services. “While we’ve made a series of quality improvements around maintenance and safety, and will continue to do so, the thrust of our efforts is focused on deeper, more comprehensive reforms. We’re trying to get it right, rather than get it fast.”

ONE PLACE TO GO

To Ann Duggan, a homeless advocate, one remedy would involve opening more places where families with children can apply for shelter. The Giuliani administration instituted the single entry point, arguing it would improve efficiency.

"Maybe it makes sense sitting in front of a computer screen having everybody go to the same spot to access services," said Duggan, "but from a frontline perspective or from the homeless family's perspective, it . . . actually makes access to the system much more difficult."

Confronted with crowding at the Bronx center, State Supreme Court Justice Helen Freedman in 2002 suggested the city consider reopening the Queens and Manhattan intake facilities. Linda Gibbs, commissioner of homeless services, rejected the proposal, saying she was "sticking to the long-term plan," which emphasizes efforts to put people in permanent housing.

And so the homeless must make the trek to the Bronx, no matter how inconvenient. Kim Berrios worked as a dental assistant in Staten Island, and her son Jonathan Garcia attended a school there that provided him with a special education program. But they had to go to the Bronx to get shelter. In a documentary made by the Coalition for the Homeless, Berrios explains how she had to take two trains, the ferry and a bus to get to Jonathan's school and then take another bus from the school to her job. At the end of the day, they had to reverse their steps to return to the Bronx. Such treks force children to miss school and adults to be away from work.

And the trip is not just a one-time thing. The city places many families in temporary housing night after night, requiring that they return to the Emergency Assistance Unit repeatedly before they are assigned something more permanent.

SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR

Though now the practice has stopped, for a long time, the emergency assistance unit, unable to accommodate all those seeking shelter, had reportedly allowed families to sleep on chairs, benches and floors in the Bronx office. This was in clear violation of the law, a fact the city acknowledged by reportedly agreeing to pay each of the estimated 12,500 families who slept at the unit since January 1995, at $150 for each night they were forced to stay at the facility. According to the New York Post, the payout could total as much as $10 million.

THE BUREAUCRACY

When a family turns to the assistance unit for help, they meet with a worker who begins processing the family's application. All family members must be present or the family must go through the process all over again.

The Department of Homeless Services suggests that families provide documentation to explain why they are homeless, such as eviction papers, letters from landlords or documents from doctors indicating that a former apartment may no longer be appropriate. They must also prove that they are indeed a family by showing documents such as birth certificates, legal custody papers, marriage licenses, or certification as partners. To be eligible for housing, families must receive or apply for public assistance, and workers are on hand to help with the application process if necessary.

In 1995, the city narrowed its definition of homeless, according to the National Housing Law Project. As part of this, the assistance unit deems ineligible families that have been doubling up with friends or relatives. The city made this move to prevent families that already had a place to live from using the system to get new housing.

At the end of the process, the family should be told whether they have been found eligible for service. Attempts are then made to place them first in a shelter and finally into permanent housing. To stay in the system, families must apply for programs such as housing subsidies, actively seek permanent housing and accept suitable housing if and when it is offered.

Many families do not meet all the qualifications, at least in the view of the Department of Homeless Services. About half are denied shelter, according to Markee.

"The policy of restricting access to the shelter system, " said Duggan, "is based on the premise that people are accessing shelter who don't need shelter. And so you make it very, very difficult for people."

Anderson says the city is looking to ways to make lasting reforms that will “fundamentally improve . . . intake and eligibility process.” Key to this effort is the report of a Special Masters panel, appointed as a result of a settlement between the city and the Legal Aid Society. The panel, whose report is expected within a few months, will look at ways to prevent homelessness and to provide housing. It will also consider ways to improve the Emergency Assistance Unit – and to correct problems that have existed for decades.


Related Articles:
New Rules for the Homeless by Kristen Hinman
Grand Central Winter: Stories From The Street

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Congress About To Shake Up Job Training?


Since 1999, 235,000 would-be workers have entered the New York City workforce. The city has lost 240,000 jobs since 2000. As a result, at least half a million New Yorkers could have used help in getting a job since the Workforce Investment Act was passed in 1998. Instead, the law has expired without making a dent in the city’s economic problems, in part because the city dragged its feet on job training and employment services until Rudolph Giuliani left office in 2002.

New York City’s “wildly inconsistent policy swings have given ammunition to critics of job training across the country,” according to the Center for an Urban Future (in pdf format). Until last year, New York City had only a single “one-stop center” located in Queens. Unlike other cities, our Workforce Investment Board plays a minimal role in determining the use of federal job training funds, which are tightly controlled by the mayor.

Congress is about to pass a new version of the Workforce Investment Act, after separate bills already passed by the House and Senate are reconciled in conference. The decisions embodied in the final reauthorization bill could change the lives of New Yorkers who lose their jobs or move from welfare to work, young people trying to find their first jobs, and employers dealing with staff turnover or the need for workers with scarce skills.

What The Workforce Investment Act Was Supposed to Do

The 1998 law was meant to centralize access to employment and training services in “one-stop centers” where jobseekers could find all the services they needed, and to make sure that training matched the needs of employers by giving business a strong role in shaping it. Certain eligible clients could choose an educational or training program, with advice from a career counselor, and the government would pay their tuition.

How The Workforce Investment Act Has Played Out in New York City

In 2002, New York City spent about $97 million in federal workforce development funds. Its Workforce1 program offers 97 career centers, of which three are full-service one-stop centers. In April of 2002, the city launched an advertising campaign to publicize the centers and their career services. The city also operates a hotline (1-866-JOBS-NYC) and website for job hunters and employers.

These efforts have been hampered by the economic downturn accentuated by the World Trade Center disaster. The unemployment rate for the five-borough area averaged 7.7 percent from July 2001 through June 2003, meaning that in any given month between 200,000 and 300,000 residents were unemployed. During the same two-year period, the city’s Department of Employment enrolled 21,644 new adults in its dislocated worker program, and placed 10,042 participants in jobs. Over one-fourth of the participants hired had lost their jobs within three months.

Sequential Eligibility Limits Training For Experienced Workers

Under current law, participants in one-stop activities must exhaust job placement possibilities before they can receive training. This policy encourages jobseekers to take low-paying jobs requiring minimal skills rather than upgrade their skills to qualify for better jobs. Neither the House nor the Senate explicitly eliminated “sequential eligibility,” in their reauthorization bills, but each of them modified the language of the bill to allow a broader interpretation of which clients can be approved for training services.

Workforce Investment Boards Have Not Been Guiding Employment Service Decisions

Members of these boards have found themselves bogged down in administrative details, and thus unable to concentrate on substantive policy decisions, which are instead made by government officials. The House and Senate bills do not address this issue, except in reducing the number of mandatory members who must be represented on local boards. Eliminating one-stop partner agencies as voting members may reduce the amount of time that boards devote to discussing day-to-day operations.

One-Stop Centers Do Not Get Their Own Funding

Each center has to negotiate written agreements with 17 mandatory partners, such as trade organizations, colleges, and community organizations, that they will provide money or other resources to support the center’s activities. Potential partners are not always willing or able to commit resources to one-stop centers.

Both the House and the Senate have addressed funding for the one-stop centers by giving governors power to redirect funds from partner agencies to one-stop centers. The Senate bill also gives localities the option to negotiate agreements with partner agencies spelling out their financial commitments, as long as agreements are signed by July 2004.

Reporting Requirements Keep Competent Providers Out Of The System

To be certified to receive funding from the Workforce Investment Act, education and training providers must collect a bewildering array of data about their students. If tuition for one student in a program is paid for by the law, a school must report on all students in that program, including those not funded by the law. This is a costly process, which includes following up on graduates months after they have left the program. For some organizations, such reporting also violates their students’ right to privacy.

The Senate bill relieves trainers of the responsibility for tracking outcomes for program participants who are not funded by the Workforce Investment Act. Both the House and the Senate bills reduce the number of mandatory performance indicators that must be collected, and modify their use by taking into account economic conditions and characteristics of participants that might hold them back from finding good jobs.

The House bill uses an efficiency measure—the average cost of serving each participant—as a factor in certification of training providers. Unless cost measures take into account the varying needs of clients, they may shut out trainers serving the very people who require the most assistance to get and retain jobs. The Senate bill does not consider cost efficiency in the certification process.

Employers Are Not Using The System To Hire Or Train Staff

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that only 35 percent of small businesses knew about their local One-Stop center, and four out of five employers surveyed by the Chamber of Commerce had not used the system in the previous year. The majority of the same employers reported that they had a hard time finding qualified people to hire.

The Senate bill requires a dedicated business liaison at each One-Stop center; this was one of the practices recommended by the General Accounting Office in a study of successful centers. Both the House and the Senate bills would allow centers to place more emphasis on services aimed specifically at businesses, such as training for their existing staff.

The Block Grant Threats Funding Levels

The White House sought to combine three workforce development funding streams into a single block grant. Opponents argue that block granting these funds would make it easier to quietly reduce them in future years, and would set the target populations of the three programs in competition with one another. The House bill incorporated the block grant proposal, while the Senate bill preserved separate funding streams for the 5-year life of the bill.

Will Extended Unemployment Benefits Be Renewed?

Even before the Workforce Investment Act is reauthorized, New York’s Senator Hillary Clinton has pledged to bring before Congress an issue of more immediate concern to her unemployed constituents. The Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation program expired on December 31, 2003, meaning that continued benefits are no longer available to job hunters still unemployed after 26 weeks. Clinton is urging Congress to authorize an additional 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, but is also supporting a bill that would limit the extension of benefits to 13 weeks.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food Stamps Not Reaching Everybody Who Deserves Them


Over 800,000 New York City residents who are entitled to food stamps are not receiving them, according to a leading community-based advocate for the poor, the Community Food Resource Center. Some of the fault for this lies squarely with the city itself, according to several recent reports. New York City’s food stamp offices are not complying with federal law or even with the city’s own policies.

Working people, for example, must take time off of their jobs to apply for food assistance

Investigators from the Office of Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum posed as applicants for food stamps, and were told that if they did not submit paperwork themselves, in person, it would probably be lost. This represents a failure to carry out federal law, which provides a number of ways that working people are allowed to apply for food stamps to avoid having to take time off of work. Interviews can be conducted by phone, another person can file the worker’s application, and applications can be submitted electronically or by mail or fax.

“At the front-line staff level,” explains Anat Jacobson of the Public Advocate’s Office, “it is not clear that the message has filtered down to do whatever you need to do to get food stamps into people’s hands.”

For example, one investigator was told that because she lived in Manhattan, she could not meet with a Bronx caseworker, although applications from residents of all boroughs are accepted at all centers.

UNPLANNED SHRINKAGE OF EXTENDED HOURS

The city attempts to provide evening and Saturday hours at four food stamp offices for people who work nine-to-five. However, staff do not always follow the official schedule at these sites. Investigators visited the four offices a total of ten times and found offices already closed, at least an hour ahead of time, on three visits. On the other visits, investigators were consistently told that they could not schedule evening appointments, and that evening appointments were never scheduled. At the Queens extended-hours site, an investigator was told that to enter the building after 5 p.m., an applicant needed to be accompanied by an employee, unless he or she had a referral slip from a caseworker.

Applicants cannot easily call ahead and verify that a center will be open, because investigators found that two out of three phone calls are not answered. Each borough has only one Human Resources Administration office that is open during extended hours (except for Staten Island, which has none), so for most applicants, these offices are not close to where they live or work, and it is inconvenient to make repeated visits until they catch the office while it is still open.

Once they enroll in the food stamp program, participants must re-certify four times a year, a process that the city insists on doing through face-to-face interviews. This poses more difficulties for working people who cannot schedule an interview during their off hours. Nearly two-thirds of employed New Yorkers with income below the poverty line receive no paid sick days or vacation days, according to a recent survey (in pdf format) by the Community Service Society.

OTHER BARRIERS TO ACCESS BY WORKING FAMILIES

The second report released recently, an audit by the United States Department of Agriculture, examined a sample of case records at a Bronx office. Auditors discovered several applicants who had been wrongly denied benefits, for such reasons as ineligibility for welfare—which is no longer required to get food stamps--and lack of a Social Security number.

A third report was released in September 2003 by the City Council, which also sent investigators posing as applicants. They found that some city workers failed to use a shortened application form that has been required under state law since June 30, 2003. They also found incorrect addresses and nonexistent offices listed on the city’s web site, and lack of applications and posted information about food stamps at several sites.

A check of New York City agency web sites on December 9, 2003 showed several errors that could make it hard for applicants to file paperwork. On the Human Resource Administration’s site, the list of Manhattan offices did not indicate which one has evening and Saturday hours. More problematic was the site for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which did not even tell viewers that there were offices with extended hours. The list of food stamp offices there was quite different from that of the Human Resources Administration; of the 20 addresses given, 8 had been identified as being incorrect in City Council investigative reports.

MAJOR IMPROVEMENTS IN THE PAST TWO YEARS

For individual applicants who are turned away from the food stamp office, each error, however minor, can mean days of hunger. However, the big picture shows that the Human Resources Administration has made substantial improvements in the last two years, which are acknowledged in all three reports.

The city fought for and welcomed the federal restoration of eligibility to many immigrants cut off from food stamps by the 1996 immigration reform legislation. The Human Resources Administration has translated program materials into nine languages, and hired 29 community-based organizations to help enroll immigrants.

When clients with disabilities leave welfare for Supplementary Security Income, food stamps can now follow them automatically. Similarly, when beneficiaries leave welfare because they have started working, they automatically continue receiving food stamps for five months, at which point they must file a new application.

A leading community-based advocate for the poor, the Community Food Resource Center, is under contract with the city to spread the word about the availability of food stamps. The center runs a Food Stamp Media Campaign that advertises food stamps through bus and subway signs, radio spots, and pamphlets. The agency also offers potential applicants a computerized pre-screening to find out whether they are likely to be eligible.

MORE NEW YORKERS ARE RECEIVING FOOD STAMPS

These efforts have paid off, with the October 2002 enrollment in food stamps up to 918,298, nearly a 10 percent increase over the previous October. Enrollment is finally back to levels last seen in 1999, when welfare reform was stripping people of food assistance when they lost cash benefits. This is still far below the 1995 peak enrollment.

Today, many welfare recipients have been replaced by the working poor on the food stamp rolls, as was intended by policy makers. Yet less than 17 percent of food stamp recipients in New York State are employed. In the United States overall, 28 percent of food stamp households report earnings. In some states the rate is much higher: 40 percent of Texas participants are employed, and the state actively encourages working families’ participation by conducting enrollment and re-certification interviews by telephone.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT

The Public Advocate has made several recommendations to help low-income families get the food assistance to which they are entitled. Two would change current city policy: that food stamp applications be posted on the Internet, as federal law requires as of November 12, 2003; and that the city actively publicize alternatives to missing work to apply for food stamps.

Her other recommendations involve improved administration of existing policies: making sure that evening and Saturday appointments are truly available, retraining food stamp personnel in the alternative ways of accepting applications, and making sure that food stamp office employees working on Saturdays are qualified to meet client needs.

The City Council recommends that food stamp applications be made available in more government offices used by low-income people, such as public schools, Medicaid offices, and the drop-in centers run by the HIV/AIDS Services Administration.

BLOOMBERG ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATIONS

In December 2002, after a previous City Council report, the Executive Deputy Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, Seth Diamond, testified that, “We regularly ask undercover workers to go to Job Centers, often late in the day, to seek to obtain an application and ensure that they will be seen that same day. While in the overwhelming number of cases individuals are told they will be seen the same day they apply, in the cases where the potential applicant is told they will not be seen, we have taken disciplinary action against the worker. This information is also used in our JobStat process for evaluating the performance of center directors.”

The Administration did not respond to an inquiry about whether its own investigators reported the same shortcomings as did the Public Advocate, the City Council, and the Department of Agriculture. The Office of the Public Advocate has not received a response from the Administration regarding its findings or recommendations. City officials did not attend a City Council hearing on food stamp access on November 24, 2003, and have not yet responded to written questions from the Council.

LOST OPPORTUNITY FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

“The main point is that there are lots of people who could benefit from wider use of food stamps,” says Jacobson. “It’s not just for the people who need food on the table. They’re also an economic stimulus.”

The 800,000 New York City residents who are entitled to food stamps but not receiving them represents, at an average annual benefit of $1,100 per person, nearly a billion dollars in lost federal aid – money not spent in bodegas and local grocery stores.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Domestic Violence and Family Homelessness; Also: Frightening Facts From Ferrer


In 1999, Sharwline Nicholson was brutally beaten by her daughter's father after she told him she was breaking up with him. That night, while Nicholson was in the hospital, the Administration for Children's Services took her children away from the neighboring babysitter with whom they were staying and put them into foster care with strangers. Nat Williams, the "child protective manager" assigned to the case, called her at the hospital the next day to tell her that they had the children and if she wanted to see them she had to appear in court a week later. Nicholson asked him to place the children with one of two cousins, but Williams said no. He refused to tell her where the children were.

Nicholson wasn't allowed to see her children for more than a week. The social worker did this in order to pressure her into entering an emergency shelter: Williams was trained to do this, he would later testify; it was standard practice at the agency . Nicholson sued, joining two other women in Nicholson v. Williams (in PDF format), a class action law suit.

In his groundbreaking decision in January 2002, Judge Jack B. Weinstein held that it was unconstitutional for New York City to remove children from their mothers who were victims of domestic violence without providing them with adequate counsel. In many cases, mothers could not regain custody simply because they didn't have a lawyer. His decision was upheld in the federal circuit court in September. The city has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals but it also settled with the women in the suit, paying them $75,000 per child placed in foster care. Judge Weinstein ordered an injunction against the practice, giving the administration until June 2002 to address the problems.

Now, 18 months later, there are tangible changes in the way the city treats domestic violence cases. This is the conclusion of a new report (in pdf format), which sees huge changes in administration policy, practice and enforcement of the way its workers treat victims of domestic abuse and their children. "In child abuse and neglect cases involving domestic violence, the number of children placed in foster care has declined dramatically," says the report, issued by the New School's Center for New York City Affairs.

A review of Family Court Cases in the Bronx shows that nearly a quarter of children were removed from their parents in 1999. By contrast, in cases concluded after June 2002, only a tenth were, and these were mostly placed with a relative. While the administration agrees things have changed, it doesn't believe Nicholson is the reason behind the change. "Many of these new initiatives were well underway before Nicholson was filed in 2000," says Maclean Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Administration for Children Services. In fact, she says, the injunction creates a climate that makes its work more difficult. "We are forced to divert our limited resources toward responding to the litigation rather than enabling us to focus all of them on the families we're working to serve."

Andrew White sees it differently. "The way they work with these women has changed," says White, editor of the report and director of the Center for New York City Affairs. "The city has ramped up its efforts to improve its response to domestic violence to a level never seen before in New York City. [The lawsuit] really got them to move in a way they hadn't before. They have been doing initiatives for the last 10 to 15 years, small experimental pilot programs, but none ever reached any kind of scale as this."

Whatever the reason, the Administration for Children's Services now has clinical consultation teams citywide. It has hired several non-profit organizations, including Palladia, New York Foundling, and the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services to work with the case workers, the first time non-profit staff have worked alongside city staff like this. The program is based on a similar, decade-old program in Massachusetts.

Whether by its own internal reforms or the pressure of the lawsuit, the administration has revised its policies and practices to reflect the position that it can most help children by empowering the mother, suggests a recent New York Times article. But resources remain extremely limited. "Homeless shelters specializing in domestic violence victims are so overbooked that they turn away roughly half the women who apply," Times reporter Leslie Kaufman wrote. "Other services like specialized counseling and services intended for women from various cultures and ethnic groups are also oversubscribed."

HOMELESSNESS NEWS

Ten months after it was formed, the New York City Family Homelessness Special Master Panel published its first report on the topic of preventing family homelessness. The report lists several policy recommendations in areas that include affordable housing, early identification, cross-agency coordination, community services and legal representation.

In addition, the mayor announced the city is working on a plan to end chronic homelessness in the next 10 years. Advocates for the homeless said there was already plenty of information about how to solve the problem. They say the solution is to build more supportive housing for the mentally ill and to build more housing for low-income families. "The time for study is long past," Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless told the Times. "We have a proven track record of what works. We desperately need more capital dollars for bricks and mortar, and we need more resources, beginning with the federal government."

A record 39,000 homeless a night are in the shelter system, and 17,000 of those are children. That doesn't include those living in the streets or doubling or tripling up with friends and family. The city recently won an appeal that allows it to evict homeless men and women from city shelters if it decides they have been disruptive or don't comply with shelter rules.

Index About Children

The Drum Major Institute, the New York City think tank headed by Freddy Ferrer, issues an occasional list it calls the Injustice Index, which juxtaposes various statistics in order to make a point. Their latest Injustice Index is about children

Here is an excerpt:

• Number of New Yorkers that cited "the quality of public schools" as one of their major concerns: 8 in 10

• Amount of taxpayer dollars spent in legal fees by New York Governor Pataki to challenge the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's efforts to fix a funding formula that was shortchanging New York City schoolchildren: $11 million

• Average spending per pupil in New York City public schools: $11,474 Average spending per pupil in Peekskill (the hometown of Governor Pataki) public schools: $14,663

• Amount raised by hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for New York City public schools in a charitable run of the New York City marathon this October: $2 million

• Percentage of New York City public schools that lack a full-time certified school librarian: 94 percent

• Percentage of New York City public middle and high school students in "high poverty areas" being taught physical sciences by an "unqualified" teacher: 70 percent

Reforming Foster Care


 How much success has the city had in its effort to help thousands of foster families meet the daunting challenges of parenting other people’s abused and neglected children?

Unpatriotic Banking?


Sung, a Chinese construction worker, was turned away by Abacus Federal Savings Bank’s Flushing branch when he tried to open an account with his passport and a photocopied Chinese ID.

"I really don't understand," said Sung, a native of Liaoning Province who overstayed his visa. "I am putting my money in the bank, not borrowing money. Are they afraid that I would run away?"

To most immigrants, opening a bank account means the first step towards a better life, whether that means buying a house, sending their kids to college one day, or sending money back home.

But to undocumented workers like Sung, opening a bank account is getting more difficult these days.

One of the purposes of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that Congress passed in 2001 was to deter money laundering by potential terrorists. The unintended effect was to deal a big blow to many community-based banks whose customers include a large number of undocumented immigrants.

The new regulations went into effect on October 1, 2003, and banks now must keep clients’ information such as birthdates, passport numbers, alien identification card numbers, and report any suspicious transactions to the authorities.

According to an employee at a New York Chinese-owned community bank, who requested anonymity, they are more careful when reviewing applications and require at least two pieces of photo IDs with address verification. Their old policy only required one piece of ID.

“It takes so many steps and about three times the efforts to open an account now,” the employee said.

According to the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily, the new rule has affected 10,000 people in New York’s Chinatown and as many as 10 Chinese community banks that mainly serve the undocumented Chinese workers there.

The new rule also had a profound impact on money transmitters like Western Union, a nationwide agency that can deliver money transfer within minutes.

“Our business had gone down since we adopted the new Patriot Act regulations,” said a clerk, surnamed Chang, at the Western Union agency on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, who requested her first name not to be revealed. She said the agency had adopted the new regulations in June and set a limit of $2,000 per person a month on money transfer.

Many immigrants complained about the tightened regulations. Some of them turned to their friends with proper documents for help.

An undocumented Chinese worker, who is surnamed Zhao and a native of Jilin Province, asked his friend to wire money for him, which has become a common practice among undocumented immigrants. “The limit of the amount is too low at Western Union. It’s easier to ask a friend to do it,” he said.

While passports still remain the most widely accepted foreign identification, China and other countries with a sizable undocumented population in the United States are considering giving their nationals residing overseas, both legally and illegally, a wallet-size ID card called “consular ID”. The move came following Mexico's successful re-launching of "matricula consular”, which is now accepted by 150 banks in 13 states for opening bank accounts and applying for driver's license.

Mexico's “matricula consular” program, first introduced more than a century ago, has gained immense popularity after the 9/11 attacks. The document is now available in 47 consulate offices across the United States for a minimal fee of $28. Mexican citizens with birth certificates and proof of U. S. address can apply. The card is currently recognized as an official identification by more than 900 police departments, and 100 cities, according to the Mexican Consulate in New York.

Guatemala, which receives about $1.3 billion from its citizens living overseas, began a similar program in September 2002. Its eight consulates in the United States have issued more than 35,000 Guatemalan consular ID cards at $27.5 a piece so far. Other countries that are planning similar programs include Peru, Honduras and Poland.

Critics of those ID cards said acceptance of consular ID cards might create national security issues as it encourages illegal immigration.

“Next we may see the Chinese or Egyptian governments doing the same thing,” said Steven Camarato, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Larry Tung, a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and video artist, is a frequent contributor to the Citizen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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