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
, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
Permanent Emergency For Homeless Families by Stephanie
â€˘ In NYC Books: Grand Central Winter: Stories From The Street
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