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
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
I was seven years old when my family turned to an
Emergency Assistance Unit, then located in downtown
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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 â€“ and to
correct problems that have existed for
Rules for the Homeless by Kristen Hinman
• Grand Central
Winter: Stories From The Street
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