Issue of the Week

Homelessness

16 September 02

by Rebecca Webber

When James Johnson, a Navy veteran, returned to New York after caring for his sick mother in Florida, he found he could not afford a home for himself, his wife and their three children. "I have two arms and two legs and am healthy," said Johnson. "I can work. But apartments have gone up so high, I can't qualify."

And after living in the same place for five years, Mildred Viera and her eight children were forced to leave their apartment when the landlord lost the building. She looked for another place, but she said, "With a large family, landlords don't accept you."

So, last week, Johnson and Viera stood on a Bronx sidewalk with other bleary-eyed people -- many of them women and children -- hoping the intake center of the city's Department of Homeless Services could help. As the first stop for many seeking shelter, the emergency intake center on 151st Street is the epicenter of the city's homeless crisis.

There are now more homeless people in New York City than at anytime in the last 20 years.

In response to the growing problem, Mayor Michael Bloomberg set out an ambitious plan to move more than 9,000 families out of the shelter system and into apartments over the next year. Many saw this policy shift as a step toward a long-term solution.

In the meantime, however, the problem of how and where to house the growing number of homeless people and families has become more severe.

For months, the city violated a court order and let people sleep on benches and the floor of the intake office. Then in August, the city converted an unused jail in the Bronx into a family shelter, a decision that sparked public outrage and lawsuits. In the past few weeks, local communities have protested the mayor' s plans to convert hotels into housing for the homeless, charging that he is unfairly targeting certain neighborhoods.

The mayor has defended his actions. "I will do anything that we possibly can to get those people a bed," he said.

Some argue that even if the mayor can manage to find more beds, it will not solve a larger issue -- the lack of affordable housing in New York City.

A GROWING CRISIS

At the beginning of September, there were more than 33,000 people in the New York City shelter system, including some 8,600 families and more than 16,000 children. City officials say the number of homeless has risen more than 26 percent in the last year.

The average family stays in the shelter system for 11 months. It costs the city approximately $36,000 a year for a homeless family to stay in a shelter, and about $24,000 a year for a single adult. If the homeless population continues to rise as predicted, it will cost the city an additional $27 million next year, according a report by the Independent Budget Office.

Advocates blame the current crisis on changes in federal welfare programs, the policies of the Giuliani administration, the faltering economy, and most of all, the city's failure to create affordable housing.

"The city needs a larger policy to deal with the fundamental issues of housing costs and housing supply which are at the root of the crisis," said Joe Weisbord, staff director of Housing First!, a coalition of affordable housing advocates.

THE MAYOR'S HOMELESS PLAN

New York City is legally required to provide a place to sleep to all who request it. And for much of the last two decades, homeless services meant just that - offering shelter and not much more. But some say the shelter system has now improved and expanded to include social services.

"There has been a tremendous transformation on the shelter side," said James Anderson, spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services. "We've moved from 'three hots and a cot' to a much more sophisticated continuum of care."

In June, the Department of Homeless Services released a plan that expands the agency's scope beyond basic services to include prevention and permanent housing placements. The city also hopes to create new rent assistance programs, new supportive housing initiatives, and ways to help people maintain permanent housing.

"The mayor's new plan offers a welcome shift from the harsh rhetoric and policies that characterized the last eight years," Arnold Cohen, the president of the Partnership for the Homeless wrote in an op-ed in Newsday. "Mayor Bloomberg's new strategy is the beginning of a plan on paper. We must work with the administration to turn it into bricks and mortar."

One way the administration hopes to move families into subsidized housing is with section 8 vouchers. The federal government provides housing vouchers to low-income families to help pay rent to participating landlords. An average family that receives $11,000 a year in public assistance is eligible for a voucher worth $750 a month for rent on a two bedroom apartment. The city provides an additional cash bonus to landlords who accept the vouchers.

The Bloomberg administration has allotted 6,000 vouchers for the homeless this year, up from 2,700 last year.

But vouchers are not a cure-all. With New York City's tight housing market, few landlords accept them. Most families wait nearly a year in the shelter system before they receive section 8 vouchers. And even with assistance, rent is often beyond the means of many poor families and individuals.

JAILS AND AIRPORT HOTELS

While officials hope the long-term solutions might eventually relieve the city's overburdened shelter system, the Department of Homeless Services is still struggling to find housing for the dozens of new families who arrive at the city's intake center each day.

All year the city let homeless families sleep on benches and on the floor of the Emergency Assistance Unit office, despite explicit court orders forbidding it. Finally, in August, Steve Banks, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, filed a motion seeking a contempt ruling against the city.

Mayor Bloomberg decided to deal with overflow by converting an unused men's correctional facility in the Bronx into a shelter for families, a decision sharply criticized by many New Yorkers who cringed at the idea of children sleeping behind the razor wire fences of a prison. Mayor Bloomberg defended the decision, which he made in conjunction with Linda Gibbs, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, saying it was better to have the families sleeping in the jail's bunks than on the floor of the intake center.

"Yes it was a jail, but it was dormitory style," the mayor said. "It's safe and much more humane than anything we've ever been able to provide before."

"The city has posed the choice between sleeping on the floor of the city office which is unlawful and harmful to children, or a makeshift shelter in a former jail, which is unlawful and harmful to children," said Steve Banks of the Legal Aid Society.

Four days after the jail opened as a shelter, environmental experts hired by the Legal Aid Society scoured the jail and discovered lead paint, a serious health hazard for young children. The city moved children under the age of six out of the shelter. Later, a judge ruled that the facilitymust close.

The city has also stepped up its search for new shelter space and plans to convert more bankrupt hotels, particularly near the LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports, into homeless shelters. Best Western - a 337-room hotel in South Ozone Park - is slated to become the largest homeless shelter in the city.

"This is going to have a devastating impact on the community," said Queens City Councilmember Leroy Comrie. "This is the premier hotel strip in the area and it will affect business, jobs, and economic development."

Residents and local politicians charge that the mayor is unfairly targeting certain neighborhoods and bypassing the City Council and the city's zoning laws. Recently protesters from Queens picketed Mayor Bloomberg's Upper East Side townhouse after the city decided to convert a motel in Elmhurst into a shelter. And in Fort Greene, residents picketed a new six-story shelter. They claim they already house more than their fair share of the city's homeless.

LEGAL BATTLES

Legal battles between homeless advocates and the city are nothing new. However, the Bloomberg administration hoped to change this pattern, stating in its plan for dealing with homelessness that "open and honest communication is impeded by the ongoing litigation."

"We're not anxious to litigate," countered Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. "We've been actively meeting and negotiating and we've offered them ways to address problems that they identify."

But the city and homeless groups will meet again in court in the coming months, as the Department of Homeless Services appeals a decision that blocked a Giuliani plan to deny shelter to those who do not follow shelter rules or meet welfare-to-work requirements. One of the most controversial elements of the plan would require women to put their children in foster care if they were ejected from a shelter.

Commissioner Linda Gibbs said that, unlike the policy of the Giuliani administration, no one would be refused shelter just because they failed to meet welfare-to-work requirements. Lawyers for the homeless argue that legally the Bloomberg administration would be using the same standard that has already been rejected by the courts.

Also last week, a Manhattan judge ruled on another long-running lawsuit and ordered the city to provide adequate housing for seven homeless people with AIDS who sued over deplorable housing conditions. The city plans to appeal that decision as well.

HOUSING - THE REAL ISSUE?

Some say that all of the legal and political wrangling over shelters is a distraction from the real issue - the lack of affordable housing in the city.

A New York University study that followed homeless people who entered the city's shelters in 1988 found that subsidized housing was the most important factor determining whether a family achieved housing stability. Of those who received a subsidy, 80 percent had their own apartment for at least a year. Without housing assistance only 18 percent found and kept an apartment for a year.

"The largest factor had to do with people's relationship with the housing market," said Marybeth Shinn, an NYU professor who conducted the study. "A substantial portion [of homeless people] had never had a place of their own. They never succeeded in breaking into the housing market."

As a candidate for mayor, Michael Bloomberg made housing one of the cornerstones of his campaign and said that the city needed 100,000 new apartments.

"Mayor Ed Koch had vision," Bloomberg said during the campaign, citing a plan that created 150,000 new apartments over 10 years. "Under his stewardship, New York City launched a massive housing program that benefited the entire city." After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the mayor said he would make the case "that we need housing more than we need office space" as the city rebuilds lower Manhattan.

However, just what kind of housing the mayor will advocate for - and if it will help the homeless - is not yet clear. An article in Gotham Gazette reported that the details of Bloomberg's housing plans encourage private developers to make housing affordable by lowering the cost of construction through the city's zoning and land-use authority, not necessarily through direct investment in low-income housing.

Some argue that the mayor can not afford to ignore the root causes of homelessness.

"The cost of not addressing this is the billions we have spent over time on the homelessness system," said Joe Weisbord of Housing First. "The mayor has made education a clear priority by changing school governance. We need the same kind of leadership on housing."

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