Sheltered in New York

By Kat Calloway

Governed by a unique right to shelter mandate, New York City provides temporary emergency shelter to every man, woman, and child who is eligible for services, every night. This policy sets New York apart from municipalities across the nation—many of which turn homeless individuals and families away once shelters have filled up or simply put their names on a waiting list. NYC shelters a staggering 60,000 a night, with another estimated 6,000 choosing the street over the shelter experience.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City financed creation and preservation of more than 17,300 affordable units during calendar year 2014. With 11,185 preserved units and 6,191 new construction units financed, these new and preserved units are enough to affordably house nearly 42,000 New Yorkers. The catch is in the definition of “affordable housing”: In San Francisco, much “affordable” housing is targeted to households making 120 to 150% of the city’s median income. Hardly targeting the homeless.

Preservation of affordable housing—keeping existing residents in their homes, rehabilitating old apartments and building systems, and locking in long-term affordability—is a major element of the Housing New York plan for 200,000 affordable units.

The official line, spouted on the City’s Department of Homeless website, states: “New York City’s shelter system is consistently recognized as the most sophisticated and comprehensive in the nation. The city is also an innovative leader in the field of preventive services for those who are at risk of becoming homeless. All New Yorkers should be proud to live in a city that focuses intently on prevention efforts at the forefront of its policies, while providing shelter as a safety net for those in need.” However, talking to shelter residents provides different perspectives on this claim.

When entering the shelter system, a family is greeted with the following policy: If seeking emergency shelter through the City of New York, a family must provide information regarding family and housing history that will be used to determine whether or not that family is eligible for emergency shelter. The information is investigated prior to approval. If a family is determined ineligible because it is determined other housing options are available to that family, they will not receive shelter automatically. There is the right to reapply, but that may not get a shelter placement.

With the assistance of a caseworker, households and individuals develop an Independent Living Plan (ILP)—a document that outlines relevant goals to exit shelter and return to self-sufficiency. Goals are set for apartment hunting and seeking employment. The requirements are stringent and time-consuming, especially for one navigating New York with no personal transportation. Implementation of this plan by the family or individual is mandatory to remain in the shelter system.

Entering shelter does not guarantee permanent housing. The city has a subsidy program, but it is only for families that meet guidelines, including length of stay. Families can remain in shelter a long time. The average length of stay in shelter is over 400 days, Some are in the shelter system for decades. Families who do not qualify for a subsidy will have to pay their own rent.

NYC families entering the shelter system describe intake like this: “Generally you wait about six hours when you initially seek shelter placement. You will get seen the same day. The city has ten days to determine if you are eligible for a subsidy.” These New Yorkers tell of lines, but ones that are formed inside, not out in the elements. Caseworkers work with individuals who need IDs and a push into a job search. One current San Francisco resident praises the NYC system but can only attest to a short three-week stay in New York prior to the city’s buying her a ticket back to San Francisco, where New York shelter system staff felt she had better access to housing.

D. is a single mother with two children who was approved for a subsidy. In a coast-to-coast interview by phone, D.s voice was strong and articulate. Her insight and thoughtful comments were wiser than her 27 years.

“I entered the shelter system and was routed to cluster housing, where I live with my kids in a shared apartment with my two kids and I occupying one bedroom. Common space is shared with other families occupying the other bedrooms. There is a guard, and no visitors or family other than those assigned to the housing are allowed on-site. The building is poorly maintained and the furniture minimal. No personal furniture is allowed.”

Families in cluster housing are typically given a bedroom, with each bedroom in the apartment occupied by a separate family. These families share any common area in the apartment, including living rooms, baths and kitchens. Families may be in the shelter system for years, moving from shelter to shelter as directed by the city during that time, meaning kids move from school to school, often falling behind academically as a result.

D. is concerned about the living conditions and how they affect her children. But they have a admirable role model in their mom. D. has worked up to three jobs at a time, and now works and attends college. She must make up the difference between rent and the city subsidy while earning the degree that will help her, she hopes, to better her living conditions and advocate for the community. She is calling from a homeless advocacy organization where she is active.

Her insight is more analytical than critical: “Landlords in the subsidy program have begun to drop out for fear of losing the city support, a reaction to the end of one major subsidy program. They are afraid their subsidy may be eliminated next. I was evicted when the subsidy program I was under was eliminated. I had to locate another apartment I could afford quickly. The city does not have resources to help with locating an apartment. I was on my own as I am in the subsidy program, which requires a weekly apartment search. It is a drain on time that is needed to earn rent and food and everything else.” And yet this woman is seeking her degree as well, while raising two kids alone and conforming to the demands of the NYC shelter system. Suddenly, the ban on visitors takes on new meaning. D. says she gets and gives help to a neighbor.

D. explains that cash assistance, Social Security, and other government benefits are not counted toward income when determining eligibility for housing. She continues in a strong, calm voice that betrays none of the struggles she is facing.

Often, NYC pays up to three times the market rate for these substandard units. Overall, NYC spends over $1 billion a year on homeless people, hiding them away in mandated shelters.

Landlord abuses of the system have been detailed by journalists. One story involves a long-time landlord of a city-subsidized halfway house telling prior drug users who have exited a drug program clean and sober that they start using drugs again or move out, sacrificing their subsidy and lining the pockets of the landlord that happens to be related to the proprietor of the preferred drug program.

The New York plan is hardly a panacea. There have been complaints about conditions, services and quality of life.

But again, compare that to someone in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk. Surely this would be an improvement. Or at least that’s what those who have never experienced the life in a shelter believe. In NYC many on the street state that they feel safer on the street than in the shelter.

William Bennett of the NYC advocacy group Picture the Homeless says the system is flawed. The centralized, city-run system does not seek to find permanent housing for homeless people, but only works to hide homeless people in shelters. The system will work, Bennett proposes, only when the immediate shelter is coupled with placement in permanent housing. Without the movement of homeless people from shelter to housing, there is no incentive for developers or the city to build affordable housing. Construction is focused on luxury housing. Rents keep rising. Gentrification continues.

Locally, San Francisco homeless advocates believe smaller shelters work best in San Francisco. This perspective is from those who have experienced the San Francisco shelters firsthand, either through working, and caring, for clients who reside in a shelter, or sometimes from their own personal experience as homeless.

San Francisco City Hall has toyed with the idea of a local system modeled after the NYC system. It is hard to see how a City-run, centralized shelter system could improve a problem that is only solvable by offering housing. The City is challenged by problems simpler to solve than housing: For example, water fountains are almost non-existent, bathrooms scarce, often requiring a purchase to use, and City Hall insists upon enforcement of nuisance laws that criminalize and jail homeless people. San Francisco politicians have a large population of issue experts among homeless people themselves. Elected officials’ commitment to change and their success in reducing homelessness will be reflected in their willingness to access and listen to these experts, as well as their implementation of programs that are founded in the spirit of human kindness, rather than in hiding homeless people away as damaged entities.

We can only hope.