New York Times: Homeless Families, Cloaked in Normality

Homeless Families, Cloaked in Normality

February 3, 2012
New York Times

ON the sixth day she was homeless, Tonya Lewis overslept. She woke in the dark, in Room 6E at the 93rd Avenue Family Residence, a privately run shelter in Jamaica, Queens. It was 4:45 a.m. She was already running late.


Rousting her children — Unique, 15, and Jacaery, 2 — from their beds, Ms. Lewis got them dressed and started shoving DVDs and diapers into two bulging tote bags. When the boys were ready — sleepy, sullen, hoodied, backpacked, in hats and winter jackets — she pushed them out the door (“Come on, we gotta go!”) to begin their daily routine.


It went like this:


They took the Q54 bus five stops to the J train. They took the J train 14 stops to Broadway Junction station. Unique hopped off and transferred to the C train, then the S train, then walked a distance to his classes at the High School for Global Citizenship in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Ms. Lewis, with Jacaery (pronounced Juh-CARE-ee) still in tow, transferred from the J to the L train. She took the L to the B6 bus in Brooklyn, which she rode to East New York, where she worked for an hour, and then reversed course — the B6 to the L to the J — to get Jacaery to his day care center in Bedford-Stuyvesant by 9.


All told, the odyssey required four hours, six trips on the subway and three trips on the bus, and suggests the changing nature of homelessness in New York. Unlike in the 1980s, when the crisis was defined by AIDS patients or men who slept on church steps, these days it has become more likely that a seemingly ordinary family, rushing about on public transportation with Elmo bags and video games, could be without a home.


Of New York’s more than 40,000 homeless people in shelters — enough to fill the stands at Citi Field — about three-quarters now belong to families like the Lewises and are cloaked in a deceptive, superficial normalcy. They do not sleep outside or on cots on armory floors. By and large, their shoes are good; some have smartphones. Many get up each morning and leave the shelter to go to work or to school. Their hardships — poverty, unemployment, a marathon commute — exist out of sight.


Underlying this transition is a cascade of events, both economic and political. For the past three years, city officials say, 30 percent of New Yorkers seeking shelter have done so because of evictions, many connected to the financial crisis. (Domestic violence and overcrowding were other chief reasons.) At the same time, a disagreement over money between city and state officials last spring led to the cessation of a rent-subsidy program designed to shift the homeless from shelters into apartments. For the first time in 30 years, there is no city policy in place to help move the homeless into permanent homes.


MS. LEWIS, a health care aide, was evicted last month from her home in Far Rockaway, Queens. She was working full time for Able Health Care Services of New York, making about $500 a week tending to an autistic man. In August, because of cuts in Medicaid, her hours were reduced by half. Six weeks ago, she separated from her husband, Gregory Pitters, a maintenance man, who, before he lost his own job, earned $600 a week. On top of this, the $1,000 rent subsidy Ms. Lewis was receiving from the city, through the now-defunct program Advantage, ran out. Her apartment, a small two-bedroom, rented for $1,200 a month. She now makes $210 a week. She owes her landlord $4,280. The problem was mathematical, she said: “I can’t afford the rent.”


She was in Brooklyn, on Halsey Street and Broadway, where Jacaery was in tears, when she said this. He often throws a tantrum when his mother leaves him at day care. At the center, a cheerful place with cubby holes and construction-paper cutouts, an attendant flung Jacaery over her shoulder. He wept and wailed and kicked his legs as his mother walked away.


At 38, Ms. Lewis has three sons with three men. She rarely sees the father of her oldest child, Tarrick, who is 19 and lives in Brooklyn with her mother, Delores Lewis, and one of her younger brothers. Unique’s father died years ago and, as a rule, is not discussed. Ms. Lewis said she hoped to work things out with Mr. Pitters, Jacaery’s father, who is living with his mother in the Bronx. “We’re in this situation partly because of him,” she said. “He apologized. But like I said, ‘Apologies are not acceptable right now.’ ”


She was back on Broadway, headed for her agency’s office, when her cellphone rang. It was a former boyfriend, Gary Wade, who was recently released from the Dutchess County jail. Mr. Wade wanted to meet Ms. Lewis at the Halsey Street J stop; at the station, he demanded her assistance in tracking down a lawyer who had represented him before he went to jail. The lawyer had his watch, he said, and his “very expensive Cartier glasses.”


Ms. Lewis bought Mr. Wade a MetroCard, hoping he might go away. Instead, he tagged along as she ran errands: dropping off her timecard in Downtown Brooklyn and riding the A train to the end of Queens, where she visited a welfare office to pick up documents she needed for a new apartment.


On the train, she briefly fell ill, sweating, breathless. Mr. Wade ignored her.


He refused to leave until someone bought him lunch. It was 12:30 p.m. Ms. Lewis could not get rid of him.


THERE was a time when the shelter system in New York was unquestionably Dickensian. Families slept overnight on benches at the Emergency Assistance Unit, a notorious intake office in the Bronx. Many were placed in rat-infested welfare hotels. A vicious legal battle between the city and advocates left even picayune details of shelter operation — the availability of milk-bottle warmers, for example — up to the courts.


These days, families seeking shelter appear at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Office, a gleaming modern building, also in the Bronx, with artwork on the walls and an airport-like “departure lounge.” Advocates say that policies put in place by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have made it harder to gain entrance to the system, but for those who do get in, the intake process generally lasts 6 to 10 hours, and most families find a place the day they apply. One-third end up in city-run shelters, including some hotels, another third are placed in privately run facilities, like the one the Lewises entered in Queens, which has 54 units, each about 700 square feet, each with its own kitchen and bathroom.


A family stays in a shelter an average of nine months, but there is no restriction on the length of stay. Rules encourage people to move on: families are not allowed to bring in their own furniture or decorate the walls. The city tries to place families near parents’ jobs and children’s schools, but it does not always succeed. On the ground floor of the shelter that housed the Lewises is an office where caseworkers help residents manage welfare benefits and improve their résumés in hopes of finding better work.


The problem is: How do families get out of a shelter once they get there?


In 2004, Mr. Bloomberg announced an ambitious plan to reduce homelessness by two-thirds over five years by building housing units, by putting more restrictions on those trying to enter the system and, most controversially, by no longer giving homeless families priority in receiving public housing or what is known as Section 8 assistance, which gives people federal vouchers under which they pay no more than 30 percent of their income for privately rented apartments.


At the time, officials said that other New Yorkers at risk of being homeless — the disabled, for example, or former foster children — should have first claim on available public housing. (Each year, 5,000 to 6,000 public-housing units turn over and are sought by more than 100,000 people on a seven-year waiting list.) They also said that because Section 8 vouchers were in short supply, families were entering shelters as a shortcut to obtaining them. Once the practice ended, the argument went, the number of homeless people entering the system would decrease.


That didn’t happen. At 40,000 people, New York’s shelter population is higher than it has ever been. (In 2001, when it hit 25,000, the city’s commissioner of homeless services was quoted in The New York Times as calling it “a temporary crisis.”) On any given night, 6,000 homeless men and 2,000 homeless women bed down in facilities for single people, and an additional 15,000 parents and 17,000 children sleep in family shelters. Then there are the individuals living on the streets whom the city counted last week in its annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate. (The numbers will be available in March.)


In place of Section 8 priority, Mr. Bloomberg established the Housing Stability Plus program, which provided five years of rent subsidies that declined in value 20 percent each year. In 2007, he introduced Advantage, which Ms. Lewis was using. The $140 million-a-year program offered two-year subsidies of about $1,000 a month, but only if recipients received job training or worked. The state and federal governments supplied two-thirds of the financing for Advantage, while the city administered it.


“I don’t believe for a second that every family in shelter needs a permanent housing subsidy,” said Robert V. Hess, who served as the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services from 2006 to 2010. “What many people need is an opportunity to get back on their feet and develop their own income. Over time, they can build savings and move into their own homes.”

In June, however, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, citing budget problems, cut the state’s financing for Advantage, and because the city would not pick up its portion, the program was discontinued. Among those arguing for the end of Advantage was the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group that has long supported homeless people. While it might seem counterintuitive, the coalition lobbied against Advantage in hopes of pushing the city into again offering the homeless priority for public housing and Section 8 vouchers, of which about 4,000 become available each year.


The situation has led to litigation. The Legal Aid Society sued the city in 2011 to prevent it from ending benefits for the last 8,000 families still enrolled in Advantage. On Friday, a judge lifted an injunction that had forced the city to keep paying benefits. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for this week.

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