As Subsidies Dry Up, Homeless Families Struggle to Find Housing

For decades, homeless families with children entering a city shelter could count on receiving housing subsidies to help them transition out of homelessness and into their own apartments.

Earlier this year, when the state cut its share of funding for the housing voucher, the Bloomberg Administration ended that subsidy completely. Without the rental assistance to fall back on some poor families are facing difficult choices.

A single mother’s quest to avoid homelessness

Kimberly Hargrove, 45, was about to sign a lease on a two-bedroom apartment where she could live with her two sons when the city cut the so-called Advantage housing subsidy.  

Without the rental assistance, the single mom who works as a supermarket cashier, lost the apartment and has been struggling to escape homelessness ever since.  

“What options are there?” Hargrove asked. “I work a minimum wage … job. The apartments start at $1,000 so even if I take my whole pay check it’s still not enough to cover the whole apartment."

Most of her pay check goes to food, MetroCards and diapers for her toddler.
Hargrove was staying at the Van Siclen Family Residence, a shelter in Brooklyn, while searching for a place to live. In August, she refused to be transferred to a shelter in the Bronx and returned to the home of her 3-year old’s father, a man she described as verbally abusive.  

“I don’t like where I’m going,” she said she told shelter staff. “But I do have somewhere that I can go. I did this for 15 months and it got me nowhere.”

It’s the third time Hargrove has faced homelessness.

The first time was at age 19 when her oldest son was 2. Back then she received a Federal Section 8 housing subsidy and remained stable for 15 years.

But she has struggled ever since she lost the rental assistance.

Before working at Pioneer Supermarket, Hargrove was a seasonal employee at the city’s Parks Department and a home health aid.

Lifting patients gave her three herniated discs, she said. And although she’d like to return to being an administrative assistant, she said it’s difficult competing with recent college graduates.

“Now they want Bachelors Degrees for what I did when I didn’t even have a GED,” Hargrove said.

With few options, the single mom said she plans to move to a small town in Pennsylvania where it costs $500 a month to rent a two-bedroom house.  

“If I had to get another cashiers job at least I’d be able to afford my rent,” she said.

A struggle shared citywide

Hargrove is not alone in her struggle to find a place to live.

Shelter providers say few shelter residents can afford to rent their own apartments and many feel hopeless and stuck.

But the Department of Homeless Services said people are leaving and returning to family, friends or reuniting with old partners.  

“People in shelter are no different than other low-income New Yorkers throughout the city,” said Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.

“They initially live with family members. They try and increase their income. Their situations may change and they adapt.”  

Between April and June — the first three months following the end of the subsidy — 33 percent fewer families left shelters compared to the same period the prior year.

The city argues it’s not a fair comparison because it includes a month when residents were leaving at a faster pace in order to take advantage of a more generous subsidy that the  city put in place before eliminating the program entirely.

Officials point out that over the summer shelter applications dropped to the lowest level since 2008 with 18 percent fewer families coming through the front door compared to the prior summer.

But the overall numbers show family homelessness has been on a steady rise since July. As of last week, more than 8,400 families were in shelter — or roughly 28,000 people. The figure does not include single adults.
Legal Aid Attorney Steve Banks said that number will only grow as those who leave to precarious situations continue to return to shelter.

“What we see is increasing numbers of families labeled as ‘left on own from transitional facilities’ and then showing right back up again in later months reapplying for shelter,” Banks said.

Banks believes families in shelter should receive a public housing apartment or a Section 8 housing subsidy. They used to get priority for both federal programs until the Bloomberg Administration ended the practice in 2005 mostly because it believed the assistance created an incentive to enter shelter but also because Section 8 and public housing are in short supply.  

Since the subsidy ended, the average stay in shelter has lengthened from nine to 11 months, according to Banks.  

“It’s only a matter of time before the system explodes”, he said.

High stakes for domestic violence victims

With no assistance, the transition out of homelessness has been difficult for poor New Yorkers but for those in domestic violence shelters, the stakes are much higher.

Veronica Reynolds fled her abusive husband about a year ago and has been staying at the Sarah Burke House ever since.

Out of concern for her safety, WNYC agreed to change her name.

(Photo: Veronica Reynolds fled her abusive husband about a year ago and has been staying at the Sarah Burke House ever since. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)

“My husband was always verbally abusive,” Reynolds said. “But one day it went too far. He assaulted me in front of the kids, and I had to make the decision to leave.”

The mother of two said she had been financially dependent on her husband and knew the first thing she needed to do was get a job that paid more than being a daycare assistant did.

“I was like, 'I have to get some skills,''” she said. “I have to get myself out there and I have to make enough money to take care of my family.'”

So far, she’s had no luck finding a new job and the pressure to leave shelter is growing. Unlike those in homeless shelters, individuals in domestic violence shelters  have about 4-1/2 months to get on their feet. A small percentage are given up to a year.

Reynolds’ extension expires this month. If she times out, she may have to go to a homeless shelter. She’s adamant she will not return to her abusive husband but shelter providers are worried without housing options many women are doing just that.

Between April and July, New Destiny Housing Corporation, a domestic violence provider, noticed a 9 percent rise in women returning to unknown locations and a 14 percent increase in those going back to their former apartments -- reportedly without the batterer present.

Nathaniel Fields, vice president of Domestic Violence Programs for Safe Horizon, said it’s one thing for a woman to go back to a batterer if it’s her choice but it’s another if she’s going back out of desperation.

“It becomes for us and for them a scary situation,” said Fields, who cited a rise in domestic violence related homicides that started before the housing subsidy ended. “No one in the city wants to see that move up. I’m sure of that but often policies have unintended consequences.”

Marie Phillip, director of the city’s Domestic Violence Office, acknowledges finding permanent housing has grown more difficult over the years but says the housing subsidy is not the only answer.  

“When clients are in our system one of the things we do is to help them look at all the choices,” she said, adding that other options include moving in with a family member or friend as long as it’s safe or relocating to another state. “They may not be comfortable or easy but they are choices.”