Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
New York, NY –
In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg made the bold pledge to dramatically reduce homelessness in five years. It was well received by a crowd of business, non-profit and public sector leaders who gathered to hear him speak:
BLOOMBERG: Specifically, between now and 2009 we must cut the size of the city’s homeless population by two-thirds
The goal has never been reached. While progress was made in decreasing the number of homeless single adults, the number of homeless families, has exploded - this despite some major changes to the family shelter system WNYC’s Cindy Rodriguez reports:
REPORTER: When the Bloomberg Administration took over the family shelter system, the intake center, where families first go for help, was known for being chaotic:
HOMELESS WOMAN: They put us on a bus yesterday at 3am in the morning.
REPORTER: Closing it down was one of the first major changes the administration made to the system. The city says it used to take multiple days to apply for shelter now it takes on average 6 to 8 hours. Efficiency is a Bloomberg specialty.
REPORTER: Next, the administration moved to end a legal fight lasting decades that had resulted in dozens of court orders that the plaintiffs, Legal Aid, saw as a way to protect poor families who were being treated inhumanely. The city saw them as a hindrance to revamping the system: Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs was Bloomberg’s first Homeless Services Commissioner:
GIBBS: Over the plaintiffs objection we were able to win a great deal of new latitude to adopt new programming that really recognized that anytime you receive a public benefit that you have a responsibility as a recipient of services to be a full partner in the solutions.
REPORTER: In other words, the Bloomberg Administration had taken its first step toward making the shelter system stricter and more rigorous.
REPORTER: To families, this has meant an expectation that they will find a place to live and move on with their lives more quickly. Iris Gonzalez and her family experienced this new approach first hand.
GONZALEZ: I had been in the shelter system once before with my mom and the whole process now I can honestly say like the intake part I can honestly say is a little better….it’s a little faster and they make it much more comfortable for the kids.
REPORTER: In 2007, just days before Christmas, the mother of three fled an abusive boyfriend in Pennsylvania, giving up a steady job, home, car and the easy suburban life she prefers:
GONZALEZ: Basically my whole life did a 360 after I built it up and we were doing basically ok. Met the wrong person. Now I’m just at the bottom basically on the street.
REPORTER: According to the city so far this year, 25 percent of families in shelter are there because of a domestic violence situation.
REPORTER: Gonzalez is 33 years old and has three daughters. She also recently agreed to take temporary custody of her daughter’s teenage friend who was the subject of a child welfare investigation. Gonzalez and her girls say the first shelter they went to was filthy, hot and they didn’t feel safe. Daughter Angelica is 11 years old:
ANGELICA: I was scared to go to the bathroom by myself. I didn’t like it.
REPORTER: The shelter is what’s known as a “Next Step” or “Boot Camp” shelter. Usually families taking too long to find their own place are sent to these facilities. Gonzalez, not fitting the description, asked to be transferred and the family describes their next shelter, a private two bedroom apartment, as clean and comfortable and they wished they could’ve stayed longer. Instead Gonzalez says she got the message to move on:
GONZALEZ: It’s not so much that the workers are bad but they just gotta follow the rules so they like oh you have this much time to do what you gotta do if not you’re gonna be sent back to Cathryn street. You don’t want to be. So I’m like, oh my God, I gotta hurry up and find something before I end up back over there. I don’t want my kids to end up back over there.
REPORTER: The city has laid out a set of rules that families in shelters must abide by. Meeting with your caseworker and getting yourself qualified for whatever benefits you’re entitled to are among them. So is searching for an apartment and taking what you can get. Turning down too many places is not ok. Linda Gibbs, lays out the consequences for not following the rules:
GIBBS: There will be an ever increasing diminishment of the privileges that they have. whether that is reducing…their curfew and reducing the flexibility they have for other activities.
REPORTER: And the ultimate consequence is getting kicked out for 30 days.
BANKS: These are policies that were harshly criticized when the Guiliani Administration attempted to move forward with them so it’s pretty surprising to see the Bloomberg Administration moving forward with these types of policies.
REPORTER: Steve Banks is Chief Attorney for the Legal Aid Society. He’s behind the litigation the city fought to get out from under. Banks ultimately settled the longstanding lawsuit, only because he says, the city agreed to give homeless families the legal right to shelter – a protection that will remain beyond the Bloomberg Administration. Banks says no other administration was willing to go that far:
BANKS: That’s a significant breakthrough but not a referendum on whether or not things are going well and right now things are not going well . I think the truth is the record over the past 8 years is mixed.
REPORTER: One of Banks’ major complaints is the Bloomberg Administration’s decision to stop giving out federal housing vouchers to homeless families. The vouchers are coveted and can last a lifetime and city officials saw them as an incentive to enter shelter. But even without them families keep coming. Another policy started under Bloomberg is charging families rent for shelter if they are working. Bonnie Stone from Women in Need runs six shelters and says paying rent works in theory but not in practice:
STONE: I don’t have any philosophic objection to families earning money having to pay some towards shelter but they are in an emergency situation, hopefully they are not going to be there for long, and their circumstances change from day to day. I think it’s impractical. I don’t think it is wrong.
REPORTER: City officials disagree and say women in domestic violence shelters pay a little rent and homeless families should be able to do the same. The policy was ultimately postponed because of too many errors. Right now, it costs nearly half a billion dollars to provide shelter for families with kids. It’s unclear how much any rent contributions would offset that. Overall, Stone says the Bloomberg Administration has changed the system in positive ways:
STONE: He and his Administration have tried to solve this problem instead of just manage it and god bless them because everything they try, you know they try it if it works it works if it doesn’t it doesn’t. But the numbers keep coming.
REPORTER: On August 20th, the number of people in shelter rose to 36,128 , more than 15-thousand were kids. That’s 302 more people than at the same time the prior week. While homeless advocates and some shelter providers complain that the city’s expectations of families are unrealistic and the new policies ineffective at lowering the numbers, there is some sympathy for the Department of Homeless Services. One homeless advocate who asked not to be identified says DHS ends up dealing with the failures of so many other systems, whether it be the foster care system that discharges young girls, pregnant and unprepared to be on their own, or the school system that discharges drop outs who read at a third grade level.
REPORTER: Iris Gonzalez does not fit those categories. In many ways she is better prepared than most. She has a GED, a certificate to be a medical assistant, work experience and the self-confidence to advocate for herself. All of these things helped her get out of shelter in record time, 7 months, the average family stays about 3 months longer. Still, the time on her own has been rocky. She got laid off shortly after leaving shelter and started getting depressed:
GONZALEZ: I was up until 4am contemplating and thinking and the girls were always being late in school or if not I would just let them sleep in because I was too tired to get up in the morning. It was just crazy. We went backwards and backwards and backwards. The landlord knocking on my door asking me for rent.
REPORTER: Gonzales says she owes her landlord about two-thousand dollars in back rent. While she left shelter with a housing voucher worth 1070 dollars, she says that wasn’t enough to get an apartment big enough for a family of four so she agreed to pay the landlord more out of her own pocket. These side deals are supposed to be banned but homeless advocates say families desperate for apartments enter into them regularly. Gonzalez says she’s tired of struggling and just wants some stability:
GONZALEZ: …I just want to be in my own little house, with my own little pay check raising my kids…and these girls driving me crazy that’s what I want.
REPORTER: Recently, Gonzalez got a new job that pays $15 an hour. But her housing voucher expires in a year and she doubts she’ll be able to pay her full rent by then. Families are given two years of rental assistance. Originally, it was one year, but it became clear few would meet that expectation. And while Bloomberg’s tough love approach may have motivated Gonzalez to move out of shelter quickly, it’s not clear that it will keep her from returning. For WNYC, I’m Cindy Rodriguez