EAST TREMONT, The Bronx — It was a warm, rainy night in the summer of 2011 when police officers escorted Arlicia Chandler, her husband and their infant son out of the LaGuardia Family Center, a city shelter in Queens, because their application for housing assistance had been denied.
Chandler had been in the shelter that afternoon with her son, Jahzia Chandler Alomar, who was born a few months earlier in April, when the shelter staff delivered the decision. She called her husband, Presbitero Alomar, who was at work as an exterminator at the time. They met at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Intake Center (PATH) in the Bronx, even though it meant that Alomar had to leave work early, a regular occurrence that would eventually cost him his job.
After waiting through the afternoon and early evening, a staff member at the center explained that because Alomar had stayed with his grandmother while the family was looking for housing, they were ineligible to remain in the shelter. It didn’t seem to matter that Alomar’s grandmother lived in a senior living facility that didn’t allow additional tenants.
Because the family was determined to have available housing, they were barred from re-applying for shelter assistance for 60 days. The family took a bus back to LaGuardia, gathered the few belongings they had dared to unpack over the 15 days they had been allowed to stay, and were escorted from the building. It was almost 2 a.m. and they had nowhere to go.
Chandler has been in and out of the city shelter system for much of her life, and, like thousands of New York City families struggling to find affordable housing, has found the cards stacked increasingly against her in recent years. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, the number of people sleeping on the streets and in city shelters has reached record highs.
In March 2013, an average of 50,748 people stayed in New York City shelters each night, including 12,121 families, almost twice the number as when Bloomberg took office in January 2002. A series of outside forces increased the financial strain on low-income families—the 2007 recession, high unemployment and Hurricane Sandy among them. But critics contend that the Bloomberg Administration’s policies, specifically what they call a misguided emphasis on temporary housing voucher assistance, sent recipients back out onto the streets and into the shelters.
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“People are pushed to find housing, but they need housing that they can actually sustain for more than a couple of months before they’re just cycled back into the shelter system,” said Hannah Biskind, a legal advocate at the Urban Justice Center. “We need to look at affordable housing. We need to look at living wages.”
Whatever the root cause, Bloomberg will be leaving office with the city facing an ingrained housing crisis and relying on a shelter system that cannot adequately support the city’s homeless population.
“The reality is that there are fewer families and fewer adult singles that are entering the system today than years ago,” said Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond on March 5, 2013, during a WNYC interview. “The reason why the numbers are rising is because the families that are entering the system are staying longer.”
In 2004, the administration unveiled an ambitious plan to reduce dependency on municipal services. “Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter” was meant to increase communication and streamline services from a variety of agencies like the Department of Homeless Services, New York City Housing Authority and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
A key part of the administration’s plan was shifting funding for the homeless services department away from temporary shelter services and into short-term housing vouchers, helping to subsidize the cost of living in decentralized apartments. In 2005, the city stopped prioritizing homeless families and individuals for federally supported housing programs like Section 8, which provides housing for low-income families. Instead it enrolled them in short-term housing initiatives subsidized by the city and state.
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“I don’t believe for a second that every family in shelter needs a permanent housing subsidy,” said Robert Hess, then commissioner of the DHS, in a 2012 New York Times interview.
Several plans were enacted, the most recent of which was the 2007 Advantage program, which gave vouchers that partially covered recipients’ rent for two years, provided they were working or in a job-training program. Families were required to pay 30 percent of their income towards rent in the first year and 40 percent in the second. Through the Advantage program, the city and state would cover the remainder.
Administration officials trumpeted the Advantage program as encouraging self-sufficiency and a departure from government reliance. But the Coalition for the Homeless, a prominent advocacy group, saw it as a “revolving door.”
“These time-limited subsidies have proven wasteful and ineffective, with more than one of every three formerly-homeless families returning to seek shelter after their subsidies ended,” wrote Giselle Routhier, a political analyst for the Coalition in a 2012 newsletter.
Following the 2007 housing crisis, things got harder. City officials estimated that 90,000 homes were foreclosed upon between 2007 and 2010, and the unemployment rate increase by five points, about the same as the national average.
In 2011, Governor Cuomo announced plans to pull state funding from Advantage, leading the city to discontinue the program. No new plans have been implemented since to help move people out of the shelter system. As a result, many homeless New Yorkers have nowhere to go.
“It just feels like you’re stuck,” said Jocelyn Harvey who has been living in shelters with her boyfriend and two children since September 2009. Harvey had an Advantage subsidy for a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, but had to give it up after the subsidies stopped coming.
Since the end of the program, Harvey said, shelter regulations and curfews have made it impossible to make enough money to move out.
“We’ve been saving for three years, but there’s just no help,” she said. “All it’s been is just more stress in our lives.” Harvey plans to move with her boyfriend and their children to Florida in the coming months, where they’ve heard there are better housing services.
While emergency shelter is provided to anyone who comes into the New York City system, shelter is only guaranteed for as long as it takes the department’s personnel to investigate an applicant’s living options, which is usually about 10 days. On average, six out of 10 applicants for temporary housing assistance are found ineligible after the investigation, and have to return to the intake center to apply. Many don’t know why they weren’t accepted. “There isn’t a lot of information,” said legal advocate Biskind. Not everyone who is found ineligible has the option of re-applying either, and many grow frustrated with the process.
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Some of New York City’s homeless population has never been a part of the shelter system at all. The 2012 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) found the unsheltered homeless population to be 3,262. The population has actually decreased 26 percent since the first HOPE survey in 2005, when the unsheltered homeless population was 4,395.
Arlicia Chandler, meanwhile, was accepted for temporary housing assistance in May, after she began applying separately from her husband. Because Chandler and her son were found to have no one that they could stay with, they are eligible to stay in their current Bronx shelter until they can find affordable housing elsewhere. Alomar has had to continue moving between friends and relatives, unable to find permanent residence.
“Regulations make it harder to get into the shelters,” said Biskind, who worked as a case manager for Chandler. “The idea is you’re guilty until proven innocent.” With Biskind’s assistance, Chandler collected proof that she had nowhere else to stay and made sure that anyone who had previously housed her could be contacted.
While Chandler is glad to have found some form of stability in the shelter, she remembers a time when it was easier. She was able to stay in Section 8 housing for much of her twenties, and before that had lived in the shelter system with her aunt.
“I remember it was a bit of a struggle at that time, but back then compared to now, it was much more different,” said Chandler. “You only had to stay in the unit that they gave you for six months to a year,” she recalled. “And they’d just give you a placement in no time.”
Now that she doesn’t have to worry about the moving every few days, Chandler is considering going back to school for nursing assistant training. “I feel like I could do much more with a roof over my head, and feeling it’s permanent and knowing that it’s not something that’s going to get snatched from under me within the next 10 or 20 days.”