[Hpn] *Long*: Under Restraints:Children bristle over the many rules shelters impose
Morgan W. Brown
Wed, 20 Jun 2001 13:40:52 -0400
As a follow-up regarding the series published by Newsday on the subject,
below is a forward of another article regarding the lives of children and
their families who are homeless on Long Island, New York.
Following the below forwarded article are the Web addresses for related
stories in this current series. Below that, for those so inclined, is
information on how to contact either the series reporter or Newsday with
Morgan W. Brown
Wednesday, June 20, 2001
[Long Island and Queens, New York]
Shelter placements for homeless families that originally averaged 60 to 90
days have ballooned into stays of nine months to a year or more for nearly a
quarter of the families.
Children bristle over the many rules shelters impose
by Lauren Terrazzano
No pitch-and-catch on the playground. No sleep.overs. No scooters, no bikes,
no skateboards. Those are the rules. No exceptions.
Thomas McCroy, 11, keeps the scooter he got for Christmas under his bed at
the HELP Suffolk homeless shelter in Bellport where he's lived for the past
"You can't do anything, said Thomas, who hopes to enlist in the service
someday, just like his two grandfathers. "Why should I join the military
when I'm already living in Fort Knox?
In a place as large as this 76-apartment shelter, where about 180 children,
the largest single chunk of Long Island's homeless kids live, the rules are
necessary to make sure the place runs smoothly. But no one thought the
children would have to follow them for so long, leaving kids struggling to
"Your childhood is totally different. It's taken away for a while, said
Marie Estey-Fontanella, who has lived at the shelter for four months with
her daughters Bianca and Julia.
When HELP opened its doors in 1990, it was touted as a model for Long
Island's growing shelter system. Homeless families would live in apartments
with small kitchens and the facility would offer daily structure and access
to services such as day care and job training and programs for children.
Its founder, Andrew Cuomo, who later became U.S. Housing and Urban
Development secretary and now is a candidate for governor, heralded it as a
place where families would stay for a short time to learn to become
self-sufficient and find permanent places to live.
But more than a decade since it opened, because of a dramatic lack of
lower-cost housing on Long Island, shelter placements that originally
averaged 60 to 90 days have ballooned into stays of nine months to a year or
more for nearly a quarter of the families. A few families are on the cusp of
the two-year mark, according to interviews and documents.
As a result, the lengthy stays are raising issues about how well such big
shelters -- with their large populations, their stringent rules, their crush
of children -- can meet the needs of its youngest residents and their
families. Critics say large facilities tend to "institutionalize
"You want to get families in a situation as close to normalcy as possible,
as close to what a family not homeless would have, and that's not a shelter,
that's an apartment or a house, said Nan Roman, president of the
Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness. "The real public
policy question is, how do we avoid making these shelters long-term housing
for people? It is going to have a devastating effect for kids.
The cost to house each family is about $2,900 per family per month, or about
$105 a day. In 2000, Suffolk County, which contracts with HELP, paid the
shelter $2.7 million, according to Dennis Nowak, a social services
Increasingly, government on all levels is moving toward the idea of avoiding
shelters altogether. Ohio and California are using "direct housing, which
allows families to bypass a homeless shelter with a program that arranges
placements in apartments along with a host of different services to get them
on their feet.
In areas of Long Island where that's not really an option because of such a
profound housing shortage, counties are leaning more toward housing people
in smaller shelters, with fewer families. Dan Hickey, Suffolk's social
services commissioner, said the more intimate settings help mainstream the
children and parents who live there. "They become part of the neighborhood.
Maybe that will lead them to a connection on a job, or a lead on an
apartment or house.
On a dead-end street on the outskirts of Bellport, HELP Suffolk is a
well-maintained, grassy oasis of cedar-shingled apartment units that
encircle a large playground.
One bright spring day, dozens of children swung and climbed on the
"They live for days like this, said Estey-Fontanella, eyeing her daughter,
Bianca, as she played.
The family came to the shelter after being evicted from their apartment.
Estey-Fontannella said she can't get an evening waitressing job, which she
had done before, because of the shelter's curfew. Her children had to give
up their pet lovebird because no pets are allowed. "It's heartbreaking, she
There are many rules for the families who live here. "The only way this
place works is if we have structure. So we create our own structure, said
Laurie Tucker, the shelter's former executive director, who left a month
Children must give up their pets when they move in, sign in and out, and can
only have visitors in a 12-by-14-foot reception area at the shelter's
entrance. According to a list of regulations families receive when they
begin living there, bicycles aren't allowed in the facility. Footballs and
Frisbees also are prohibited, except on an adjacent recreation field.
Because of county regulations, children and their families rarely can leave
for overnight visits to relatives other than in a case of an emergency or on
legal holidays. The only time children leave the shelter is to attend
school. There is little public transportation.
Living there for the past four months has been difficult for Thomas McCroy,
who shares a bedroom with his two younger brothers. An American flag hangs
on the wall; the kitchen wall is covered with awards he's received from his
Boy Scout troop.
"It's rough on him. He feels if he turns the wrong way, he gets written up,
said his mother, Tina, a single parent who moved to HELP with her sons after
she got laid off from a job at the Salvation Army and the house the family
was renting in Central Islip was foreclosed upon.
Across the complex, Veta Williams worries about the impact of shelter life
on her already emotionally fragile 10-year-old daughter.
"She has a lot of problems, said Williams, explaining that the girl has
been in and out of psychiatric hospitals twice since their arrival at HELP.
Two other children also have been referred for psychiatric evaluations in
the past four months, according to a housing official who asked not to be
While Williams is careful not to blame the shelter for causing the child's
problems, she said living there for so long hasn't helped her daughter's
state of mind. "She doesn't like being with the kids. They're rowdy, they're
loud, they act out. She stays in the house most of the time.
Williams has lived at the shelter for the past 19 months. Each week, as a
condition of her stay in emergency housing, she is required to complete a
housing log that shows she has made inquiries on potential places to live.
But nothing has panned out. "Either they say it's already rented, or they
only want one person. Sometimes they say, no kids, or they don't want social
services, she said.
Because it's already a hotbed of families in turmoil, fights often break out
at HELP, drug use happens, and childhoods often are put on hold.
Carlos Torres, 9, a shelter resident whose family has been there for nearly
15 months, has experienced it firsthand. When he was in second grade, he
recalled seeing a resident walk around with a plastic bag of marijuana. "My
mommy talked to me about drugs and said don't do it, he said.
Police have responded to the shelter more than 370 times in the past 3 1/2
years, according to county records. While many responses are for ambulance
calls, 40 arrests have been made on the property, ranging from warrants to
third-degree assault to drug possession, records show.
Tucker acknowledged that some residents have been evicted for drug use. And
HELP officials estimate that about 25 percent of residents have had
substance-abuse problems, which the shelter also manages by referring
clients to outside treatment. Residents' apartments are subjected to
inspections every two weeks, as well as random inspections. But several
residents say drug use is prevalent there, the smell of marijuana often
filtering through the connected vents in their bathrooms late at night.
"There's a lot of drugs being smoked, said Frances Williams, another
resident. "I'm pregnant, and I'm a recovering drug addict. It's very
dangerous for me to be around it.
Tucker said that homeless children also are becoming more aggressive because
of the stress of living there for so long. "The more bored they become, the
more irritated they get. They fight, and it escalates, she said.
Although the shelter has a security staff that is supposed to intervene or
report any violence, children do get hurt in fights, according to residents.
Kim Rizzutto, 13, suffered a broken wrist and two splinters in her back on
March 19 when a boy dragged her across the balcony of an upstairs apartment.
She was taken by ambulance to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in
East Patchogue, where the splinters were removed and her hand was placed in
a cast. Her mother said her daughter is very angry. "She's still having
problems with it, said her mother, Helen.
Others suffer more quietly. Alexandria Cataldi feels inhibited by the many
rules. "I hate it. You have a curfew. You can't go to the playground without
an adult. It makes me feel weird, said the 10-year-old, sitting on her bed
in her apartment unit with her sister, Teresa, against a backdrop of barred
windows, which they try to make seem less confining by propping stuffed
animals between the bars. She shares a bedroom with her two sisters; her
mother, Rosemary, sleeps in a bed in the kitchen/living area of the
But the answers to how to move families out of the shelter are often
elusive. According to an official from the U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development, which funds much of HELP, government's idea of an ideal
shelter is one that "doesn't exist, meaning that in a perfect world, people
would have permanent homes.
But homeless rates have increased dramatically across the country, from
cities to suburbia, once again making shelter space hard to come by. In the
early-1990s, when homeless rates were rising, the economy wasn't as robust
as it has been recently. The result: Housing prices were more stable and
allowed families to emerge from the shelter system sooner, said Dennis
Culhane, a professor of social welfare policy at the University of
Pennsylvania who has studied homelessness.
Around the country, states and counties are moving toward a variety of new
housing programs for the homeless. In Ohio and California, "direct housing
allows families to bypass the shelter system altogether. When they first
become homeless, officials place them in apartments, subsidizing their rent
for a short period of time. The families each have a caseworker who will
arrange job training, day care and whatever other services the family might
Large shelters, essentially "create another waiting line, Culhane said. "It
forestalls the eventuality they'll need to get placed somewhere.
Barbara Poppe, director of the community shelter board in Columbus, Ohio,
said the program has been a success. Landlords are enticed to rent to
homeless families because they know there will be a caseworker attached to
the family to troubleshoot any problems. The agency also guarantees the rent
for the first few months. "It places families quickly into an apartment and
provides services. What we love about it is that families are moved into
housing within two to three weeks, Poppe said.
But Columbus' rental housing costs are significantly lower than New York's,
and there is a greater stock of affordable housing than on Long Island, she
Smaller shelter programs are emerging as more popular models of how to deal
with homelessness, because they offer a more intimate environment. In these
programs, children often live with their families in houses with a few other
families, nestled in communities where they blend in.
Project Re-direct, one such program, in Islip and Babylon, typically places
several families in one large house where they share kitchen facilities. A
staff person is there around the clock. "You become more intimately involved
with a family, said Mildred Floyd, the executive director of the program.
The cost is slightly more expensive than HELP, at $46 per person, per day.
"When they're in a house with two to three families as opposed to a large
complex, you get to know the families and a trust factor evolves, Floyd
said. "You learn to have more respect for each other's needs and staff
themselves become part of extended family.
Which is not to say there aren't rules. Like HELP, parents are expected to
supervise their children at all times. But the children are allowed to have
toys. In fact, upon entering the shelter, each child is given a donated
bicycle to ride, she said.
Nassau County has encouraged the use of smaller shelters as well and has a
smaller homeless population. Jean Kelly's Hempstead-based Interfaith
Nutrition Network runs three home-like shelters for families in Nassau and
one in Suffolk. While she said she applauds HELP for dealing with such
massive amounts of families, she believes larger shelters present problems.
"If you're only there for a little while, it's a model thing. It's
transitional living, Kelly said. "But when you stay for so long it's not a
model, it becomes counterproductive. The whole environment of being around
so many people with similar problems, there's no balance, no mainstream view
of normal society.
The HELP Suffolk shelter does offer many programs for residents, including
after-school homework help for children, arts and crafts, and a recreation
staff that organizes bingo and other games.
Among its new programs is a partnership with the Parent Child Home Program,
in which social workers will visit HELP three times a week to aid parents in
preparing their children, between the ages of 2 and 3, for school.
The home visitors bring a book and a toy to each shelter resident, and
attempt to build language skills in the child and stimulate parent-child
interaction, said Sarah Walzer, the program's executive director. "Our focus
is empowering the parent to be the first and most important teacher, she
But several services have been cut back in recent months. HELP's on-site
clinic, which provided health screening, immunizations and pediatric care,
closed three months ago because of changes in the county health plan. The
shelter went without a recreation director for six months, and lost a social
worker who monitored families once they left the shelter.
The shelter clinic closed the same March day Rosemary Dellarata's daughter,
Theresa, came down with a stomach virus. She didn't know what to do. Her
doctor was in Babylon, where she used to live, but she had no way of getting
to him. With her daughter vomiting and with a fever of 103, she took a $12
cab ride to a clinic in Patchogue.
Because of the communal living arrangements, sicknesses often are passed
from one child to another. The National Institute of Health says children
often are unhealthy in shelters nationwide: They have twice as many ear
infections, five times more stomach problems, intestinal illnesses and skin
conditions than children who aren't homeless.
Because it is a so-called Tier 2, or "transitional shelter, counties are
required by state regulations to place homeless families there first, if
there's space, before sending them to a motel. It also owns 19 homes in
Nassau and Suffolk, and families are moved there after their shelter stay if
space opens up.
But even shelter employees cite frustrations, saying that even though they
have tried to move families into permanent housing, not much exists outside
the shelter's gates, a similar phenomenon to Westchester County, where HELP
also runs a shelter.
Lisa Lombardi, HELP's regional director, said the Suffolk shelter places
about five families a month in permanent housing. But she said there are
other problems at play as well.
About 40 percent of the families have some kind of mental-health problems,
Tucker said, and in some cases are having trouble becoming independent.
Other families have large numbers of children, and landlords don't want to
rent to them. She also said some families are more comfortable at the
shelter and "don't want to leave.
The shelter has two housing specialists for 76 families. By contrast,
smaller shelters, such as the Interfaith Nutrition Network, have one housing
expert for about 13 families, Kelly said.
Lombardi acknowledged that in an ideal world, smaller might be better and
that the shelter was constructed to be the first step in transitional
housing. When it was built, the founders agreed that the property would
revert to the town in 15 years, believing that the program would be so
successful that homelessness might be eliminated.
With four years to go, and the number of families at an all-time high, it's
unclear whether that will happen. "We all thought at that point affordable
housing would be more available, Lombardi said. "Unfortunately we've
learned that it's not.
Slide Show: Childhood on Hold:
---End of forwarded article---
~~~Related stories in this Newsday series:
Tuesday, June 19, 2001
[Long Island and Queens, New York]
Earlier to Rise
Monday, June 18, 2001
In a Tight Spot:
Homeless kids struggle to maintain normalcy in motels:
The contact information for Lauren Terrazzano, the Newsday staff writer for
this series, is: E-mail: Lauren.Terrazzano@newsday.com
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-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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