[Hpn] NYC, NY - The face of New York's homeless has changed - New York Daily News - August 18th, 2002

Homeless Daily News Homeless Daily News <hccjr@bellsouth.net>
Mon, 19 Aug 2002 07:24:21 -0500


Family surge at shelters

The face of New York's homeless has changed in the last four
years, as the city's faltering economy combined with an
overpriced housing market to drive thousands of families out of
their homes and into shelters.

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By FERNANDA SANTOS / ROBERT INGRASSIA
- New York Daily News - August 18th, 2002

Lakia Alford is 21, a single mother with an infant son who
studies medical technology at Monroe College in the Bronx and has
worked steadily at temp jobs for the past four years. And she is
homeless.

"It hurts," said Alford, tears in her eyes as she left a city
office in the Bronx, heading to temporary shelter at a Bronx
hotel. "It hurts a lot to have to think that my baby was born,
and he doesn't even have a home."

The face of New York's homeless has changed in the last four
years, as the city's faltering economy combined with an
overpriced housing market to drive thousands of families out of
their homes and into shelters.

Since January 1998, the number of families living in shelters has
almost doubled - jumping to more than 8,400 from 4,400.

In all, about 15,000 children bed down each night in one of about
70 family shelters or other temporary housing.

And the overall homeless population is soaring, too.

In January 1998, there were 21,172 people in city shelters; that
number stood at 35,164 last week.

Act of despair

The problems were highlighted this month when a 16-year-old
schizophrenic boy who was staying with his father and sister in a
shelter hotel committed suicide after learning the family's
application for a city-owned apartment was rejected.

The challenges aren't unique to New York - homelessness is rising
across the country.

Some studies place part of the blame on welfare changes and
problems of substance abuse, mental illness and domestic
violence. But many of those societal ills have existed for
decades.

The real culprit is economics: rising unemployment and a scarcity
of low-cost housing.

The problems cut deep in New York City, where one in four
apartment-dwelling families devotes at least 50% of its income to
rent and utilities.

>From 1993 to 1999, the number of apartments with rents below $600
a month fell to 650,600 from 819,300, a 20.6% drop.

"We're getting a bottleneck in the system because you have more
families becoming homeless while the families in the system can't
find affordable housing," said Ann Duggan, a policy analyst for
Coalition for the Homeless.

And many families cannot even rely on relatives - the most common
built-in safety net - because they also are hurting and are less
capable of supporting or housing others.

Ursuala Gacusana, 26, and her husband, Efrain Escobar, 33,
illustrate the quick descent of a stable, working family.

A year ago, Gacusana was earning $300 a week at a cell phone
store in lower Manhattan. Escobar made the same amount as a
temporary salesclerk at Macy's.

Then came Sept. 11.

Economic downturn

When her store was forced to close for a month, Gacusana
volunteered at Ground Zero. It was a way to keep occupied, she
said, a way to help others.

The store reopened, but business never recovered - and she was
laid off.

In November, the economic downturn nipped Escobar's job. With no
savings to dip into, the two couldn't hold on to their
$350-per-month apartment in Parkchester, the Bronx.

Gacusana, who is seven months pregnant, said she looked for work
in Miami, but without success. Her husband stayed behind and
worked occasional construction jobs. Eventually, Escobar returned
and they moved in with Gacusana's sister, who has two
daughters.

"We have no steady jobs," Escobar said. "So we couldn't give her
any money, and even though she's family, we felt that we were
becoming a weight for her."

Last Tuesday, the couple showed up at the Bronx shelter office,
waited past midnight and then boarded a yellow school bus to an
overnight room at a rundown hotel in Harlem. Their old apartment,
modest as it was, seemed like a palace in comparison.

"Our weekend routine was to go to the movies, then wake up late
the next day and have French toast for breakfast," Gacusana said.
"We had it nice."

Average stay rises

The hundreds of families who become homeless each month aren't
the only reason the shelter population is skyrocketing.

The crunch has also come in part because families already in the
system aren't leaving.

In the mid-1990s, families stayed in a shelter an average of five
months before moving on to permanent housing.

Today, the average stay is nearly a year.

The city's inconsistent policies toward homelessness also may be
problematic, experts said.

In the beginning of his administration, former Mayor Rudy
Giuliani tried to discourage families from looking to the city
for shelter by closing all but one of the admission centers and
adopting stricter requirements.

Giuliani also made it more difficult for the homeless to qualify
for city-owned apartments as permanent housing, and he resisted
proposals to spend more public money to build affordable apartments.

When homeless families began pouring into the one remaining
admission center, the Bronx's Emergency Assistance Unit, the
Giuliani administration rapidly expanded the shelter system.

At an average cost of $3,000 per month per family, the shelters cost
the city, state and federal government roughly $300 million a year.

Expansion has limits

Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city has opened more shelters, most of
which are run by nonprofit groups.

For the most part, officials have largely succeeded in preventing homeless
families from sleeping on the streets, experts say.

But advocates warn that the shelter system can't expand forever.

There are only so many nonprofit groups, and community leaders in
some neighborhoods have begun fighting efforts to open new shelters.

The Bloomberg administration's answer is to redirect thousands of
federal rent-subsidy vouchers to shelter families and give homeless
parents priority for public housing - essentially undoing what Giuliani
sought to accomplish.

"You're not going to solve the question of homelessness by building more
shelters," said Linda Gibbs, Bloomberg's commissioner for homeless
services.

But her plan faces obstacles, not the least of which is history.

Then-Mayor David Dinkins tried a similar approach that was widely
criticized for giving preference to the homeless over lower-income
families - some with jobs - who were awaiting permanent housing.

And many landlords shy away from the rent voucher program, known
as Section 8, because of red tape.

9,000 apartments

The Legal Aid Society is pressing the state to shift money it
spends on New York City shelters into rent subsidies, a plan
already in place on Long Island.

The Coalition for the Homeless backs a proposal for the state
and city to team up to build 9,000 low-cost apartments.

Alford, who had never been homeless, is now staying in a Bronx
hotel with her 2-week-old son, Zyair.

They are allowed to be there for 10 days while investigators decide
if the family is indeed homeless and therefore entitled to stay in the
city's shelter system.

Clutching a document that would grant her access to the hotel in
the Bronx, Alford left the Emergency Assistance Unit late
Wednesday afternoon, pushing a navy-blue baby carriage toward a
subway stop on the Grand Concourse.

Zyair slept peacefully, a baby oblivious to his mother's tears.


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