[Hpn] NYTimes: City Says It's Ready for Record Homeless

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Wed, 02 Jul 2003 09:51:17 -0700

New York Times
July 2, 2003

City Says It's Ready for Record Homeless

With every summer season comes a surge in family homelessness in New York
City. Landlords are emboldened to evict people. School is out. The good will
of relatives providing shelter wears thin.

This year the city faces a record number of homeless families ‹ more than
9,000 ‹ and lingering criticism over the way it handled the overflow last
summer, when families slept on the floor of an intake office and in a vacant
Bronx jail, practices that led to lawsuits.

But with 700 additional shelter units available and increased legal powers
to move families into permanent housing more quickly, officials of the
Department of Homeless Services say the city is ready to cope with an
influx. The city has not ruled out using the vacant jail again in an
emergency, although that would surely lead to another fight in court with
advocates for the homeless.

The seasonal surge of homeless families is accompanied this year by a
floundering economy and the highest number of homeless people in shelters ‹
more than 38,000 ‹ since the city began tracking numbers in the early
1980's, with roughly double the number of homeless children and families
compared with five years ago.

A total of 9,249 families, including more than 16,500 children, are
currently sheltered in city facilities, according to the department.

The numbers of homeless tend to set records with every economic downturn,
homeless service officials said. New York City's economy has been sluggish
for the last three years.

But this year, as a result of a legal settlement, the city has the ability
to move families into permanent housing more quickly. Under the agreement,
families must accept the first appropriate apartment shown to them instead
of waiting to choose among several.

As a result, the rate at which families are placed in homes has increased
considerably. In the first three weeks of June this year, the city placed
435 families in homes, compared with 271 families placed in the same time
period last year, for an increase of 61 percent.

Until this year, the percentage of people placed in permanent housing had
dropped steadily year to year for the most part since 1994, with one spike
in 1998.

"We're turning around a 10-year trend," said Maryanne Schretzman, the deputy
commissioner of policy and planning for the Department of Homeless Services.
"Families are beginning to make the better choice of taking that apartment."

If these steps are not enough to stem an overflow of homeless people, Dr.
Schretzman said, the city will again house people in a vacant wing of the
the Bronx House of Detention for Men. Lead-based paint ‹ a major point of
objection last year ‹ has been removed from the jail, said Linda Gibbs, the
commissioner of homeless services.

Dr. Schretzman said: "Ideally, no one wants to use this or any other
emergency facility. At the end of the day, however, prudence requires that
we have a contingency plan, and that's what this represents. We just don't
want families sleeping on floors in city offices."

Nevertheless, advocates promised to go to court if the jail is used again.
"Children would be harmed by going to jail," said Steven Banks, a lawyer
representing the homeless for the Legal Aid Society. "The problem with
barracks-style centers like the one in the Bronx is that contagious diseases
spread rapidly in that kind of environment, and children with medical
problems don't have their needs met."

Still, Mr. Banks and other advocates say the city seems to be better
prepared this year for what has become a predictable trend. The number of
homeless families tends to rise every summer, partly because school is out
and families who have doubled up with relatives are asked to leave at the
end of the school year, say people who work with the homeless.

"They burn out that support system," said Lauri Cole, executive director of
the Council on Homeless Policies and Services, an umbrella organization of
nonprofit agencies that serve the homeless.

The weak New York economy has also played a role. A shortage of low-wage
jobs and low-cost housing has fueled the surge in the homeless, said city
officials and advocates for the homeless.

"We're at a crisis level," said Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst with
the Coalition for the Homeless. "You see more households who never thought
they would have experienced homelessness. Bike messengers, waitresses,
clerical staff, dishwashers ‹ these were people living month to month making
the rent, and losing their hours is the kind of thing that can lead to

The surge has meant longer lines at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, on Ninth
Avenue at 28th Street, and a 25 percent increase in food demand since 2001,
said Clyde Kuemmerle, the programs coordinator for the church.

Soup kitchens and shelters have also seen an increasing number of working
people become homeless, Mr. Markee said. One in 5 homeless families now has
a working head of the household, compared with one in 10 during the 1980's,
he said.

"A majority are families on public assistance," he said, "but there is a
growing group that were working and continue to work and have just gotten
trapped in homelessness."

Robinson Baez, 29, never thought it could happen to him. He was earning
$13.40 an hour as a meat shipper at Hunts Point in the Bronx when he lost
his job in February 2002. He searched for another job and borrowed from
friends. But he and his wife, Cynthia, were evicted from their $400-a-month
one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx the following July.

"I honestly never saw this happening," Mr. Baez said. "I've always been at
the top of my game. I've never had to deal with unemployment."

In September 2002, the couple were placed in a transitional shelter in the
Bronx. Mrs. Baez gave birth to a daughter, Naomi, the following December.
Their sole source of income is $134 in welfare checks every two weeks, which
mostly goes to paying for diapers and baby formula.

The couple were approved for government-subsidized housing of up to $980 a
month for the next two years, but the hard part is finding a landlord
willing to take a family on welfare, Mr. Baez said.

"They say, `We don't deal with those types of programs,' " he said. It is
also hard for the couple to pay the transportation expenses involved in
apartment hunting.

"I can't go by myself because they want to see the entire family," Mr. Baez
said. "For me and her to go take a ride to view an apartment, that's going
to cost $8."

Luckily, Yaneli Ochoa Hinojosa has a car. She uses it to take her two
children from the shelter they are staying in to a baby sitter every day,
and then drives to her job as a Spanish translator for a law firm on the
Upper West Side. They have been homeless since April, when she fled a
husband she said was abusive.

She must wait three months before she can apply for permanent housing, but
has started looking for something she can afford on her own. Still, with a
weekly salary of $287, she can hardly afford the $1,300 in rent she sees
advertised for one and two bedrooms.

"Even a studio is just $1,100, and they ask you for a deposit, another fee
and two months' rent," said Ms. Ochoa Hinojosa, 24. "Right now I am trying
to get a nighttime job so I can afford an apartment."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

chance martin, Project Coordinator
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