Homeless Children Sleeping in Penn Station
THURSDAY, APRIL 05, 2012

NBC Reporter Melissa Russo documented the plight last week of April Gayles, a homeless woman, and her two children, 6 and 10 years old, who were forced to sleep in Penn Station after being denied shelter for the third time by the New York City Department of Homeless Services. "In this case, it’s particularly of concern because these children and their family were, on two occasions at least, at Penn Station, and but for the intervention of the MTA police and a representative of the Department of Homeless Services and WNBC, these children and their family would have spent the night in the transit center, and that’s simply not a way to treat children," Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief, told NBC. "The court order does not permit the city to tell children and their families that they can stay someplace where they actually can’t.

April and her children were eventually granted access to shelter only after intervention by NBC’s investigative team. But hundreds of families end up returning to dangerous living situations, abusive spouses, or – like the Gayles family – are forced into the streets or transit system. "As much mud as the city would like to throw on this family, what mother in her right mind would spend the night in Penn Station with her children if they had any place else to go?" Banks asked.




News 4 New York at 5
WNBC (NBC) New York
March 26th, 2012 5-6 PM

Shiba Russell, Co-Anchor: Also tonight, exclusive I-Team access to a family’s desperate search for a home and the city’s response.

Tom Llamas, Co-Anchor: New York City taxpayers spend $800 million a year on a massive homeless shelter system. Last night alone, more than 40,000 people were housed in those shelters. Keeping control over this $800 million a year system also means the city turns away families they believe have other options. I-Team reporter Melissa Russo has been following one family who says they had no other options, and ended up in desperate circumstances. Hi, Melissa.

Melissa Russo, Reporter: Hi, Tom and Shiba. As you can imagine, it’s been painful to watch as these two young children are dealing with the prospect of living in a train station. We began documenting their story after their mother turned to us for help, but you’re also about to hear some very compelling arguments from New York City’s shelter officials who say this family did have other options, some options that would not have cost the taxpayers.

It’s 8 o’clock on a school night, but instead of finishing their homework and going to bed, Angelina and Nicholas Gayles are leaving their homeless shelter.

Angelina Gayles: It kind of feels a little scary.

Melissa Russo: For the third time this year, the city has told them to get out, declaring them ineligible for shelter.

Angelina Gayles: They did it to us three times, and every time you feel, like frustrated because you don’t know why they keep doing it. They’re the meanest people on earth.

April Gayles: I just feel this whole situation here is just not taking into considering the kids.

Melissa Russo: With few precious belongings, the children and their mother, April, head back to a familiar place: Penn Station, where people know the Gayles family…after having seen them here twice before.

Long Island Railroad usher Angelique Bellamy is moved to tears after learning the family she had befriended was, again, told to leave their homeless shelter.

Angelique Bellamy, LIRR Usher: Oh my god. Especially the youngens. A mother with two children, and she’s out in the street. So, you know, that’s hurtful.

April Gayles: I felt like screaming out to New York City, the people, that this is happening to me. It’s just not right.

Melissa Russo: April moved here from Chicago late last year, with a voucher that guaranteed rental assistance from the federal government. She moved in with a friend in Queens, hoping to find an apartment that accepted the voucher and launch a career as a fashion stylist for people on a budget. But April says those temporary living arrangements went sour fast; her host was fighting with her ex, and the I-Team confirmed the police were even called.

April Gayles: She asked us to leave, and so I did. And I have nowhere to go.

Melissa Russo: In January, April and her kids ended up in the city homeless shelter system, but on several occasions, they were told to leave and go back to that friend’s apartment.

April Gayles: It was the most, not just degrading type of thing, but it was, it was really hard, because my children had to hear all of this being said, and they didn’t understand.

Angelina Gayles: Why would they say go back if she kicked us out? They can’t control that because it’s her house, not ours.

Melissa Russo: April appealed the city’s initial finding that she was ineligible for shelter and lost. After leaving shelter, the family turned to New Yorkers who opened their hearts, including a West Side pastor who helped them pay for a room.

William Heisler, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church: I think it’s sinful. They were tidy; she was well-spoken, trying to raise her children responsibly. I think she’s a good parent; that was my immediate impression.

Melissa Russo: April says all of her efforts to convince the city she had no place to stay failed, until one day, when a woman who works for homeless services happened upon her family in Penn Station. Alarmed, that woman made a phone call, and the Gayles family was given shelter again, but only temporarily. April says she looked for apartments, but the ones for which she qualified did not feel safe. In the meantime, her voucher expired.

Nicholas Gayles: It’s kind of been hard for us to find a place, but I know God has one for us.

Melissa Russo: Then, as we showed you, last week they were declared ineligible and put out again. But, after a call to city officials from the I-Team just a few hours later, they were allowed to return.

April Gayles: I just don’t understand this system. It’s not working at all.

Melissa Russo: But the city told us the system did work, and that the reason April ended up here at Penn Station with her children and her luggage is simple.

Seth Diamond, NYC Homeless Services: She had options available, and she rejected all of those. She chose to make a decision to go to Penn Station.

Melissa Russo: Commissioner of Homeless Services Seth Diamond says April and her children could have gone back to their friend’s apartment in Queens.

Seth Diamond: She stayed there for several months; it was a large apartment.

Melissa Russo: That woman told us that under no circumstances could they come back to her home.

Seth Diamond: Uh, Ms. Gayles moved halfway across the country to live in with this woman.

Melissa Russo: And moving her children all the way to New York City without a better plan was just the first of several decisions the city calls irresponsible.

Unidentified City Employee #1: She wasn’t cooperating.

Unidentified City Employee #2: She didn’t call me.

Melissa Russo: City officials are so adamant that April Gayles was uncooperative, they took the unusual step of assembling a group of behind the scenes shelter staffers to tell the I-Team their side of the story.

Unidentified City Employee #2: These guys are going all out, and we’re trying to help her all out.

Unidentified City Employee #1: She did not come back twice!

Unidentified City Employee #3: We tried everything we could.

Melissa Russo: The workers say April failed to tell them about the police calls to her friend’s apartment, refused mediation services, skipped appointments, turned down viable apartments, and allowed her precious housing voucher to expire.

Unidentified City Employee #1: We gave her ample time and opportunity to find an apartment. We were monitoring this case, we were calling her.

Seth Diamond: People who come in have to be cooperative. Unfortunately, Ms. Gayles was not cooperative.

Melissa Russo: April flatly denies this.

Steven Banks, The Legal Aid Society: As much mud as the city would like to throw on this family, what mother in her right mind would spend the night in Penn Station with her children if they had any place else to go?

Melissa Russo: We asked the Commissioner: even if April was totally uncooperative, was it the right thing to do, to force her and her children out of their shelter again, even though it had already been documented that this family had ended up in Penn Station the first times they were turned away?

Seth Diamond: We believe that she had a place where she moved to from Chicago, a woman that she chose to live with.

Melissa Russo: But city staffers admit that woman told them from the beginning they could not move back in.

Unidentified City Employee #4: She said that she did not want her back.

Melissa Russo: It’s a battle the city has over and over again, as an increasing number of families are now coming to shelter from other people’s homes. Six out of every ten families applying for shelter are told to go back where they came from. That’s an average of 34 families a day shown the door after the city completes an investigation. City officials insist they have to draw the line somewhere because too many families are coming to New York City shelters straight from out of state, in large part because New York, with its “Right to Shelter,” is the most generous system in the country. The taxpayers, they argue, cannot afford to support everyone, especially if they’re not willing to do their part.

Seth Diamond: There are no families living on the streets of our city.

Steven Banks: The court order does not permit the city to tell children and their families that they can stay someplace where they actually can’t.

Melissa Russo: Steven Banks has represented homeless families in court for more than two decades, though April is not one of his clients.

Steven Banks: In this case, it’s particularly of concern because these children and their family were, on two occasions at least, at Penn Station, and but for the intervention of the MTA police and a representative of the Department of Homeless Services and WNBC, these children and their family would have spent the night in the transit center, and that’s simply not a way to treat children.

Melissa Russo: April and her children are back in shelter now, and the city tells us they will not be turned away anymore. The city has now reversed its decision and found April and the children eligible for shelter. Why? Because the I-Team was able to confirm that police had, in fact, been called to her friend’s home while April and her kids were staying there. Whether April told them that when applying for shelter in the beginning is still a matter of disagreement. Whatever the case, the city now agrees it was not a suitable place for them to stay. So, those kids, Tom and Shiba, do now have a stable roof over their heads. And at the end of the day, all this debate really does come down to those two children and what should be done in a case with children.

Tom Llamas: So, Melissa, we understand she came here because of the housing voucher, but why would she move to New York with two children and no job?

Melissa Russo: Well, she had a housing voucher that was a federal voucher, so in theory, she could use it in any state. She came to New York for some of the same reasons that a lot of people come to New York: to pursue a dream. She—her lease had expired in Chicago. She’d been thinking about moving to New York for a while, so she decided it was a good time to do that in October, when her lease expired. She moved in with a friend; she thought she’d get on her feet, and it didn’t work out that way.

Shiba Russell: So, there was no particular situation in Chicago that she was trying to flee? She was just trying to make a better life for her and her kids.

Melissa Russo: Right. She said she’d put her career on hold because of being a single mom for a long time; she thought it was a good time to make that leap. City officials, obviously, are questioning the responsibility of that decision.

Shiba Russell: Well, I’ll tell you what, it sure has a lot of us thinking about, you know, the next time you’re at Penn Station, if you see a mom there with her kids, that not everyone is there to travel. So, it surely struck a chord with all of us here. Thank you, Melissa. Wonderful job.

Melissa Russo: Thank you.