Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Reacts to New Homeless Intake Facility
SUNDAY, MAY 08, 2011

Reacting to the City's announcement of the opening of a new $65.5 million intake facility for homeless families in the Bronx, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told The Wall Street Journal that he gives the administration credit for building "a state-of-the-art" facility but "it has always been our hope that a place like this would not be necessary in the financial capital of the world." Banks and The Legal Aid Society have been representing homeless New Yorkers since the early 1980s.


The Wall Street Journal
MAY 2, 2011
New Homeless Intake Center Is Set to Open
By Michael Howard Saul

Nearly five years after closing the infamous intake center for homeless families in the Bronx—a filthy, overcrowded facility with a reputation for treating people in need with disrespect—New York City will open Tuesday a $65.5 million new center that is triple the size on the same site.

For the Bloomberg administration, the opening of the 76,823-square-foot center is a landmark moment in the city's long, complicated battle with homelessness. The new center is designed not only to treat homeless families better, but to get them processed far more quickly.

Critics call the new facility a step in the right direction, but say its pretty visuals might distract public attention from the increase in family homelessness. The Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, plans on Monday to release a report saying the Department of Homeless Services is turning away more families than ever from the 250 shelters operated by the city. In 2010, the city denied shelter to 16% more families with children than the previous year, and 76% more families with children than four years ago, the report says.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs described the new intake center as a major step forward. The former family intake center, known as the city's Emergency Assistance Unit, was "stunningly outdated and inadequate," she said.

"It was really an atrocity and particularly just hard to believe that that kind of conditions existed in New York City," said Ms. Gibbs, a former commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services who now oversees the mayor's social-services agenda from City Hall.

In the old facility, adults and children regularly slept overnight on hard, dirty benches. "It looked like a refugee camp," said Gail Nayowith, a former member of a court-appointed special master panel that called for a total restructuring of the facility. "It was madness. It was dirty. It was dangerous."

The facility, still situated on East 151st Street in the South Bronx, has abundant natural light and an audio-visual notification system to help families navigate through the process. In 2003, intake took roughly 20 hours per family; in the new facility, officials anticipate it will be cut to about six hours.

The new building will have more staffing to deal with the 120 families per day who come through its doors. The Department of Homeless Services, for example, will have 212 employees based at the center, compared with 168 at the former facility. Another city agency, the Human Resources Administration, will more than double its staff there.

"It's really the culmination of a total transformation of the system," said Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.

Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief at the not-for-profit Legal Aid Society who has represented homeless New Yorkers since the early 1980s, said he gives the administration credit for building "a state-of-the-art" facility.

"But it has always been our hope that a place like this would not be necessary in the financial capital of the world," he said.

Last month, the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group that has been critical of the Bloomberg administration's policies, released a report showing an all-time record 113,553 homeless people, including 42,888 children, slept in city shelters in the fiscal year that ended in June 2010.

On Monday, the coalition plans to release another report showing how the city last year turned away more families with children from the shelter than at any point since the city has kept records. In 2010, an average of 1,855 families with children weren't deemed "eligible" for shelter each month, a 16% increase from 2009. As for the city turning away people who are deemed ineligible for shelter, Mr. Diamond of the Department of Homeless Services said the "numbers are what the numbers are." The only people coming into the shelter system should be those who have no alternative options, he said. Denials are upheld more than 95% of the time, "so that gives me confidence," he said.