With a Record Number of Homeless Families in Shelters, Families Wait All Day for Shelter, Have Sleepless Nights

New York City is in the midst of crisis with record numbers of homeless families and adults in shelters. Homeless families experience long waits during the day and sleepless nights before the City can assign them to temporary housing. The City has also had to use more motels to house homeless people.

The Legal Aid Society has been a leader in the fight for the rights of homeless families and individuals for nearly four decades. Unfortunately, the plight of homeless families brings back memories of families sleeping on the floors of the PATH center. Kathryn Kliff, a Staff Attorney in the Bronx Civil Practice Office who works with homeless families, told the New York Times that “What’s going on now is a direct result of capacity. This is not the norm. This isn’t how overnights go.” Kliff also pointed out that when families are assigned shelter, it often is far from employment, schools, or services such as a babysitter. The city has to provide beds for families that by 10 p.m. are still in the housing application process. The city then brings them to and from wherever they are sleeping so the application can continue the next day.

Because of the record breaking numbers, the city must also rely on the use of motels to house the homeless. According to the Wall Street Journal, approximately 4,000 homeless New Yorkers last month slept in 46 motels, compared to 1,000 who slept in eight hotels in January 2015. The article noted how many of the city’s shelters are either full or nearly full while there is also certain community opposition to the creation of additional homeless shelters.

“I’d rather they weren’t using hotels, but they are under a lot of pressure from communities not to create permanent shelters,” said Judith Goldiner, Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice’s Law Reform Unit.

The New York Times
Long Nights With Little Sleep for Homeless Families Seeking Shelter
By Nikita Stewart
August 28, 2016

On Wednesday, New York City hit a record 59,373 people in shelters overseen by the Department of Homeless Services.

There is no clearer indicator of the homelessness crisis than in the Bronx at the intake center for families with children, where on a recent Saturday morning at 7:30, Larissa Galindo had just gotten off the bus from a temporary shelter.

“We’re tired,” Ms. Galindo, 19, said, burying her face in her hands and trying to wipe the sleep and frustration from her eyes. Unique, her 1-year-old daughter, looked up from a stroller. They had left the center, known as PATH, short for Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing, four hours earlier.

“I want to go to sleep,” Ms. Galindo said.

In a cascade of good intentions and unintended consequences, homeless parents and their children are facing dayslong waits and sleepless nights as they flood the city’s already overwhelmed homeless services.

Under a 1999 law that was supposed to give homeless families dignity and relief, parents and children seeking shelter are not allowed to sleep at the center. Instead, those still in the process of applying for housing at 10 p.m. must be given beds for the night. The city must also transport them to and from wherever they sleep so families can continue the application process the next morning.

But with 12,913 families in homeless shelters, which is also a record, and the city trying to avoid giving them “overnights” twice in a row, New York has created a bureaucracy of sleep that, paradoxically, keeps many families from getting any rest. Some yellow school buses transporting them to shelters leave the PATH center as late as 4 a.m. People who are loaded onto them then are bused back two hours later so they can be seen by 11 a.m., before a new wave of families arrives.

As a result, overnight shelter has come to mean a few hours — or mere minutes — in a bed. Parents must haul suitcases, strollers and their children into the intake center, onto the bus, into the temporary shelter, back onto the bus and back to the PATH center.

Ms. Galindo, who works at a Fine Fare supermarket in Harlem, was lucky. After waiting hours to apply for shelter a day earlier, she got two hours of rest in a bed.

“What’s going on now is a direct result of capacity,” said Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which is pushing the city to improve its services for homeless people. “This is not the norm. This isn’t how overnights go.”

The record number of people in shelters overseen by homeless services does not count several thousand more who are in specialized shelters for homeless youths and domestic violence victims.

The 1999 law was championed by Steven Banks, when he was a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society working to improve conditions for families with children. He is now the commissioner of the Department of Social Services overseeing homeless services.

The intent was to end the longtime practice of having families sleep overnight in chairs, on desks and on the floor of the intake office in the Bronx. The sight had become a symbol of the city’s poor management of homelessness at the time, and the city had paid $5 million in fines over four years for violating a court order to stop it.

“It was to end the practice of using a welfare office as a de facto shelter with families with children sleeping on the floor for days on end,” Mr. Banks said in a recent interview. “That was the intent of the law, and that’s the practice that it has eliminated. But it didn’t eliminate the lack of affordable housing. It didn’t eliminate poverty. It didn’t eliminate domestic violence.

“Those are the drivers that result, that cause people to seek shelter from us,” he said.

Wages have not kept pace with rising rents, and the city’s long-term initiatives — such as building more affordable housing, expanding rental assistance programs and increasing legal aid to tenants fighting evictions — have not kept up with the continuing surge of people who simply cannot afford to pay the rent. Mr. Banks said the number of homeless people in shelters had also risen as the city boosted efforts to shelter people living on the street, a visible sign of the crisis that the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has prioritized.

Mr. Blasio, a Democrat, shook up his administration in December to combat the increase in homelessness. In March, he consolidated homeless services and welfare under a single commissioner, Mr. Banks.

But August has traditionally been a month when the city sees increases, Mr. Banks and advocates for the homeless said. Families, hoping to find housing before the new school year starts, arrive at the PATH center looking for help.

The PATH center is a gleaming office building, opened in 2011 to replace an outdated one. It is across the street from an older, worn apartment building. Families said they dreaded entering, never knowing how long they might have to stay and when they might have to go back.

Inside, where parents were slumped in chairs and children were sprawled on the floor waiting hours to be interviewed by caseworkers to determine if they are eligible for more permanent shelter, tensions have run high. “It looked like a FEMA camp,” said Allen McKinney, a 29-year-old father of two, who was seeking shelter for his family after arriving from California days earlier.

Mr. McKinney, who is a gospel drummer looking for work, said he was grateful that there was somewhere to turn for help, but he and his family were weary. He and his wife, Jenee McKinney, said they arrived around 4 p.m. on Friday and got on a yellow school bus around 3 a.m. on Saturday to go to the overnight shelter. They were back at the PATH center five hours later, where they stayed until 3 a.m. on Sunday when the city placed them in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan. “I’m not complaining. We could be on the street,” said Mr. McKinney, who along with his wife asked to go by his middle name because they did not want to their family to be identified as homeless.

For several months, the vacancy rate in shelters for families with children has been less than 1 percent. In a further demonstration of the whack-a-mole nature of the problem confronting the city, that unusually low rate is not only a result of the increase in homelessness among families with children, but also of the increase in the number of adult families without shelter. Adult families are any units or families without minor children.

At the adult family intake center in Manhattan, people have been sleeping overnight. While that is not against the law, the city this month has been taking steps to prevent what had become common practice there. The city had already moved 450 such families into housing that was supposed to go to families with children.

Mr. Banks said the city was opening additional shelters for adult families to relieve the pressure. “We’re moving as quickly as we can,” he said, adding that other reforms, such as expanding a program that offers potentially homeless people rental assistance, were underway.

Mr. Banks said the city was trying to get services to needy families while also carefully evaluating whether they were eligible for shelter or if they could benefit from rental assistance, intervention with a landlord or reunification with relatives who could house them.

Parents, meanwhile, are braced to wait 12 hours or more at the PATH center, where they are not allowed to bring in food. Some walk to a nearby McDonald’s or other restaurants, at the risk of missing their name when it is called. (They must eat the food outside.) Otherwise, they make do with sandwiches, graham crackers and the school-cafeteria-size cartons of milk provided by the city.

On a Sunday morning, two days after she had arrived, Ms. Galindo was back at the PATH center, waiting. The city had found her shelter in Far Rockaway, Queens, far from her job in Harlem and far from a babysitter for her 1-year-old daughter.

Unfortunately, job location is a low priority with a less than 1 percent vacancy rate, Ms. Kliff, of Legal Aid, said.

The Wall Street Journal
New York City Relies on Motels to House Homeless
By Josh Dawsey and Mark Morales
August 28, 2016

In Woodside, Queens, the Quality Inn looks like an ordinary motel. But more than half of its rooms are filled with homeless New Yorkers, with taxpayers picking up the tab.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is relying on motels to house homeless residents, sometimes turning entire properties into de facto shelters. About 4,000 homeless New Yorkers slept in 46 motels last month, up from about 1,000 in eight hotels in January 2015.

While top City Hall officials say it is necessary to deal with rising homelessness, other elected officials and advocates question whether the policy makes sense. Rooms cost $161 a night, and the program cost New York City almost $50 million over the past year.

“I’d rather they weren’t using hotels, but they are under a lot of pressure from communities not to create permanent shelters,” said Judith Goldiner, a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Society.

Steve Banks, the city’s top homelessness official, said he wished there were fewer people in hotels. But a confluence of factors is driving the increased reliance on hotels. Roughly 59,300 slept in shelters Thursday night, hovering near record highs and up from about 53,000 when Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, took office in January 2014. Many of the city’s shelters are nearly full or full, particularly spaces fit for families. Of the 59,300 in shelters, some 41,250 are members of families with children, city records show.

“It’s a citywide problem that has built up over many years. We have a legal obligation and a moral obligation to not have people on the streets,” Mr. Banks said. “Commercial hotels are a bridge as we’re siting and opening new shelters.”

De Blasio officials are trying to close so-called cluster shelters, where 12,000 people sleep in 3,000 apartments-turned-shelters, because city officials say they are old and filthy. The cluster shelters have about 14,000 safety and building violations, according to city records. Negotiations with the providers, who have contracts with the city, are challenging, said Mr. Banks. Some 250 units have been closed, but none have been converted to housing yet, a city spokesman said.

Building homeless shelters is also a difficult proposition because of opposition from communities. For example, a plan to convert a Holiday Inn Express in Maspeth, Queens, into a permanent homeless shelter is being met with hundreds of protesters, holding vigil nightly. The shelter is expected to open in October.

Mr. Banks met with residents this summer for 2½ hours, listening to many who were angry. He has been torched online by residents in the local press and on social media.

“The postings speak for themselves,” he said. “But we have to remember human beings are involved here, and there needs to be shelters across the city so people can stay in their communities.”

The city is also hesitant to build shelters because it hopes to eventually reduce the homeless population with new programs. There are about 600 buildings in New York that serve as shelters, city officials say.

For now, officials are scouring motels across the city, looking for providers to give a bank of rooms for $200 a night each or less. City records show motels include Best Western, Econo Lodge, Sleep Inn and other motor lodges. The motels, often in the boroughs outside of Manhattan, make deals with the city to guarantee revenue and filled rooms, particularly in slower times of the year.

Hotels are controversial because they are pricey, difficult for families to live in and sometimes unsafe. On Staten Island earlier this year, there was a triple murder in a hotel where homeless residents were living; the suspect has pleaded not guilty. Hotel shelters are often far from where children attend school, making for hour-plus bus rides.

At the Quality Inn in Woodside, a list of rules is posted on the door of a makeshift shelter office on the lower level. A few examples: a 9 or 10 p.m. curfew, depending on whether the homeless resident has a school-age child or children; a missed curfew means eviction; no visitors in the rooms; no use of building amenities, such as the swimming pool; and residents must be escorted to their rooms by security guards because they don’t have keys.

Quality Inn officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Kareem Leach, 25 years old, and Tetha Beasley, 20, used to live with Mr. Leach’s uncle in East New York, Brooklyn. The couple, who have a 2-month-old son, moved into the motel because the uncle’s apartment was too crowded.

Now, the family is in the motel—and the experience so far hasn’t been positive, Mr. Leach said. “They give us frozen food that’s expired,” he said. “Sometimes they give us baloney sandwiches. No cheese or nothing…It’s basically prison food.”

Mr. Leach, who is unemployed, wants to get into an apartment but doesn’t know where to turn. “There’s no one here to help us. I don’t want us to be here the whole time,” said he. “I want to get a place but there’s no one here to help us. No one here to give us forms to fill out (for housing).”

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a Democrat whose district includes the motel, said he wouldn’t protest a new shelter. But he said he was angry at a lack of communication, learning about the de facto shelter from a constituent.

“We were shocked they were using this hotel, but more shocked that they did it without telling us,” Mr. Van Bramer said.

Mr. Banks, the homelessness official, said the city tells local officials when more than 50% of the rooms in a hotel are being occupied by homeless residents. He said more communication is necessary with local officials, and he plans to change that policy.