Growing army of homeless struggles to find shelter

New York experiences a rising number of destitute people - many children

October 27, 2002|By Heidi Evans | Heidi Evans,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

NEW YORK - At an hour when most people in the city are snug in their beds asleep, an army of exhausted little children and their mothers are loading into yellow school buses on a desolate corner in the Bronx, clutching pillows, plastic bags and one another as they shuttle in the dark to a city shelter for the night.

Shielding an infant and 2-year-old under her sweat shirt as a hard rain fell outside the city's Emergency Assistance Unit, Shantay Jones wept.

"Please, I need help, I have nothing," the 21-year old mother said. "I sat here till 3:30 a.m. until they gave us a bed last night. My nerves are shot."

These families - destitute and with nowhere to turn - are driving an exploding homeless population in New York City, setting records each week. Unlike the deranged sidewalk mutterer, the image New Yorkers are most familiar with, the truer - but hidden - face of homelessness in this city of riches is a child's.

16,384 children

On Oct. 9, the city set a record, sheltering nearly 37,000 people. A stunning 16,384 were children, and 13,072 were their parents. An additional 7,524 were single adults, the majority of them men, housed separately from families.

The crisis has grown rapidly for families in the past few years, with an 80 percent increase - to 8,931 from 4,954 - from June 30, 2000, to Oct. 9. Just 18 months ago, there were roughly 10,000 homeless children in shelters, compared with more than 16,000 now.

Overwhelmed city officials scramble daily to shelter these families, as required by law. To those on the front lines, it feels like a permanent emergency.

"Right now, I don't know whether the tidal wave is about to hit me or if I am in the tumult of it, or has it passed," said Linda Gibbs, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services. "I know there is a lot going on and we are responding on a daily basis, but I don't know where we are on that curve."

Why?

Why the increase?

It's not exactly clear, although experts cite the poor economy and rising unemployment.

One certainty: Rents in New York City have climbed steadily in recent years, making it nearly impossible for poor families - defined as earning less than $18,602 a year - to find housing. Most homeless families are headed by a single mother who earns much less than that.

From 1993 to 1999, the number of apartments in the city with rents less than $600 a month fell 20.6 percent to 650,600 from 819,300. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which does an annual survey of rental housing costs for the poor in American cities, a New Yorker earning minimum wage - $5.15 an hour - must work 142 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the market rate of $1,000 a month. Put another way, a person would have to earn $18.24 an hour in a 40-hour-a-week job to afford that rent, if spending 30 percent of his salary on rent, the federal standard.

Studies also cite a variety of social ills such as domestic violence, substance abuse and grinding poverty that force families to double-up or triple-up in apartments. Ultimately, it is no longer tenable to live in such cramped quarters and relatives and friends are sent packing with no place else to go.

"Now we have the worst of both worlds," said Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless. "You have more people seeking shelter because of the economic downturn and fewer people leaving the shelter system because there is not enough affordable housing for them."

Many families now are staying in shelters for nearly a year, compared with an average of five months in 1990. Most are welfare recipients and some are newly arrived in the city.

The cost to the city has skyrocketed. From June 30, 2000, to July 1, the budget for sheltering families more than doubled, to $257 million from $123 million, city officials said. The agency's total budget is about $583 million. "We continue to add beds on demand," said James Anderson, a spokesman for the city's homeless agency.

On top of this, a layered city bureaucracy frustrates and delays efforts to find permanent housing for the homeless, advocates say.

Gibbs said the city has enough rental subsidies set aside to house 9,200 families - enough to empty the 150 family shelters - but it takes three city agencies to sign off on an apartment.

The city Housing Authority, for example, is required to inspect every apartment rented with federal Section 8 funds to ensure that it meets federal habitability standards. Advocates say it routinely takes inspectors up to two months to get the job done - or worse, they lose families' applications. Landlords then end up renting to someone else.

"Regrettably," Gibbs conceded before a City Council committee last month, "the [city] did not make use of the scarce resources devoted to homeless families. One thousand of the Section 8 rental subsidy vouchers committed to homeless families last fiscal year went unutilized."

Bureaucrats faulted

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