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Laying back on a squeaky wooden chair, with the chair tilted back a little and the front legs lifted in the air, 29-year-old Christopher Coon took a swig of soda from a 2-liter bottle, looking content and relieved in a 160 square-foot motel room in Staten Island. On this chilly evening, Coon made barely enough money to pay for the room that kept his wife and 19-month-old daughter from sleeping outside.
Coon and his family are homeless.
They became homeless in February soon after Coon lost his construction job. Since then the couple has struggled to find a place to stay almost every night. After exhausting all their other options, the family applied for a shelter through the city public shelter system but was quickly denied.
Amidst high unemployment and the loss of affordable housing, a growing number of New York City families are seeking help at municipal homeless shelters this year. However, with the shelter population reaching record high at the same time, the City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has denied shelter access to more families than ever. During fiscal year 2010-2011, 49,890 families with children applied for emergency shelter. Among those, 37,918 were found ineligible and so denied shelter, driving the ineligibility rate to 65 percent compared to 57 percent last year. Many accepted families had to apply multiple times in order to show that they are really in need to be given a spot in municipal shelters.
“They (PATH) put us outside at 11pm,” said Coon, whose family was found ineligible for access to shelter on the basis that they have other places to go. “That was August 18, a few days before the hurricane. It was a very rough time for us.”
Coon’s experience is becoming increasingly common in New York City. Frustrations are widespread across the city as more and more families find themselves getting denied for a spot in the public shelter system. Since the establishment of the Callaghan case in 1979, the city has been obligated to provide emergency shelter for individuals who are homeless by reason of poverty or due to mental, physical, or social dysfunction. The State Supreme Court’s ruling was a landmark decision, making New York a national model for caring for its most vulnerable people. However, with the sluggish economy and a city budget deficit that continues to widen, there are signs that the city is nibbling away this obligation.
The hike of ineligibility rate came amidst the city shelter population reaching a record high. The Halloween night shelter census shows that 41,204 individuals are sleeping in the New York City municipal shelters—the first time ever that the shelter population has exceeded 40,000 people, according to a report released by Coalition for the Homeless, a homeless advocacy group.
“Initially it was the economic collapse that had this lagging effect on homelessness,” said Giselle Routhier, policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, speaking of the causes of growing homelessness. “But also it has a lot to do with the policy of this mayor’s administration.”
The number of homeless families in shelter is also near all time-highs. As of December 2, the daily City DHS Services shelter census shows that 9,870 families are currently living in shelters, including 8,479 families with children. “Because the shelter population are at record levels, to keep it from going up further (they) just turn away more people at the front door, that’s what the city has been doing.” said Routhier.
Although no official policy changes were announced, after the early termination of a controversial rent-assistance program early this year, the City DHS allegedly applied stricter criteria on eligibility rules to control the influx of families returning to shelters. The program, called Advantage, which offers subsidies to homeless families for up to two year, has drawn major criticisms from homeless advocate groups since its inception in 2009, contending most families could not attain self-sufficiency in two years. “It is a revolving door back to homelessness,” said Ms. Routhier.
Since the city officially ends the Advantage program in May, there has been 5 percent increase in the number of families applying for shelters. Many families have been homeless before and had become repeatedly homeless after losing public assistance and can no longer pay rent.
However, even for those who intend to return to shelter, they may now find the application a grueling process. The application now require family to detail everywhere they have
slept for the past two years prior to being homeless, every job each adult in the family has held, and other information such as documentation of bank accounts. Failure to provide any piece of documentation could easily result in denial of shelter access.
Coon’s family was denied because they were inconsistently moving from place to place between February and August. They could not provide enough information of where they have been staying.
DHS did not respond to a request for comments on whether the agency has enforced any stricter requirements on families applying for shelter since the termination of Advantage program.
Policy researchers, however, believe that DHS can flexibly manipulate the eligibility standards without issuing any policy change to control seasonal influx. “The city has some leeway in terms of how strictly they can enforce these policies,” said Amanda Melillo at Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness. “And at least anecdotally, (the DHS) seems to become stricter at the front door for families.”
By tweaking eligibility standards at different times, the city can control the shelter population while not having to issue major policy changes, a process nearly always scrutinized by City Council.
DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond was asked in several occasions by City Council members to explain the worsening shelter ineligibility rate. “Precious resources need to be reserved for the neediest people,” Diamond said in a public hearing in early November when being inquired on the topic again by Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
However, with at least 50 percent of the homeless families living below poverty line, they are the neediest people in New York City. Coon’s family now lives day by day by selling poetries and crafts on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Without a steady income, Coon said he couldn’t see how they would be able to get out of homelessness. “Not knowing when you can get out of this, it’s kind of demoralizing,” said Coon.
For many families in the similar situation, returning to PATH and apply again seems to be
only option. While the rise of ineligibility rate shows no sign of tapering off, many families have to apply multiple times in order to convince the city that they really have nowhere else to go. The latest city data shows that more than 40 percent of the families have to apply more than once to get into the shelter.
“If families coming in have to turn in three, four or up to six applications to get into shelter, that tells you there is something wrong with the application process.” said Ms. Routhier with Coalition of the Homeless.
In a testimony to the City Council in 2010, city DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond introduced that PATH would review every decision made if a family is denied a shelter, stating that the high uphold percentage of the review “further confirms the fairness and accuracy of our eligibility process.” Diamond’s testimony also points out that city would deny shelter to any families who have “alternative housing”, though he did not further define what constitute as “alternative housing”.
Coon and his family were asked to go back and live with a relative in Virginia where PATH considered “alternative housing” for the family. The family refused to go back because Coon’s wife got sexually assaulted when they stayed there. Coon said he showed a police report on the incident but that had no effect on PATH’s decision. “They told us that safety isn’t their issue, shelter is their issue.”
Unlike many other families, Coon chose not to return to PATH after they were denied. Because the family has exhausted their options, they had no choice but to stay outside for several nights until Coon found a motel in Staten Island he could afford for several nights.
At $45 a night, he said it was the cheapest he could find in the city. The roach-infested, 160 square-foot room is crowed for the family of three. But Mr. Coon has determined that it is better for them to live in this condition than to subject his family further to the grueling shelter application process.
“I do not like the situation,” said Coon. But at least “no one can come to this door and tell me to get out. No one can put me out at 11o’clock at night with my kids.”