The Return of Hooverville: The Deepening Crisis of Family Homelessness

Anne Pierre on the subway.

Anne Pierre on the subway.

When asked to account for the rapid rise in homeless families, Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond, echoing Mr. Bloomberg, pointed to the loss of the Advantage program, which was canceled in 2011 when its state funding was cut. Given that the Bloomberg administration had earlier stopped the long-standing practice of prioritizing homeless families for Section 8 and public housing, calling it bad public policy to let anyone entering the shelter system skip ahead in line (a claim advocates call highly specious), there was literally no way for shelter families to leave unless they could find an affordable living arrangement on their own.

“The increase is really tightly tied to the loss of Advantage. We were able to make progress and could have continued to help more households, but we will never get back the $150 million investment,” said Mr. Diamond. DHS provided statistics showing that in March of 2011, right before Advantage ended, there were 8,317 homeless families, 7 percent lower than the previous peak of 8,991 in 2009. He said that many fewer applicants are coming to the intake centers now, 8 percent less than last April, indicating that the crisis is abating and that DHS is “making good progress” even without any path to permanent housing. “The mayor has transformed the system,” he said.

Asked how families could leave the shelters without housing subsidies, Mr. Diamond said that “work works—the revolution across the board has been work.” He then went on to describe “enhanced training on the importance of work,” job-training programs and subsidies of the paychecks of homeless workers to encourage employers to take them on—none of which are new programs.

But a number of advocates claim that the Advantage program wasn’t working in the first place, primarily because the subsidy only lasted for two years; families who couldn’t make it on their own after that time just got channeled back into the shelter system. Ralph da Costa Nunez, the president of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, who started out in the Koch administration, pointed to an increase in recidivism under the Advantage program (according to Mr. Diamond, 25 percent of families in the program returned to the shelter system).

“If you’re going to have a subsidy, you need to have a subsidy with a plan, not a subsidy with a dream,” said Mr. Nunez. “It’s a poverty problem, not a housing problem.”

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, questioned the DHS assumptions that training people to become fast-food workers and home health aides, jobs that pay $8 or $9 an hour, would solve the problem. “How do you square the circle?” he asked. “These families are too poor to afford rent. Even in East New York or the South Bronx, rent is at least $1,000 a month.

“The mayor and his administration are people who craft their policies based on data, but in the area of homelessness, all their policies seem to be based on ideology,” he added.

Given that the city is mandated to provide shelter as the result of a 1980s court decision, and that Mr. Bloomberg appears to have no plan to transition residents out of shelters besides training for low-wage employment, it’s hard to imagine that anything will change.

Indeed, in the absence of any housing subsidy, shelters seem to have become New York’s answer to the lack of low-income housing. But shelters are an exceedingly expensive alternative. It costs, on average, $3,000 a month to house a family in a shelter, significantly more than the rent on a one- or two-bedroom apartment in the neighborhoods where many are located. The city also pays for homeless families’ storage lockers. And shelter life for any family is less than ideal, what with the room inspections, curfews, sign-ins, bag searches and often a ban on guests.

What’s more, said Mr. Nunez, while the costs of shelters was once higher because it included other resources to help families, many of the new shelters that have rapidly opened to meet the need are run by private operators who just provide rooms. And, seeing that they can essentially triple the rent with shelter tenants, landlords are pushing out the working-class families currently living in their buildings, perpetuating the cycle.

One of Ms. Pierre and the boys’ favorite topics is the house on Legion Street, which, while no palace (the mold was so bad that they once had to throw out a mattress that had been touching one of the walls), serves as a touchstone of what life used to be like and might be again. They talk about the food that Ms. Pierre made there—rice and beans, baked macaroni, oxtail, sweet plantains, corn on the cob. They talk about how Jordan used to ride the school bus and how much they miss Anna.

(Photo by Kim Velsey)

(Photo by Kim Velsey)

When they lived there, the kids would watch for Ms. Pierre from the back window, where they could see her getting off the train. “They used to fight about who would open the door for me, and I had to hug them all at the same time,” she said. “If not, it was going to be a problem.”

But when Ms. Pierre picked up Jordan from school that afternoon—she was running late, as she often is, and he chided her gently—they did not talk about Legion Street.

“When I was in school, I kept thinking of that apartment,” Jordan said. He meant 199 Amboy, and as they walked back there they discussed how clean it was and how they had been given a fresh shower curtain liner when they arrived, something you usually had to buy yourself. How they hoped they could become eligible again so they could stay, even if they hated the bag searches. They talked about how it was so close to Jordan’s school that he wouldn’t even need to take the bus, at least not until Ms. Pierre started working again.

They had reached the intersection of Blake and Amboy by then, and they stopped to lean against the fence of a little house kitty-corner from the shelter. Ms. Pierre said the shelter didn’t want people hanging around in front.
They discussed the food they would buy for school lunches when Ms. Pierre started working again and the apartments they had seen on Staten Island—how big and clean they were and how they had entire basements where you could store things.

Then Ms. Pierre started cataloging all the other things she would need to pay for: gas, light, clothes, rent. Even at $10 an hour, it was clear that the accounting didn’t quite work out.

Ms. Pierre was silent for a moment, the hopeful logic on which their conversation had cheerfully sailed broken, but then she turned to face the little house on whose fence she was leaning. She examined its hodgepodgey exterior, with its staid brick facade, red and white awning and granite porch too fancy for the house it was attached to. “This house is nice,” she said finally.

kvelsey@observer.com