By the time Anne Pierre and her sons arrived at 199 Amboy Street, it was after midnight. The heat of the unusually warm April day had all but drained away, but there was a mellowness to the air, a contrast to the sharp, cold spring nights that had come before. From the outside, the red-brick building looked clean and well-maintained, though the darkness made it difficult to tell for sure. In Ms. Pierre’s experience, the exteriors of homeless shelters were poor predictors of conditions inside.
Late though it was, the family’s arrival at the Brownsville shelter marked the somewhat triumphant culmination of a bureaucratic odyssey that had started two days earlier, when Ms. Pierre had reapplied for shelter at the family intake center in the Bronx. It was only somewhat triumphant in that 199 Amboy was just a 10-day placement, the latest in a string of temporary housing assignments that had become the norm since the family lost its eligibility for shelter in February. But as it turned out, 199 Amboy was the nicest place Ms. Pierre and the two boys stayed since entering the shelter system in June 2012.
As 9-year-old Jordan described their arrival, “When we saw it, we was shocked. It was nice. It was decent.”
Decent is the kind of good-enough existence that has seemed to elude the family for the last 10 months. But it felt potentially within reach again when they fell asleep that night at a little after 1 a.m., relieved if still wary, with the alarm set for 6 a.m.—the preparations necessary for the school day ahead as uncompromising as the dawn.
Like many other families who have recently swelled the ranks of the city’s homeless population, routine has taken on an almost talismanic significance for Ms. Pierre and her boys. They live an approximation of a life that involved, until recently, an apartment of their own—a two-bedroom on Legion Street rented for four years with the help of a Section 8 voucher. Ms. Pierre paid $350 of the $1,100 rent until a recurrent mold problem disqualified the apartment.
Routine means showers in the morning and at night (depending on the hot water situation). It means home-style Haitian cooking for dinner, even if that involves dining out—an expensive proposition, but difficult to avoid when you don’t live in any one place long enough to lay in a supply of groceries or retrieve your pots and pans from storage. It means buying cleaning supplies and paper plates and a tablecloth for every new housing placement, no matter how temporary.
It means the boys’ hair is neatly trimmed, their Adidas sneakers unscuffed, their backpacks stiff with relative newness. Ms. Pierre, a compactly built woman who wears patterned acrylic nails and keeps her braids under a neat kerchief, is vigilant about appearances. One morning on the B35 bus to 4-year-old Tyler’s preschool, she noticed that the knees of his red school sweatsuit were slightly soiled. “He’s always on his knees,” she said apologetically. “I just washed these.” When they arrived, she asked about buying a second school sweatsuit, a purchase that would almost certainly make life harder rather than easier, given that they’d been living out of only a few bags and using a nearby laundromat’s wash-and-fold as de facto clothing storage. After 10 months, even their homelessness has taken on aspects of routine. The strange beds, the strange streets, mapping the new bus routes to the boys’ schools in the morning—it is about as familiar as an unfamiliar thing can be.
In January of this year, the city’s homeless population exceeded 50,000—the highest number since the Great Depression. But while previous homeless crises were largely defined by individuals who fell out of the social fabric long before they went homeless—unemployed, unemployable, or with serious health or substance abuse problems—the current crisis is defined by families, who make up some three-quarters of the city’s shelter population.
The number of families in shelters has nearly doubled in the last decade—as of this month, the shelter population included more than 10,000 families and nearly 21,000 children, according to city data. Homeless families have been the fastest-growing segment of the shelter population during Mayor Bloomberg’s reign, soaring from 6,921 when he took office in January 2002 to 11,984 in January 2013, according to data provided by Coalition for the Homeless.
Even as the problem has become more widespread, it has become harder to see. It’s not so much a figure sleeping in a doorway, but a mother lugging around duffel bags, a child’s grades slipping, a family rushing home to make a 10 o’clock shelter curfew.
The current situation may mirror the Great Depression in numbers, but today’s deprivation is played out not against a backdrop of 1930s austerity and thrift, but one of profligacy that revels in extravagances of all sorts, from $20 cocktails to $90 million condos. In Bloomberg’s New York, the streets may still be potholed, but every new bathroom seems to be clad in Calacatta marble.
Ever since clawing its way back from the brink of economic collapse under Koch, New York City has undergone a dramatic transformation. But to lower-income New Yorkers untouched by the city’s new prosperity, it often feels like a cruel taunt that has only made life more difficult.
Brooklyn is now the second most expensive place to live in America (after Manhattan), with townhouses that sell for $12 million and jars of pickles that sell for $9, but nearly half of its population can’t afford to live there. According to a recent study from the Center for an Urban Future, almost 40 percent of the borough’s population works in low-wage jobs, making less than $27,000 a year. At that salary, affordable rent (affordable is defined as costing no more than 30 percent of income) tops out at $675 a month. Minimum-wage workers can’t afford to pay more than $375 a month—a virtual impossibility.
A lot of people make do, of course. They triple up with relatives, live four to a room, work two jobs, display the scrappy ingenuity and hardscrabble bravado that we like to think of as quintessentially New York, until something goes wrong.
The huge increase in families seeking shelter is proof of how precarious the lives of New York’s working poor are. Family shelters house working parents and recently working ones like Ms. Pierre, a full-time home health aide until June. They are families who have long struggled to make ends meet but for whom homelessness is a new—though increasingly intractable—predicament. Last year, families spent more than a year on average in the shelter system for the first time since 1987. Advocates attribute their inability to leave to the fact that, in contrast to the last three decades, there are no longer subsidies available to help them move out of shelters and into permanent housing.
The current reality stands in sharp contrast to the ambitious plan Mayor Bloomberg presented in 2004 to reduce the shelter population by two-thirds and end chronic homelessness within five years by addressing “homelessness at its core, rather than at the margins.” It partly focused on preventative measures like eviction protection, which were widely lauded, but more controversially, it wiped out the paths to permanent housing, replacing them with temporary housing, on the assumption that families just needed a little help getting back on their feet.
“They thought that having paths to permanent housing was drawing people into the shelter system, so their approach to ending homelessness was to eliminate the path to permanent housing,” said Councilman Brad Lander, who has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Bloomberg’s policies.
Determining how much of the blame should be laid at Mayor Bloomberg’s feet is a complicated question. While he and his policies have certainly presided over an unprecedented rise in the homeless population, the recession, the mounting cost of living and the national rise in homelessness are significant confounding variables.
Nonetheless, in the twilight of his last term, Mr. Bloomberg seems to have retreated from the battle, leaving the next mayor to solve a problem that has grown to monstrous proportions. In March, he blamed the surge in homelessness on the loss of state funding for Advantage—a program that issued temporary rental subsidies to thousands of shelter families from 2007 to 2011—but the Department of Homeless Services has not suggested any new programs to deal with the void left in its wake.
Still, the mayor’s approach to the spiking shelter population has also struck many as less than compassionate. New York magazine quoted him as saying “you can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter.”
Anne Pierre doesn’t have a jet or a limousine. It was hard for her to rouse the boys on their first day at the new shelter, but the morning was full of promise. There was hot water, Ms. Pierre had a plan to try to get them eligible for shelter again, and she had heard about a home health aide service that might be hiring.
There were those little frustrations that can threaten to bring down a day—a late departure, unfamiliar streets, several people’s detailed though utterly unhelpful directions to the bus stop, and Tyler, impish even on a few hours of sleep, dropping Ms. Pierre’s hand and jogging backward down the sidewalk for a half block. But just as easily, the morning righted itself.
Having set off hesitantly toward the rumored bus stop, Ms. Pierre recognized a park, its pocked red running track dotted with figures in tracksuits. The park was not only familiar, it was just a few blocks from Jordan’s school—the school, she declared with amazement, was walkable. “Thank you God, his school is walkable,” she said, an exclamation she repeated in a tone of happy disbelief several times on the walk over.
For the rest of the journey, Tyler was charged with telling the family which way to turn at intersections and when it was safe to cross the streets. Though he is notorious for clowning and for a tendency to blurt out whatever he is thinking despite the social consequences, he went about the task obediently enough.
“Tyler has all of me,” Ms. Pierre says. “He’s like me when I was a kid. Don’t care if you get in trouble. Jordan is different. Jordan, Jordan watch everything. He talk around people if he like you. He plays with other kids, but he like to be by himself too. He needs time by himself and Tyler doesn’t want to give it to him, and they end up fighting.”
At a corner store across from Jordan’s school, P.S. 631, they stopped to buy breakfast sandwiches. Jordan fidgeted as they waited for the sandwiches. “It’s 9:05,” he said, looking at Ms. Pierre.
“I know,” she said.
School had started at 8:30, his third-grade regents exams were the following week, and he had missed school the day before because children need to be present when their parents reapply for shelter. As soon as Ms. Pierre had paid, he bolted out of the store, but not without hugging her goodbye. She watched until he disappeared behind the door.
“I have to see him go inside, in front of my eyes, or I worry,” she said. She meets him after school, too. “I’m one of those—I’m not going to say crazy mothers, I’m going to say worried mothers.”
Ms. Pierre worries a lot. She worries about where they’ll be living next, she worries about Jordan’s asthma and she worries about her 19-year-old daughter, Anna. Anna, who Ms. Pierre brought to the U.S. from Haiti as a 1-month-old infant when she herself was only 17, was living with them on Legion Street before they lost the apartment. She is now living with a girlfriend whom Ms. Pierre says is abusive and lies about whether Anna is home when the boys try to visit. Most of all, she worries on the days when she has to go to the intake center, the days when everything seems impossible and she has to plead for a new placement in a system that she doesn’t want to be in and whose rules she only half understands.
She did not, for example, understand that she could lose her Section 8 voucher for not finding a new apartment quickly enough after the last one was disqualified. Nor did she understand that, having lost it, she could not get it back (with more than 100,000 families, the waiting list is now closed). She had not understood how difficult it would be to find a new apartment by herself (the first broker she approached demanded a month up front as a deposit before showing her anything), and she had not understood that having a 4-year-old would be a problem.
But working 40 or more hours a week had meant little time to conduct an apartment hunt, which meant that she especially resented being shown decrepit one-bedrooms passed off as two-bedrooms by landlords taking advantage of the short supply of Section 8 housing. She was passed over for all the apartments she did apply for. One landlord explained that if she just had older kids, it wouldn’t be a problem, but a 4-year-old meant window grates and radiator covers and other modifications that he wasn’t willing to spend extra money on.
Other rejections were more vague, but they amounted to the same thing: by June, she didn’t have a place to live, and without a Section 8 voucher, she didn’t have the money to pay for one anyway. She was making $9 an hour—a step up from the $7.25 an hour she made when she started four years earlier, but her income was less than $20,000 a year even when she worked 48 hours a week, which she did as often as she could.
When Ms. Pierre and the boys entered the shelter system, she thought it would be temporary and even turned down an offer for public housing because it was far from Jordan’s school. But things went quickly downhill. The one-bedroom apartment she was assigned to in a dingy building on Clarkson and Nostrand was not ideal, but things would have been okay if Anna, who had just graduated from high school—one of the few in her class to graduate with a Regents diploma, Ms. Pierre noted proudly—had not moved out.
This was a problem because Anna watched Tyler when Ms. Pierre was at work. Not having anyone to watch Tyler meant that Ms. Pierre couldn’t start the next assignment her job offered her, and they gave it to someone else, which meant that she didn’t have any income for several weeks. She applied for public assistance, but before it came through her phone got cut off, which meant that she couldn’t get another work assignment because they wouldn’t give her one without a contact number.
It was simple and complicated at the same time. In a matter of months, she lost her house, her job and, it sometimes seemed, her daughter, who had dropped out of her college classes—she wanted to become a police detective someday—and moved in with the girlfriend, a woman Ms. Pierre described as a “bad influencer” who discouraged Anna from going out or talking to other people. With limited contact, Ms. Pierre and the boys have taken to walking past the girlfriend’s apartment on a regular basis, hoping to catch a glimpse of Anna.
“The last time I see her, her face has changed,” said Ms. Pierre. “Jordan is telling me we have to do something. I just keep waiting for her, but I’m afraid if she stay much longer, it will be too much damage. She’ll become someone else.”
Now everything Ms. Pierre wanted or needed seemed to rest on something else that she wasn’t able to do. When she reapplied for shelter, she was told she would not be eligible for a long-term placement without documentation of where she’d been living for the previous two weeks. She had been staying at Anna’s girlfriend’s place, but the girlfriend, whose name the apartment was under, refused to write the letter.
Without a stable place to live, it had been hard to apply for jobs, but without a job, it seemed unlikely that they’d ever get a stable place to live. She misses her job, or at least the life it gave her.
“It’s freedom. When you work, it’s freedom,” she said. “You have money. When I worked, if I wanted something, I could buy it.”
Ms. Pierre’s plan, if she can “fix the house,” as she puts it, is to become a certified nursing aide, which she sees as more stable than being a home health aide, and ultimately to become a licensed practical nurse.
“From CNA you could go to an LPN. By the time I’m 40, I want to do it,” said Ms. Pierre, who is 37 now. “I would love to be a nurse, and I know I can do it. I know if I be a nurse, I could put my kids in a better school, a Catholic school.”
There is a class that she is planning to take as soon as they become at least eligible for long-term shelter again, because, she explained, it’s rumored to be difficult and “the head is supposed to be on the shoulders when you’re studying to be a nurse.”
She just wasn’t sure how she’d fix the housing situation beyond getting the letter and a long-term shelter placement, an improvement over their current itinerant state, but one that would still leave them homeless and at the mercy of the system, the bag searches, nightly sign-ins and strange rules (at Amboy, no blenders or TVs larger than 19 inches). But if she could get her Section 8 back, she’d move to Staten Island and start over, as much as a thing like starting over is possible.
“I’m tired of the same things over and over again,” she said. “I want to change things. I’ve been here so long, going through the same ups and downs so long. I want to go where I could work, pay my bills, take care of my kids. Maybe Staten Island—the boys and I went there and we liked it. It’s different than Brooklyn; it’s quiet, the spaces are bigger. I thought I was going to be afraid of the boat, but I just sit on the boat and I enjoy it.”
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.
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.