August 29, 2016; New York Times
The Department of Homeless Services in New York City housed 59,373 people in shelters on August 24th — a new record, sadly, and that doesn’t include specialized shelter for victims of domestic abuse and unaccompanied youth. This influx has tested aspects of the system that were established to protect families from being kept in limbo at intake centers.
A law passed in 1999 meant to protect the families prohibits families from sleeping at Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH), the intake center, even for a few hours. The law, however, did not increase affordable housing or eradicate poverty in the city, which has a population of 8.5 million. If wages are not keeping up with increases in rent, families find themselves on the street. Sooner or later, they then end up at the PATH intake center in the Bronx.
At PATH, no matter where they are in the intake process, they must be given beds if they arrive before 10 p.m., and a ride to that bed and back in the morning to finish the paperwork. (Families are prohibited from sleeping at the PATH center, even for a few hours.) But it can take 12 hours to do the paperwork and be approved for assistance, and they cannot bring food in. A single parent who has no one to hold their place may not hear their name called if they walk to the nearest fast food restaurant. The city provides something similar to a school lunch: sandwiches, graham crackers, and little containers of milk.
A typical family might arrive at 4 p.m., take a school bus to a shelter at 3 a.m., go back to PATH at 8 a.m., and stay until 3 a.m. the next day when they finally get a room in a Manhattan hotel. That’s five hours sleep in three days for a family with little children. In its efforts to provide help with dignity, the city cannot supply sleep to the weary.
Steven Banks, who was a legal aid attorney at the time the aforementioned law was passed in 1999, now oversees Homeless Services under a joint operating agreement with the New York City Human Resources Administration and says that the system is moving as quickly as it can to open additional shelters for adult families to allow more space for those with children. His department is also working on expanding rental assistance but the deluge isn’t abating, creating a kind of hell that can only further destabilize the families. The article describes one single mother who is currently employed trying to negotiate the system with a one-year-old daughter.
But with housing affordability on the wane even in formerly affordable neighborhoods, it may now be how overnights go in a “new normal” of desperation.—Marian Conway