New York Tightens Shelter Policies

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007


No child is supposed to sleep on the street in New York. The city is unique among major cities in that it has guaranteed -- by consent decree and later court orders -- shelter to every homeless individual or family.

But on a recent cold and rainy night, Cristal, Rocheleet and Bryan Garcia, ages 13, 16, and 17, splayed out on a sidewalk across the street from a city office that is supposed to help people find a place to spend the night. They huddled under layers of clothes and towels, taking shelter with their parents below a tin scaffold.

City officials have declared them ineligible for shelter, asserting that they are not really homeless and they have relatives in Puerto Rico with whom they could stay. And because of a new city policy, social workers also denied the family emergency one-night shelter.

So, for two nights, Carmen Rosa, the mother, staked out a stretch of sidewalk and set up house for her children and ill husband: carpeting the area with flattened boxes, walling it off with heaps of family possessions, staying awake all night to watch over them as they slept.

"It's my job to take care of them," Rosa, 45, said in a low, calm voice, her hand on Cristal's shoulder.

Homelessness in the city has been under special scrutiny since 2004, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg promised to reduce the number of homeless people by two-thirds by 2009. While the number of homeless single adults has declined 19 percent since then, officials acknowledge that the number of homeless families is at an all-time high, with more than 9,500 in the shelter system.

As the number of homeless families soars, the fate of families like Rosa's is under debate in City Council chambers, courtrooms and intake centers and on the streets. Advocates for the homeless and city officials are arguing over what constitutes homelessness. Who is actually in crisis? What mechanisms should be used to decide?

The Legal Aid Society has taken the city to court, arguing that the city is wrongly declaring some families ineligible, a charge that city officials vehemently deny. One City Council member has publicly apologized to a homeless family over poor treatment. And the homeless themselves are trying to cope with new rules.

Every day, people line up at the city's only intake center for families seeking shelter. There, employees of the Department of Homeless Services determine who qualifies for temporary housing and dispatch them to shelters.

Women, men and children arrive at the intake center dragging luggage and plastic bags full of their belongings, toting Snow White backpacks stuffed with children's underwear and T-shirts, pushing carts overflowing with toys and TVs. One woman pulled a plaid, wheeled suitcase full of baby clothes, bottles and diapers -- a postnatal kit for a baby due any day.

Applicants go through a comprehensive screening process in which the agency sends investigators to visit prior residences and decide whether any of them are still viable, officials say. And at least three people, including a lawyer, must approve an eligibility decision.

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