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.
But advocates say the city still makes too many mistakes. Steven Banks, a lead attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said that in 2006, 51.8 percent of all families deemed ineligible subsequently were found eligible.
Over the summer, homeless families ruled ineligible for a placement of several months in a shelter began to mill around a courtyard in front of the intake center to ask the staff for beds for one night. The adults sat on benches while their children did homework, played video games or ran around the concrete yard.
Sometime between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. they would be transported to a shelter for a single night's stay, the children falling asleep on the buses. At 7 a.m., the buses would bring the families and all their possessions back to the intake center, where many would start the process all over again.
But last month, the city stopped providing the one-night stays, saying that the families are not truly homeless because they can stay with relatives or friends.
"If the family is found ineligible for shelter because they have another housing option, what we say to that family is, 'Look, go home,' " said Robert Hess, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.
Since the new policy was enacted, 146 families have been ruled ineligible for shelter, and 24 have been denied overnight stays, according to the agency.
Many may have returned to the crowded apartments of friends and relatives. But others outside the intake center on a recent night said they had slept in a hospital emergency room, on the subway, in a fast-food restaurant and on the basement floor of a church.
On each of three nights a reporter visited the intake center, a few people emerged from the building and said they had been rejected for an overnight but had nowhere else to go. Homeless advocates worked the phones, asking agency officials to reconsider.
Meanwhile, members of the clergy were meeting with city officials on the issue. Outraged council members called a hearing. There, Don Allen Sr. testified that he had nowhere to go and had slept on the floor of a church with his two sons.
"If me and my sons did have someplace to go, we'd go there -- it's that simple," said Allen, weeping before the silent crowd.
"I'm here to say I'm sorry," said council member Jessica Lappin, who represents the Upper East Side, one of Manhattan's wealthiest areas.
Commissioner Hess said that changes in eligibility reflect changes in people's life circumstances, not mistakes by the agency.
Rosa's story, like those of many who end up with no place to go, is complicated.
She came to New York from Puerto Rico with her family in May 2006 to move in with her 25-year-old daughter, who was having legal difficulties.
Months later, the daughter kicked out Rosa and the rest of her family. In August, a neighbor who had taken them in temporarily said they had to go.
Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, Rosa's mother's house, where Rosa had been living before coming to the United States, had filled with other relatives, she said, so there was no longer room. In New York, Rosa began an application for public housing and believed she would soon have a home.
The homeless agency sheltered the family during August, while investigating its case. When the city found the family ineligible, recommending a return to Puerto Rico to live with Rosa's mother, the family began to use the one-night shelter stays.
That ended on Oct. 22, when the family reapplied for shelter and was told no more overnights, Rosa said.
Agency officials said they could not discuss publicly a specific family's case.
After losing the overnights, the family camped directly outside the intake center, then shifted to a spot across the street. The children helped crumple paper to plug holes in nearby pipes that housed roaches and rats. Rosa found a fire hydrant spouting water that the children could use to wash up in the morning before school.
"I can't do it anymore," said Cristal, when she was out of her mother's earshot. "I hate the street."
That night, advocates found a hotel room for the family and phoned the Department of Homeless Services, and the next day, Rosa's family was taken to a shelter. "I never want to be homeless again," Rosa said.