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Growing Up Homeless

Sarah Secunda Jun 26, 2009

HOPING FOR THE BEST: Eden, Nick and Zach (left to right) start each day with a two-hour subway ride. PHOTO: JOEL COOK

Franceska Dillella and her three children are attracting a lot of attention. The other passengers on a crowded train on the M line wear tight smiles as two-year-old Eden hollers and swings around the car’s center pole. Her brother Nick, 4, is pushing a toy truck around. Six-year-old Zach, meanwhile, keeps asking his mother if he can have a dollar to get an ice cream cone after school. Yes, Franceska says, taking the opportunity to cleanse his hands with sanitizer wipes.

It is another typical weekday morning as the family endures its two-hour commute from Bushwick, Brooklyn, to Astoria, Queens, where the children attend school. This routine, forced upon them by the City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), leaves Franceska exhausted when the day has hardly begun. But she is often tired these days. Since October, she and her children have been homeless. Her marriage has collapsed. And navigating “the system” has proved to be an impossible task, even for a self-described “extroverted, happy 30-year-old.”

“I feel like I’ve aged ten years,” says Franceska. “I feel so numbed out by the whole experience, I don’t even feel like it’s me.”

LIVING ON THE BRINK

It was only two years ago that Franceska and her husband Joe decided to move back to New York City. The Astoria natives had been living in Springfield, Mass., for a little more than a year when a great deal fell into their laps: a three-bedroom house for $1,000 a month rent in the Queens College Point neighborhood. The couple agreed that the arrangement would help them realize their long-term goals. Franceska would go back to work, she and Joe would save, and eventually they would have enough money to buy their own place. In May 2007, the family returned to Queens.

But their great deal wasn’t so sweet. The house, old and run-down, came with a moldy bathroom and walls that required repainting. Their biggest problem was an antiquated furnace that burned a hole in their finances with energy bills that averaged $800 a month during the winter.

In December 2007 Joe lost his job as a store manager at Au Bon Pain in Queens. The best opportunity he could find in a sinking economy was a part-time position at a staffing agency in downtown Manhattan. He supplemented this income with gigs as a freelance photographer. The money, however, was less than his previous job. At the same time, the cost of utilities started to rise. The couple, which had never struggled to pay their bills before, began to fall behind on rent.

The family applied for food stamps and medical aid in May 2008. “We were holding out,” Franceska says, “hoping that we could catch up on the rent.” She made repeated trips to the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the city department in charge of administering Public Assistance, in an attempt to obtain rental assistance. Her efforts resulted in a one-time payment of their gas-and-electric bill.

DARK TIMES

In October 2008, Con Edison cut off their electricity. The family lived without power for two weeks. Realizing they had exhausted all their options, Franceska and Joe packed a couple of suitcases. The evening of Oct. 17, the couple and their three children traveled to the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) office in the South Bronx, the city’s sole intake center for families seeking emergency shelter. Franceska and Joe were fingerprinted, photographed and entered in a database. They were now officially homeless.

THE NEW HOMELESSNESS

Families who were once barely getting by have been pushed into homelessness by the economic recession, says Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of the Institute for Children and Poverty, a nonprofit that studies family homelessness. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, from July to November 2008, more than 1,300 new families entered New York City’s shelter system each month, the highest monthly average since the city began recording this data 25 years ago.

“There are some families that are here because of chronic poverty issues,” Nunez says. “Some are here because something happened and they couldn’t pay the rent.” He calls this growing population the “new homeless.” “These are people that were middle class, that had jobs, that had no other options.”

“When I first went into the shelter, I thought I could stay there and work and get out,” Franceska says. DHS had placed the family in the Metro Family Residence on Queens Boulevard, a 45-minute subway ride from the elementary school where Zach attended first grade. Nearby was Nick’s pre-school, which also provided day care for Eden.

The kids thought they were in a hotel, so Franceska told them, “Listen, we’re homeless. We don’t have a home right now, but we’re going to get one and things are going to get better.” She laughs, “After a while, they started asking, ‘When are we going to get one?’”

A month into the family’s residency, Franceska said that DHS determined the family’s unit was “too small” and relocated them late one night to the Flushing Family Residence in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

The family’s new unit looked like it had just been evacuated by the previous family. “There was literally someone’s taco dinner still on the kitchen table,” Franceska says. Cockroaches were crawling out of a box of bed sheets. On the inside of the front door, someone had scrawled the word “bitch.”

“It was at that point I felt like I had no control over my life situation anymore,” Franceska says.

‘NO CONTROL’

The shelter’s location in Brooklyn presented another problem for the family. Upon the advice of the city’s Board of Education, Franceska decided to keep her children enrolled in Queens. This meant a two-hour subway trip requiring two transfers. Franceska asked the city to provide her children with direct transportation to and from school, arguing that not only was the commute arduous, but Nick had difficulty walking due to a developmental disorder. But the city was not able to coordinate her children’s transportation. Instead, the shelter issued Franceska a MetroCard with the stipulation that it be used only for the school commute.

The early morning commute is “exhausting,” Franceska says. Zach was often late to school. Some days, when the weather was bad, she paid $25 of her benefit money for a 45-minute taxi ride.

By December, Franceska and Joe’s marriage had deteriorated. A month later, at Franceska’s request, he moved out of the shelter.

Living in the shelter “became harder after their dad left,” Franceska says of her children, especially for Zach, who started seeing a school counselor once a week. On top of this, the family had been chronically ill since moving to Bushwick. “We were throwing up a lot. The kids were missing school a lot,” Franceska says. It did not help that the shelter lacked a medical facility.

A few months ago, Zach became seriously ill. Franceska moved all three children to a friend’s house. The next morning Franceska left Nick and Eden with her friend and took Zach to Flushing Hospital Medical Center where the emergency room admitted him for “acute gastritis.” He was released the following morning after his condition stabilized.

Franceska returned to the Flushing Family Residence that evening with her children. Everyone was tired and eager to relax. But the family did not make it past the front desk. The Dillella children had been out of the shelter for 48 hours, the guard told Franceska, which violated shelter rules. As a result, the whole family had been “locked out of the DHS system.” Franceska explained that she had not been aware of the rule. It did not matter, the guard told her. There was nothing for her to do except to return to PATH in the Bronx and reapply.

“So I was there at PATH with my kids, showing them the hospital papers,” Franceska remembers. “I tell them, ‘My kid’s been hospitalized. Why don’t you just call the shelter and ask them if I can come back in?’” A case worker informed her that it was not possible. Because her family had been locked out of the Flushing residence, the computer system automatically assigned the unit to the next family on the waiting list.

Franceska says she called the DHS Office of Client Advocacy and asked for help. “We don’t do that,” the representative told her. “Client advocacy means that we explain DHS rules to you.”

BACK TO SQUARE ONE

Frustrated and exhausted, Franceska reapplied at PATH to re-enter the system. Having lost shelter during Zach’s brief illness, Franceska also lost her Public Assistance benefits. To regain them, she had to go through a second round of extensive paperwork and required meetings. The family was immediately assigned to a new home at the Stockholm Family Residence in Bushwick, about a mile from the Flushing residence.

“This is what the system has become,” says Nunez, who served as a deputy to the Mayor’s Office of Homelessness Services in the 1980s. The city holds residents to strict rules because it is “overwhelmed with homeless families,” he says. “If they can find a reason to throw somebody out, they will take it so they can make room again.”

“The reality is this system is uncontrolled. It is all over the place, and this woman is stuck in the middle of it,” Nunez says.

DHS and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment by The Indypendent.

KEEPING HOPE ALIVE

Parenting responsibilities and an unpredictable routine, including frequent mandatory mid-day HRA appointments, have cost Franceska two jobs since she entered the shelter system last October. In March, she landed a position as an administrative assistant to the CEO of an artists cooperative in downtown Manhattan. The job paid only $1,200 a month, but she enjoyed the work and felt as if she was developing a career. She began to save up for an apartment so she and her family could leave the shelter system. The last week of April, Franceska received a notice from DHS announcing a new “income contribution program.” The policy required all working families living in municipal shelters to pay rent. The city determined that Franceska’s contribution would be $450 a month, made payable to the Stockholm shelter.

Franceska was incredulous. “What are my choices?” she wondered. “Put my children in foster care so that I can work on my own and sleep on someone’s couch until I have money to get my own place? Is that the solution?”

She wrote the shelter a check for $50, but refused to pay any more. Instead, she took her dissent directly to the city. Along with 15 other Stockholm parents and their children, Franceska and her children traveled to City Hall May 9 “to let the city know what we thought of its program.”

While she has “never been afraid to stand up against something that’s not right,” Franceska felt ashamed, she says, as she watched Zach march outside City Hall, his small hands holding up a sign that read, “Let my mom keep her income.”

“I want better for my children,” she says. “And I know that every family in there feels the same way.” The rent program was immediately slammed by homeless advocacy groups and city officials, including City Council member Tony Avella (D-Queens) and City Comptroller William Thompson, both mayoral candidates. Citing concerns over “technical issues,” DHS announced a temporary suspension of the rent program May 21.

MOVING ON , MOVING OUT

In March, Franceska qualified under the DHS Work Advantage program for a $1,070 rental subsidy (see “Ticket to Nowhere” below). After weeks of searching for an apartment on her own time, she found a broker willing “to deal with the city.” He had one listing: a two-family house in the East Bronx.

The apartment had only one bedroom and crumbling walls, but the landlord would accept Franceska’s city voucher, so she agreed to take it. That was when she learned that the rent was actually $1,150 a month. “But that’s not what the lease is going to say,” the broker told her, explaining that she would have to pay the extra $80 a month out-of-pocket.

Franceska says she is excited to be leaving the shelter. “My door. My lock,” she says. More important, she adds, her kids will have a home again.

Yet the challenges ahead are daunting, says Linda Contes, an advocate with the nonprofit Picture the Homeless. The city’s voucher expires after two years. “Once [Franceska’s] rental subsidy runs out, how is she going to maintain her apartment? How is she going to maintain her kids?”

Franceska, who recently became the manager of a SoHo gallery, says that she is hopeful about her and her children’s futures.

Reflecting on her time within the system, Franceska appreciates the housing and monetary assistance she did receive. She adds, however, “You can’t rely on this system. Just normal life becomes dysfunctional.”

Back in June 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an ambitious five-year plan to reduce the number of homeless New Yorkers by two-thirds.

“At its heart,” the mayor said, “this new plan aims to replace the city’s over-reliance on shelters with innovative, cost-effective interventions that solve homelessness.”

Bloomberg’s five years are up, and critics say there’s little cause for celebration. While the City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) reported a decrease in the single adult shelter population, the total homeless population continues to hover around 36,000. More significantly, since 2005, the number of families entering the shelter system has steadily increased. The nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless reported that in March 2009 there were more than 9,600 families with 15,500 children living in city shelters. (DHS has not released an annual progress report on the mayor’s plan since July 2005. )

DHS counters criticism by pointing to the number of families moved out of the shelter system each month. But these numbers are misleading, says Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of the Institute for Children and Poverty, a nonprofit that researches family homelessness. While DHS trumpets the number of families moved out of the system, says Nunez, it neglects to mention the number who re-enter it. “[Shelters] see families come back all the time,” Nunez says. He believes the high recidivism rate is a direct consequence of the Bloomberg administration’s scramble to meet what he calls an “arbitrary goal.”

“They’re getting into the business of pushing people through the system,” he says.

As a deputy to the Mayor’s Office of Homelessness Services under Ed Koch, Nunez was responsible for coordinating the policies and services administered by all city agencies dealing with homelessness. He has since authored six books on family homelessness, including, A Shelter is Not a Home — Or Is It? Lessons from Family Homelessness in New York City.

Nunez says the push to reduce the shelter population is being facilitated by new DHS initiatives, including “targets.” Every month the city sets a target number of families to be moved out of each nonprofit shelter.

“For every family you go above the target, you’ll get $2,000,” explains Nunez. But for every family that a shelter falls below the target, “they’ll deduct $2,000, or something like that.” The targets are “often unachievable,” he says, and subject to change from month to month.

Another DHS initiative attracted national attention in early May when The New York Times reported that the department had begun charging rent to the working homeless living in city-contracted shelters. The media unearthed numerous cases of people living at the poverty line being told to pay up to 50 percent of their income or face eviction from their shelters.

The Bloomberg administration said the program had been mandated by a state regulation. Advocacy groups, as well as many city officials including City Comptroller and mayoral candidate William Thompson, decried the rent program as an attack on the working poor.

“We think what we see here is the Bloomberg administration trying to put into place policies that make it harder for families to stay in shelters in an attempt to push them out,” says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst of the Coalition for the Homeless.

The rent program also penalizes shelter providers, Nunez says, noting that the provider, not the municipality, collects the rent from the tenant. If a tenant fails to pay, the shelter suffers a financial loss. Nunez calls the policy another instance of the Bloomberg administration “trying to force the providers to move [tenants] out faster.” More remarkable, Nunez says, is the policy’s short-sightedness: Families evicted from shelter for failure to pay will only end up re-entering the system.

DHS announced the suspension of the rent program May 21. In a written statement, Commissioner Robert V. Hess said the department was “actively working with the state to make sure [the program] is not reinstated until it is fair and understandable.”

New York City Council member Bill de Blasio, chair of the General Welfare Committee, is calling on Bloomberg to lobby in support of state legislation, introduced several weeks ago by Senator Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Keith Wright, that would nullify the state regulation.

Meanwhile, the city’s foundering shelter system is being forced to absorb a new population composed of working-class families hard hit by the recession. Since June 2008, reports the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless families living in New York City shelters has increased by 12 percent, and the number of new families entering the system is at a record high.

The Bloomberg administration, in the meantime, has not shifted from the policies enacted under its five-year plan. Nor has the Mayor, who is facing reelection, publicly addressed how his administration intends to respond to the surge of new homeless families.

Nunez, for one, is pessimistic. “You look at this issue a year from now, and you watch how their hands are going to be full,” he says. “This whole system is going to explode.” — S.S.

Homeless families eager to move into permanent housing often encounter an immediate obstacle: The vast majority of landlords and brokers refuse to accept the city’s Department of Homeless Services Work Advantage voucher, a limited-time rental subsidy introduced by the Bloomberg administration in 2007.

FROZEN IN TIME: Franceska Dillella, mother of three, finds a
moment to smile. PHOTO COURTESY: FRANCESKA DILLELLA

“You are not going to find an apartment with the Work Advantage voucher for the voucher’s amount,” says Linda Contes, an advocate with the direct action group Picture the Homeless. Contes, who has been living in a shelter with her husband since August 2008, says it took her months before she found a landlord willing to accept the couple’s $962 monthly voucher — but he would only take it on the condition that the Contes pay him an additional $300 a month. The couple agreed to the terms.

Contes says these kinds of arrangements, known as “side deals,” are illegal. They are also unavoidable. “[Landlords] know that people coming out of the shelters will do that because these people want to get out of the shelters.”

The terms of Work Advantage further constrain a family’s options by requiring that they move into the first available apartment, no matter where they lived before becoming homeless. If a family takes too long to find a place, the city either revokes the voucher or places the family in “any apartment it finds,” Contes says, “and regardless of your needs.”

The city’s rental assistance expires after two years. As a result, says Contes, families that have not been able to shore up their finances often find themselves back where they started: in a shelter.
— S.S.

For more information see “Three Kids, No Home: Navigating the Shelter System One Step at a Time” by Sarah Secunda, with photos by Joel Cook in this issue of The Indypendent. Also see “Homeless Advocates Criticize New DHS Rule: City Plan Could Close Down Dozens of Faith-based Shelter by Alex Kane in the March 20th issue of The Indypendent.