by Alex Berg and Mustafa Mehdi Vural
Karen Suazo left Honduras to come to the United States in 2002, hoping to find work in a hair salon, and to improve her life. Instead, five years after stepping onto U.S. soil, she moved into a homeless shelter, alone, unemployed and pregnant with her first son.
“I never think that I am going to be in the shelter. Never. So bad,” said Suazo, 25, holding her 3-month-old son in her arms.
For the last two years, Suazo has lived with her two children in East Tremont’s Cross Bronx Residence, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
“Different people coming in every day, too much people coming in,” Suazo said, describing the near-constant flow of those seeking refuge.
Suazo is one of 39,000 people seeking shelter each night in the city’s homeless system, a record number that has grown by 45 percent since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office eight years ago.
According to a recently released report from the Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy organization, more people are seeking shelter in 2009 in New York City than they did during the Great Depression of the 1930s—this despite Bloomberg’s 2004 initiative aimed at reducing the homeless population in the city by two-thirds in five years.
Bloomberg’s 2004 Housing Stability Plus program (HSP) aimed to provide a city-wide rental assistance program for homeless families, chronically homeless single adults in shelter and parents awaiting housing in order to reunify with their children in foster care.
The plan offered five-year housing subsidies to homeless families that decreased in value by 20 percent each year. This plan replaced the former system that gave priority to homeless individuals and families for public housing and federal Section 8 vouchers.
Many in the Cross Bronx shelter said it is more difficult than ever to find affordable housing, as a result. “People tell me that it was so easy before,” said Suazo. “You stay in shelter for six months and they take you to an apartment. Now, it is so hard. My friend has been living in the shelter for three years.”
Shandell Jackson, a 28-year old mother of one daughter at the Cross Bronx Residence, waited for two years for a voucher.
Jackson, who works for the Department of Parks and Recreation, entered the shelter system because she was a victim of domestic violence. She had been to six shelters over the past three years before coming to the Cross Bronx Residence.
“We don’t get nothing. Nothing ever gets done. They try to get you put out of the shelter,” Jackson said.
The more than 50 families in the shelter are supposed to receive basic supplies such as pillows and blankets. Jackson complained that the supplies either don’t arrive or are stolen.
“It’s an argument if I go and ask for some tissue,” Jackson said. “We don’t get roach spray–we’re supposed to get roach spray. You’ve got people in here that are not U.S. citizens and they don’t have anything.”
Despite everything, Karen Suazo, a Honduran immigrant, remains optimistic about eventually leaving the shelter with her children.
“I want to work hard,” Suazo said, “to give them a better life.”