“The new Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) facility was designed to provide compassionate and efficient services that had not previously been offered by the City. The center we are standing in today reflects our commitment to tearing down an old system that was fragmented and slow.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the opening of the new PATH center at 151st Street and Walton Avenue in the Bronx, May 3, 2011.
“They need someone to come in here undercover!” yelled a petite, angry mother one Thursday morning to no one in particular. The 37-year-old Queens-born woman was leaving the new PATH building in the Bronx, which serves as the only administrative gateway for families into the city’s homeless shelter system.
“The kids are sleeping on benches! The food is horrible!” she added. A small group of women joined her trailing children and strollers. The mothers gathered outside, sharing stories of their struggles on the streets and inside and outside the center.
For Angela Marougkas, there was nowhere else to go. With her 9-year-old daughter Jasmine by her side, and her 19-year old daughter and baby grandson close by, Marougkas said she had quit her job in order to care for her dying mother earlier in the year, leaving her unable to pay the rent when her mother passed away. In May, pregnant with twins, and suddenly homeless, she arrived at Mayor Bloomberg’s new PATH center in desperation.
Marougkas’s family is one of nearly 1,500 new city families who seek homeless shelter every month. Their first stop is the new PATH center with its sleek, mirrored walls. It replaced its notoriously grim Power Street predecessor, which was plagued by long waits and poor conditions.
When Bloomberg cut the ribbon last May, he promised that processing times would be cut from 20 hours to seven or eight and that families would receive placements the same day they applied. But the experiences of many families applying for shelter do not reflect that pledge.
“They treat us like animals,” said Marougkas. “We wait here all day just to get placed in shelter for the next 10 days. And we hope and pray we’re found eligible.”
The majority of families – a staggering 67 percent in February 2011 – are found ineligible. To comply with Department of Homeless Services regulations, homeless families must have written proof that they have no other viable housing option. This creates a culture of suspicion, rather than compassion, said Lindsey Davis, director of homeless services at New York City’s Coalition for the Homeless, a national advocacy group. “The city’s focus is on investigating fraud and knowing whether or not someone has another place they can stay,” said Davis. “That’s to the detriment of knowing whether someone is safe in that place.”
The high number of rejections spell grave consequences for a growing number homeless families as winter approaches. Bloomberg’s 2004 promise to reduce the number of homeless by two-thirds in five years was undercut by the latest figures, which show that there are 45 percent more families on the streets today than when Bloomberg took office in 2002. The data, compiled by Coalition for the Homeless from city statistics, show that the number of homeless is at an all-time high of 41,000 as of October.
Homeless families say they become trapped in a damaging 10-day cycle. They are allowed to stay in a temporary shelter for little more than a week before they are called back for review. The caseworkers at PATH require families to sign in and out of each shelter, maintaining perfect records of each stay. If they do not have the right documents when they are called back, often at little more than a morning’s notice, they risk being turned away.
The system also requires every member of the family be present at PATH before being found eligible for shelter. This means parents often face a tough choice: take their children out school for a day or end up on the streets for a night.
Every Thursday, at the bottom of the long, concrete ramp up to the PATH center, three young women clutching clipboards addressed families as they leave. The women handed out flyers for the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention Program at Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan. “We are not allowed inside,” said Jessica Horner, a children’s advocate, “so we wait here to catch people on their way out.” The Coalition helps 3,500 families a day with job training, emergency food and gathering the all-important documents.
Rats, mice and roaches
Those lucky enough to be granted shelter may find themselves in worse conditions than they imagined. In November, Maxine Rice, a young black mother from Brooklyn, said the places she stayed in were so infested with cockroaches, that she stuffed her sons’ ears with cotton wool to stop the bugs from crawling in them as they sleep.
Things were looking up last November for Quanisha Henderson, a 21-year Brooklyn mother with painted, almond-shaped eyes. She said she had become homeless two years earlier when she aged out of foster care. The agency placed her in a scatter-site apartment where she could live with her son. She’d found a job at nearby salon braiding hair. Then she was called back in after she failed the background check because she couldn’t provide documents showing her accommodation for the last two years.
Henderson’s eyes filled with tears as she talking about ending up back back in the shelters. She remembered that in the evenings, men stalk young women. “They think we’ll be desperate,” she said. “They think we’ll do anything for $10.”
For Angela Marougkas, bouncing from shelter to shelter came to a head on a hot day last August. She was six-months pregnant with twins when the PATH center assigned her to a room on the fourth floor of a scatter site in Brooklyn. The next day the family traveled back to the PATH center, jumping the turnstiles in the subway, to ask for a new shelter without four flights of stairs.
Her family was immediately sent back to the fourth floor apartment to sign out with their caseworker. By the time the papers were signed, it was getting late. The family was sent to a shelter in Brooklyn, five of them crammed in a tiny room with one window. It was too hot to get any rest. Instead, they slept on trains between trips to the PATH center.
A month later, in September, nurses told Angela that her stress levels were dangerously high. She had an emergency C-section on October 7. One of her twins was stillborn.
In November, she found herself again standing outside the PATH center, worrying about her surviving son. “I’m supposed to be at the hospital,” said Marougkas. “He’s in critical care and I’m supposed to breastfeed him. I cannot be here all day.” She railed against the center, angry at her caseworker’s familiar news that she had to go to each shelter she’d stayed in and get the papers to prove each move.
Putting fraud investigations before people
Families often need help assembling documents correctly. “So we step in and try to help them create documentation of the problems that they’ve experienced,” said Lindsey Davis of Coalition for the Homeless.
At PATH, part of the caseworkers’ job is to do everything they can to keep people from entering the shelter system in the first place. Clerks will try to send the family back to any home they might have stayed in during their quest for shelter, even if the home is not safe, or they are not longer welcome.
Davis has worked with families who have been told to stay with people the barely. Sometimes the tenant will not let them in. Unless the family can prove that they cannot stay, they are deemed ineligible for shelter and forced onto the street.
“We have to try to figure out if there’s a way to document these things, so that they will be included in an investigation that the city is doing into their situation,” Davis said. Despite several calls and emails, the Department of Homeless Services refused to comment.
One weary mother recalled her struggles trying to get her paperwork together. Marie Searle lost the lease on her home in Maryland and brought her two sons, ages two and four, to live with family in New York in July. When her family put her out, she turned to PATH, which has rejected her bid for shelter twice because she failed to provide letters proving her situation.
To make things worse, her sons became sick after eating the city-provided food at the center. No food is allowed inside PATH.
“The same day we left here they ended up in the hospital with stomach viruses for four days,” said Searle. “Both my babies were hooked up on tubes and IVs. They’re giving kids spoiled food, old food, cold food and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The end of Advantage
Despite his early promises, Mayor Bloomberg has significantly reduced the number of programs available to the homeless. In March, the state announced that it would cut all the funding for the city’s Advantage program, which provided rental subsidies to help the homeless transition from emergency shelters to self-sufficiency.
“There are no new people entering that program,” said Davis, “so that really means people staying in shelter for longer periods of time. It’s one reason why the number of people in shelter has increased.”
Sensing a coming crisis, lawyers from Legal Aid secured an injunction to prevent the city from cutting off Advantage payments to households whose contracts had not expired. But those contracts are NOW coming to an end, and there are no new programs to replace them. Department of Homeless Services data shows that, by January 2011, 40 percent of Advantage families had reapplied for shelter.
A 32-year-old mother of four with red hair scraped back from her freckled face found herself in a bedbug-infested shelter after losing her Advantage payments. “I just got evicted yesterday,” Tiffany Branigan said in a quiet voice, while her sons, between the ages of five and 14, slumped over suitcases behind her. “For non-payment of rent, because I used to have the Child Advantage but they stopped the payments.”
The family was sent to a temporary shelter at 8 p.m. the night before, but the address they had been given didn’t exist, so they came back to PATH. When they finally got to the right shelter at 11 p.m., the mattresses were crawling with bedbugs and the children couldn’t sleep. Branigan collected some of the bugs in plastic wrapping and brought her children back to the center the next day to complain, but she was told by her caseworker that there was nothing she could do to get a transfer. “So I have to stay there and deal with it,” Branigan said. “She told me to wash our clothes in hot water, but it’s not us. It’s the beds.”
In mid-November, Angela Marougkas went to pick up her premature son from the hospital. But when she got to the shelter on East New York Ave and Junior, she was turned away at the door because the baby’s name was not yet added to their case file. “We wound up going all the way back to the Bronx with a premature baby, and he’s under special instructions he’s not supposed to be out in the cold,” said Marougkas. “And not only this: they wanted us to leave the next day because the capacity of our room was five people, and with the baby we made six.”
Eventually, Marougkas’s caseworker said the family could fit six of them in the room because the baby was so small.
Still, her struggle is not over.
“Today is the tenth day,” said Marougkas, on a cell phone in her temporary apartment. “But they didn’t contact us with a letter, yet. I don’t want to jinx things. I’m just hoping and praying that we can stay here, somewhere stable, until we find ourselves an apartment.”