New York is in the midst of a homeless crisis. Figures released by the City’s Department of Homeless Services show that more than 37,000 men, women and children take advantage of the municipal shelter system each night. Forty-four percent of those are children. These figures don’t include the huge number of people who sleep on park benches, in doorways and in the subway system.
Ann Duggan is a policy analyst for New York’s Coalition for the Homeless.
Shelters are not the answer to homelessness,” she said. “They are a temporary solution that prevent people from dying on the streets. The real answer to the problem is affordable housing.”
Duggan has been working in New York for three years. The 30-year-old Corkonian is an English literature graduate but felt the need to work with the homeless.
She and the rest of the Coalition team have great enthusiasm for their work. “We don’t work 9 to 5,” Duggan said. “It is not just a job; there is a passion and a conviction. You don’t have to be a homeless advocate to walk around New York and see there is a crisis. That makes our work more real.
“There is a problem: people are homeless and they don’t need to be. New York is one of the richest cities in the world and yet there are 16,000 babies sleeping in shelters tonight, that just doesn’t seem right.”
The New York Coalition for the Homeless was incorporated in 1981. It is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help homeless people with a wide range of issues. Its ultimate goal is to eventually have affordable housing for everyone.
“Our aim is to let homeless people articulate their own needs and to have their own voice,” Duggan said. “We work together with them on policy and campaigns. Respect for them comes naturally.”
One of its recent campaigns, launched in October 2002, is called “New York kids need housing.” The group has put together a public education video that will be shown in schools and other forums. The aim is to show how widespread the problem is and how the traditional image of a homeless person is divorced from the reality.
“We ask children to describe a homeless person and they describe a bowery bum of 25 years ago, the media stereotype,” Duggan said. “We tell them that the average homeless New Yorker is a child. That is the most important message this organization is working on.”
One of the children featured in the video is Herbert R. Bennett Jr., aka J.R. He is 14 and homeless. He visitedthe Coalition headquarters last week with a classmate to take part in some community service for his school.
“I have been living in a shelter since June and only got accepted into a permanent shelter in October,” J.R. said. “I don’t look homeless, do I?”
The handsome teenager is as far from the homeless stereotype as possible. He looks happy and healthy with a diamond stud earring and a black cap turned backward. His family life started to unravel when his mother became ill with Hick’s disease. She is now in a nursing home and he lives with his father in a family shelter.
“No one in school knows I am homeless, I don’t want to tell them,” he said. “I don’t have friends because I always know that I might have to move school, so I don’t let people get close to me.”
The articulate youngster writes poetry and hopes to become a lawyer.
Duggan is convinced that the problem can be solved with the right measures. “We know what works, we know what worked in the past and brought numbers down,” she said. “That’s where the optimism comes from. The situation is solvable.”
Duggan dresses casually in denim jeans and jacket with a woolly cap covering her short peroxide hair. She seems adept at talking to the press and has all the facts about the Coalition, the shelters and the general problem at her fingertips.
“We have the highest numbers on record since the Great Depression,” she said. “Since 1998, the overall census has increased by 71 percent, which is quite frightening.”
Coalition for the Homeless has its headquarters in Manhattan. There are 75 paid staff members and up to 100 volunteers. Last week, the office was buzzing with activity. Immediately inside the door is the Crisis Intervention Program, where people come in to get advice. Duggan described the help provided.
“We help people with benefits, shelter problems, people with vouchers ask for lists of landlords, eviction prevention, rental assistance,” she said.
The Coalition runs 12 programs, including a soup kitchen and food delivery service.
“If people are hungry, you have to feed them,” Duggan said. “The mobile soup kitchen vans make stops around the city every night at the same time. That becomes extremely important in weather like this. The last thing you want is people standing out in the cold waiting. It’s bad enough that they sleep on the street.”
Duggan said she thinks this particular program incorporates two important aims of the group.
“Not only are you feeding homeless individuals and families, but you are also providing a public education for the volunteers who are learning about homeless people,” Duggan said.
Legal right to shelter
One night last weekend, two vans were parked by the side of St. Bartholomew’s Church off Park Avenue. A group of men and women gathered in an orderly line and were given a selection of sandwiches, fruit and milk. Some of them inquired about the sandwich filling and others asked for more mustard. Many of them looked like regular New Yorkers going about their business. They exchanged greetings with the volunteers and then moved off quickly and made their way to whatever makeshift home they had. The bright lights and Christmas music of Midtown Manhattan painted quite a contrast to the plight of these people.
New York is one of the few places in the United States where there is a legal right to shelter. In 1979, the Coalition took a case against the city. The result was a consent decree that in turn resulted in the legal right to shelter. The Department of Homeless Services oversees the shelter system. The Coalition carries out spot checks on shelters to ensure that they are up to the health and safety standards.
When someone becomes homeless, the first port of call is the Emergency Assistance Unit. He is assigned to overnight accommodation. After a time, he is assigned to a more permanent shelter, known as a tier two shelter. Once that happens, things start to improve and he can start to plan his next move.
While the shelters provide a refuge and a base, they are not suitable for the regular routine of family life. Children get assigned to new schools, there are curfews to be met which can make night work difficult.
The average length of stay in a shelter used to be 5 months but now it can often take a family up to 11 months to get affordable housing. It seems like a vicious circle.
“It is the lack of affordable housing that leads people to shelters and, in turn, the lack of affordable housing means people living in shelters can’t move out,” Duggan said. “There is public housing available and there are housing vouchers, but neither of them meet the need. The waiting list in incredibly long.”
Exacerbating the problem are the various cuts to the housing programs that some administrations have sanctioned (e.g., the lack of housing preservation and the eviction programs). Added to that is the fact that the New York population keeps rising. There is little wonder that families now make up 75 percent of the official figures for homelessness.
The idea of working for a bed does not appeal to Duggan.
“I don’t think that making someone do a menial job, like cleaning up the park, for their welfare check is an appropriate way to handle the crisis,” Duggan said. “I think what is appropriate is computer training and real skills that let people move on. If people don’t work and you terminate their shelter rights and throw them onto the streets, it doesn’t solve homelessness, it just increases the street population.”
The Coalition is pleased to hear the city acknowledge that more housing is a solution.
“In the short-term, it is better to provide more housing vouchers rather than more beds [because] vouchers make more economic sense,” Duggan said.
Certainly, the figures that Duggan provides would seem to support this.
“The average cost of a family shelter per year is $36,000, whereas a rental subsidy for a family would cost $8,900 per year,” Duggan said.
Duggan said that many people are surprised to find themselves homeless.
“We have had families who say, ‘We always saw ourselves as middle class, didn’t think we would ever need your services,’ ” she said. “If you fall behind on rent or someone loses their job, you can become vulnerable very quickly. Most people only two paychecks away from being homeless.”