Preventing shelternization: alleviating the struggles of homeless individuals and families in New York City.

Author:Kim, Salley
 
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Introduction I. State of the Homeless: Factors Contributing to Homelessnes; and Failed Legislative Policies A. Homelessness Defined B. Statistical Data on Homelessness and Its Effects on Taxpayers in New York City C. Factors Contributing to Homelessness in New York City D. A Landmark Case: Establishing a Legal Right to Emergency Shelter E. New York City Mayoral Strategies Implemented to Address the Homeless Problem Since 2002 II. Select Housing Programs Utilized by New York City and Why They Fall Short of Their Intended Goals A. Municipal Shelters B. Public Housing Managed by the New York City Housing Authority C. Section Eight Housing D. Other Notable New York City Housing Programs III. Proposals for Immediate and Practicable Strategies to Alleviate the Homeless Problem A. Improving Services Within New York City Homeless Shelters B. Encouraging Interagency Collaboration C. Reforming Policies for Public Housing and Section Eight Housing D. Concerns About Incentivizing Homelessness and Fraud Conclusion INTRODUCTION

Eleven-year-old Dasani, a homeless child in New York City, and her family have few prospects for escaping chronic homelessness. (1) Dasani lives in the Auburn Family Residence, a city-run shelter where sexual predators roam, and mold, roaches, and mice swarm in multitudes. (2) Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter and shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. (3) Auburn is known as a place of last resort for the chronically homeless and has some of the poorest living conditions for families among the city's 152 shelters. (4)

Inside the shelter, Dasani and her siblings' hopes for the future are grim as their family of ten struggles to survive in their single shared room. (5) Auburn has been cited frequently for health and safety violations, such as sexual misconduct by staff members, spoiled food, asbestos, lead paint, and vermin. (6) The shelter also has no certificate of occupancy, as required by law, (7) and the premises are absolutely unfit and unsuitable for children and infants. (8) To make matters worse, the youngest child in Dasani's family is an infant, and one of her younger sisters is legally blind. (9)

Exacerbating the situation, Dasani's parents do not have the education or the financial discipline to maintain permanent housing after leaving the shelter system because they, too, grew up in broken homes falling below the poverty threshold. (10) When Dasani's grandmother passed away, her parents inherited $49,000 of her pension savings. (11) With the help of a rent subsidy program called Advantage, the family was able to avoid becoming homeless and leased an apartment in Staten Island. (12) However, when the subsidies ran out, Dasani's family--along with one quarter of those participating in the assistance program--ended up back in shelters. (13) After two years at Auburn, Dasani's parents made a solemn vow to move as soon as they received their Earned Income Tax Credit. (14) When the time came to receive that credit, however, Dasani's father learned that the government seized his tax refund to pay for child support owed for two other children he had. (15)

Although Dasani's circumstances are partly a product of parental dysfunction resulting from unemployment, lack of discipline, history of arrests, and drug addiction, it is not the sole reason she is a homeless child. (16) As sweeping new policies were implemented to invigorate New York City's economic growth, rents steadily rose while low-income wages stagnated. (17) Hence, chronically poor families such as Dasani's were left with no other option but to enter the New York City shelter system, with few opportunities for transitioning into permanent housing. (18) The longer the family stayed at the shelter, the more difficult it became to keep the family together and the more desperate they became for a permanent home. (19)

Further compounding the problem, Auburn does not have a housing specialist on staff, and it provides no on-site childcare, which prevents residents from searching for jobs or housing. (20) If Children's Services were to ever discover that Dasani's mother left her infant daughter with acquaintances while she searched for housing or a job, her custody of the child would be in serious jeopardy. (21) Meanwhile, the family faces a potential "involuntary discharge" by the Department of Homeless Services due to their stay at Auburn of nearly three years, (22) which may bar them from returning to the city's shelters for thirty days. (23) As Dasani's parents put it, they have become "shelternized," or numb to life in the shelter system that they cannot escape. (24)

The homeless population continues to grow in New York City, and the obstacles that this group must overcome to achieve and maintain permanent housing worsen daily. This Note examines and analyzes the issue of homelessness in New York City, and recommends select ways that the city can assist in transitioning the homeless population into permanent housing. Part I of this Note examines the New York City homelessness problem in depth, with a brief historic background of legal policies, definitions, statistical data, and factors contributing to homelessness. Part II of this Note presents an explanation of certain programs implemented by the New York City government to mitigate the homelessness problem and reasons why the programs are structurally inadequate. This Part also demonstrates that these programs perpetuate a cyclical pattern that forces individuals and families to re-enter the shelter system. Part III of this Note offers recommendations for a multi-faceted approach to not only prevent homelessness, but also to better serve those already using the shelter system in transitioning to permanent housing. For instance, New York City officials can work to ensure transitional services within the shelter system, promote interagency collaboration, and reform stringent eviction policies. By implementing these short-term goals, city officials will be more effectively equipped to solve the growing homeless crisis.

  1. State of the Homeless: Factors Contributing to Homelessness and Failed Legislative Policies

    Homelessness and inadequate social services are issues that policymakers have been grappling with for decades, both at the federal and state level. (25) In order to recognize the stumbling blocks that the New York City homeless population must overcome, it is important to understand the political and legislative landscapes surrounding the issue. First, policy makers and legislators must identify the homeless population in order to implement tailored strategies to resolve the homeless problem. Second, policy makers and legislators must also recognize various factors that contribute to homelessness and its detrimental effects on society. Last, prior ineffective policies should be scrutinized so that policy makers and legislators will be able to modify these strategies going forward.

    1. Homelessness Defined

      Defining who is homeless determines who is eligible for various government-funded assistance programs. (26) In 1987, Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act to address the need for public resources and programs to aid homeless individuals and families. (27) Under the Act, a person is considered homeless if he:

      [L]acks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence; and ... has a primary night time residency that is: (A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations ... (B) [a]n institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or (C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. (28) Although there are many definitions of homelessness at the state and federal level, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sets forth four federally defined categories of individuals and families eligible to receive government aid: (1) literally homeless; (2) imminent risk of homelessness; (3) homeless under other Federal statutes; and (4) fleeing/attempting to flee domestic violence. (29)

      The National Coalition for the Homeless, a leading non-profit organization and advocacy group, also defines three specific types of homelessness: chronic homelessness, transitional homelessness, and episodic homelessness. (30) Those who are "chronically homeless" are those who are most likely to be in the shelter system for long periods of time. (31) Rather than using shelters as a temporary form of relief, the chronically homeless are dependent on shelters and often consist of older individuals and the "hard-core unemployed." (32) The "transitionally homeless" category consists of individuals who enter the shelter system for a short period, as a last resort, before transitioning into stable housing. (33) Last, the "episodically homeless" category is comprised of those who are constantly in and out of shelters. (34) This group often suffers from unemployment, medical, and mental health issues. (35) By understanding which classification individuals and families fall under, policymakers and legislators are better able to determine who is homeless and identify those who are most vulnerable.

    2. Statistical Data on Homelessness and Its Effects on Taxpayers in New York City

      The number of homeless people in New York City has reached unprecedented levels since the Great Depression. (36) Although the number of homeless people declined nationwide, this population has increased in New York City. (37) Of the nation's homeless population, one out of five homeless people are located in New York City or Los Angeles. (38) The Coalition for the Homeless posits that more than 111,000 homeless men, women, and children in New York City used the shelter system in 2013. (39) This means that the number of homeless people is eighty-seven percent higher than...

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