How the Other Half Still Lives
Homeless Children and 'Generous Anger'
When the economy is strong, the homeless population contracts. When the economy is weak, the homeless population expands. The Emergency Assistance Unit--the gateway homeless intake office in the Bronx--is a more reliable economic barometer than the computerized Dow Jones. When mothers and children applying for shelter are sleeping on the floor, or on desks in the office, you know the economy is lousy.
With the recession now in its third year, New York's homeless population is larger than it has ever been. In the late 1980s the shelter population peaked at 28,700. Now it is 38,200. More than 85 percent of the city's homeless population are families, including 17,000 children. Forty percent of these nomadic children suffer from asthma and have no regular doctor. Two years ago, so many mothers with young children started showing up at the office of the Coalition for the Homeless that a playspace and toys were added to the waiting room.
A year ago, with the help of advocates and union members, I was able to sneak into the EAU office. It was something straight out of Dickens or Jacob Riis. Desperate mothers and crying children with running noses were searched for contraband. With the shelter system clogged, the homeless often had to sleep in these offices for two or three days under bright lights before being offered a place to stay. A court order precluding applicants from sleeping overnight in the EAU was routinely violated. Seeing this place gave me a feeling of "generous anger"--the phrase Orwell invoked to describe Dickens's writing about the poorhouse.
To be sure, not all of the homeless want help. These days the street homeless seem to be "more hard-core than before," in the words of Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst for the coalition, who also helps deliver meals to them on many nights. Based on my own interviews, most of the single adult men on the streets don't want social services, medication or Medicare. They prefer to be left alone. Many appear to suffer from serious mental problems, but the state does not provide nearly enough supportive housing units for the mentally ill. This group does not like shelters; they prefer sleeping in subways or in the waiting room of the Staten Island Ferry terminal in winter. Some of these street people tell me they have been homeless for years. They profess no interest in job training, medication or counseling. They present an intractable problem that seems immune to charity, common sense or romantic liberalism.
Every governmental attempt to ameliorate poverty seems to attract its own breed of parasite and leech. New York has had scandals involving poverty programs, community school boards, nursing home operators and Medicaid fraud, kickbacks to politicians for helping get state contracts for drug and alcohol rehab facilities, and politicians monopolizing twenty-year no-bid care leases. Now there are rapacious landlords getting paid by the city to house homeless families. This racket started as a temporary experiment under Mayor Giuliani in August 2000 but grew to 2,000 apartments, dozens of landlords and millions of dollars paid to them out of the city's treasury. The city has been paying these landlords an average of $2,900 a month--a total of $33 million since last July. But the volume of the homeless flood is so large that the city has no time to verify the backgrounds of these bottom-feeder landlords and the conditions of their squalid apartments. One complex of buildings, where the Human Resources Administration placed 260 families, had so many hazardous and unsanitary violations of the building code that a judge took ownership away from the landlord and placed the complex in receivership. Tenants of another Brooklyn complex have sued, charging that they were evicted so their landlord could rent to 125 homeless families.
There are two silver linings on the horizon. In December, Mayor Bloomberg announced an ambitious five-year plan to build or rehabilitate 60,000 units of low- and middle-income housing, some of which would be set aside for the homeless. Bloomberg also doubled the number of rent vouchers and public housing apartments immediately available to homeless families. And on January 17 the Bloomberg administration and advocates for the homeless, led by the Legal Aid Society, reached an agreement that settled twenty years of rancorous litigation. This agreement codified the existing court order requiring the city to provide shelter to the homeless as a permanent legal right. It also granted to the city the authority to eject from the shelter system--whenever the temperature was above freezing--people who refused an appropriate apartment or engaged in misconduct like assault or theft.