By: Karen Loew
For the first time since the Bronx's dark days in the late 1970s, needy people are sleeping on the floor of the parish hall in St. Ann’s Church of Morrisania. They are refugees come from four blocks away – the city’s Prevention, Assistance and Temporary Housing office on Powers Avenue, where a new way of dealing with homeless families sparked instant controversy when instituted Oct. 12.
Rev. Martha Overall, the priest of St. Ann’s, went to the PATH office that day – the Friday before last – to demonstrate against the new policy, which limits the number of one-night emergency shelter stays a homeless family may receive. Such stays had been the last resort for families the city, after an investigation, deemed ineligible for longer-term shelter because they seemed to have other housing options through friends, family and other resources. Overall, who calls the new policy “truly heartless,” returned to St. Ann’s as host of eight families needing a place to sleep, including a pregnant woman, a victim of domestic violence, and a dehydrated woman in need of medical attention, she said.
“There’s got to be a better way to do this,” Overall said Oct. 19, having housed families at the church all week, with parishoners cooking dinner, and phone calls coming in from other people looking for shelter.
But the city Department of Homeless Services considers week one of the new policy a success: The PATH office had 40 percent fewer shelter-seeking families showing up after 5 p.m. than earlier this month, DHS Commissioner Robert Hess reported on Friday. That's 78 late arrivals on Oct. 16 as compared to 132 late arrivals on Oct. 5.
“The policy we’ve implemented has worked and has had the desired effect. To this point it's been remarkably successful,” Hess said. Last week intake at PATH was “much calmer, much more humane, much more efficient.”
The problem that led to the change, he said, came from a small group of ineligible shelter-seekers “that are jamming up the system at night and making it difficult for us to focus on folks who are eligible.” By making it clear that those already found ineligible have nothing to gain from reappearing, Hess said, traffic at PATH thinned and “has allowed us to focus on the families that are eligible … and are in crisis and need our attention.”
Some of those turned down, meanwhile, helped themselves to the information and referrals in PATH's resource room, and from Friday night through Monday night there were only eight instances of ineligible families persisting in reapplying, he said.
Homeless advocates remain concerned that, with an eligibility system that even the city acknowledges produces erroneous evaluations, the stakes are too high to take a hard line about sheltering parents and children who claim to have no other choice.
Going through the disruptive, taxing process of reapplying in person every day “is not the behavior of someone who has a place to go,” says Lindsey Davis, a community organizer with Coalition for the Homeless who worked at PATH several days last week. “If a family has an available and safe and appropriate housing option, we would all encourage that family to utilize that resource,” Davis said. But now, after a rejection from PATH, “if they don’t have a place to go, there really isn’t anything available to them.”
Given that a portion of applicants gain shelter only after reapplying – a full third of those eventually found eligible, according to the Legal Aid Society, which has been fighting the city over homeless housing for decades – the new policy is untenable, says Legal Aid attorney in chief Steven Banks.
“It was only through legal representation that [several families] have been able to get a roof over their heads by the end of the week,” Banks said. “As the second week of the policy now begins, we're going to continue to monitor the situation and take action where appropriate.”
Although the policy change has led some to recall the harsher climate of the Emergency Assistance Unit and the Giuliani years, Hess rejects such comparisons wholesale.
“There’s not been any police action whatsoever. There’s not been any heavy-handedness,” he said. “This is in no way an effort to turn families out in the street that don't have a place to go.”
Hess and Banks are among those expected to testify before the City Council's general welfare committee this Wednesday in a special hearing on the policy change called by Brooklyn City Councilman Bill de Blasio, the committee chair.