Government / Housing

Forum explores fixes for homelessness

Annie Nova

A woman and her child at a forum to discuss housing and homelessness at Casita Maria in October.

City should invest in permanent housing, say advocates

Maria Walles thought she had finally escaped the New York City shelter system. After 10 years of living in temporary rooms, she was given her own studio apartment in Brooklyn, where she lived with her two daughters, 11 and 22, and her husband. Through a program called Work Advantage, which subsidized a portion of the rent for people leaving the city’s shelter system, Walles paid just $50 a month, and the state and the city covered the balance of the $962 rent. However, when Governor Cuomo ended support for the program in 2011, Walles was evicted. Now, over the past three years, she and her family have lived in five different shelters– at a cost to the city of $3,000 a month.

She is not alone. Families are being evicted from shelters across the city due to high maintenance costs. This past August, 41 families were evicted from a now-shuttered shelter at 941 Intervale Ave. Advocates for the homeless are now calling for the city to invest in subsidized permanent housing, rather than continue to pay for temporary shelter rooms that cost the city more and leave families unsettled for years.

“The city is paying contractors exorbitant amounts to maintain unstable housing for New York City residents,” said K. Samuels, a member of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group based in the Bronx. “By not building income-targeted housing for neighborhoods, the people who helped create this city are becoming homeless.”

On Oct. 28, Picture the Homeless and the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association came together to host a town hall forum on homelessness in the South Bronx. The event, held at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education on Simpson Street, gave community members a chance to vent their frustrations, and propose solutions for one of the city’s most intractable problems: the shortage of low-income permanent housing.

At the forum, advocates suggested funneling money from the Department of Homeless Services into permanent rental subsidies or employing people to work on apartments they would then live in.

Meanwhile, the homeless at the meeting recounted tales of being moved from shelter to shelter over years. New York City’s shelter population is approaching 57,000, including more than 24,000 children, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy group. Hunts Point and Longwood alone host 13 shelters, with a total of 564 units. These buildings are called “cluster-site shelters,” and are owned and operated by private organizations under contract with the city.

But under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has started to change its policy regarding cluster-site shelters, and in August, the Department of Homeless Services announced plans to slash payments to private shelter operators by $61 million. This caused Aguila, Inc., the non-profit that managed 941 Intervale Ave. along with other Bronx sites, to close all of its Bronx shelters immediately.

“If Aguila is pulling out of the shelter business, that means hundreds, if not thousands, of people are in limbo,” said Ryan Hickey, the housing organizer at Picture the Homeless.

Many of those at the event were desperate for answers. People sat on folding chairs, while their children played rounds of Simon Says in the back of the room. When the crowd was asked how many of them were homeless or knew someone who was homeless, almost every hand shot up. In the 15 years Frank Clark, a Bronx resident originally from Hunts Point, was homeless, he said he was moved around to more shelters than he can count.

“When you get a little comfortable somewhere, they move you,” Clark said.

“We’re not a bunch of cows,” added Antoinette Redman, a former resident of 941 Intervale. On Nov. 18, advocates will host a second forum, also at Casita Maria, with officials from the Department of Homeless Services, Department of Housing Prevention and Development and the Human Resources Administration in attendance. To prepare, attendees broke into small groups and made a list of questions that they will present to city officials at the forum.

“We’re going to need more paper sir!” said Walles. To close the event, Walles told everyone to yell, “Housing is a human right!” Then they said it again, the children chiming in, and again. “Housing is a human right!”

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