"It Kind of Breaks You Down" Homeless Families and Kids Trying to Survive in One of America's Richest Cities

Kewanee Colbert has a full-time job prepping food for one of those fancy gourmet meal delivery services that are booming in New York and other cities. Still, he lives in a Bronx shelter for homeless families with his fiancée and three kids, ages 2, 4, and 7. While he's grateful that his family has a roof over their heads, he sums up the experience as, "It gets to you."

The family is not allowed to have any visitors; not even the kids' grandmother, he says. The adults have a 9 p.m. curfew. They have to sign in and out whenever they leave the shelter, and must log in at least once a day, or they get kicked out and have to apply all over again. They're not allowed to leave town without a very good reason -- a funeral, say -- and they need a special pass for that. An incomplete inventory of items banned from their unit: air-conditioner, microwave, cable TV, a large TV or more than one TV (if the family is in possession of an inappropriate size or number of TVs they have to put them in storage). In fact, most shelters only allow two pieces of luggage each. There are weekly inspections of their room, including the contents of their mini-fridge.  

Still, it's much better than the Staten Island shelter they stayed in before that. "It kind of looked like a storage room," he says. One room for all five of them, including his four-year-old daughter, who is autistic and cried through the night, keeping the other kids up. No space for his son to do his homework. No running water in their room, no kitchen. A shared bathroom with the others at the facility. When the family stayed there, his daughter went through autistic regression. "She can't tell us when she has to go to the restroom,” he says. “She would hold it for a long time and she just started going on herself." 

But even that was better than applying at PATH, the city's homeless families intake center, where adults with kids go to be placed in shelter. "It was really a horrific experience," he says. The family was denied placement when they applied last winter, so they were bussed back at 5 a.m. each and every day with their kids and all of their belongings from wherever they were temporarily being put up (the city must place people somewhere for the night when the temperature is below freezing). 

Endlessly waiting in a government building packed with exhausted, stressed-out children is just as fun as it sounds: there's no place for the kids to play, and everyone sits on hard plastic chairs, he says. They're patted down and go through metal detectors "like a jail." There's no outside food allowed, and applicants are forced to throw their own food away. His fiancée, driven half-crazy from dragging three kids out of bed at four in the morning to trudge through the snow to sit in PATH all day, almost gave up, even though it was the middle of a brutal New York winter. 

"And they keep telling you, 'You're not eligible, you're not eligible, there's nothing you can do," he says. "I have a disabled child, how are you gonna deny shelter?

"It kind of breaks you down ... because it's like they want to break you down so you give up and not push to be housed if you're homeless, even though you have no choice but to push."


New York City is legally required to provide shelter to all homeless people, thanks to a series of court decrees that have withstood the dogged efforts of many a Republican Mayor and Governor to overturn them. But a large number of families who seek shelter are turned away anyway. During the tail end of the Bloomberg administration more than 60 percent of families who applied were found ineligible, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis.  To gain eligibility, families have to convince PATH that they have zero other options.

"You have to prove every place you and every member of your family slept in for the past two years. It's so they know every address they can investigate," says Kathryn Kliff, a staff Attorney at Legal Aid Society in the Bronx. "Even if you're street homeless, you have to get documentation." Kliff counsels clients to get creative, like asking a bodega guy on the corner or "the guy that slept next to them" for official proof that they were, in fact, sleeping on the street. 

Even if a person you've formally lived with gives PATH a statement that you can't stay with them, that's not enough. "PATH always thinks that your close relatives will take you back,” Kliff says, “and a lot of times they will, but a lot of times they won't, if there's some pretty bad family history of trauma or domestic violence, or lease restrictions."

Vondell James, a petite, pretty 35-year-old, was outside of PATH with her toddler on a warm Saturday in June, having just reapplied for shelter after getting denied the first time around.

She had been staying with family while she was pregnant with her daughter. But an "altercation" with a male relative -- an altercation that she says left her with a black eye, chipped tooth, and an overnight stay in the ER, when she was seven months pregnant -- meant that was no longer a viable option. 

She got the news that she and her toddler were ineligible for shelter the day before her first Mother's Day. 

"I sat there and I cried and cried and cried," she recounts. "I'm like, where am I supposed to go with my 10-month-old?"  (James contested her decision and ended up getting placed.)

That it's no easy (or cheap) feat to accommodate people who need shelter is not surprising, given the massive rates of homelessness in the city. Almost 60,000 people are crowded into the city's shelters, including 25,000 children. Close to 80,000 kids enrolled in NYC's schools during the 2012-2013 school year experienced homelessness that year, according to the Institute for Children and Poverty. As the Huffington Post noted, that's a 63 percent rise in 5 years; Queens actually saw an unbelievable 90 percent jump in student homelessness. 

"Many people don't realize that there's a large population of kids and families in shelter. They're almost invisible," says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless.  "You see them, and you don't know. The invisible, hidden homeless population of working moms struggling to get by, kids coming from shelters to public schools, their classmates don't know."

A breakdown by race paints an even grimmer picture. 1 in 7 poor African-Americans (incomes below the federal poverty line) spent time in the shelter system last year, according to Coalition for the Homeless.  Twenty-two percent of poor black kids in the city have spent time in shelter; that's 8 percent of all African-American children under 5 in the city, according to Child Welfare Watch. 

On average it costs the city $3,000 a month to house a family, so it's hardly surprising that PATH is not overly enthusiastic about putting families into the system. 


Homeless advocates largely agree that the city's astronomical rates of homelessness, which are higher than at any time since the Great Depression, can be traced to two trends with deeply unfortunate consequences for the city's poor: insanely high New York rents and the three-term tenure of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

After promising to cut homelessness by two thirds in 5 years, the Mayor embarked on a homelessness action plan so counterintuitive that it might as well have been designed to make more people homeless. A recap: in 2005, the Bloomberg administration chopped homeless families' priority access to Section 8 vouchers and federal housing administered by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), out of concern that devious poor people were pretending to be homeless and going through the shelter system in order to grab up housing aid. To replace it, he introduced a temporary rental subsidy called Homeless Stability Plus, then dropped it. He began another temporary rental subsidy called Advantage, but dropped that program when New York state pulled its part of the funding (surprise spoiler: Gov. Andrew Cuomo is not a hero in this story either). Saddled with high rents they couldn't pay, many families lost their previously subsidized apartments.

"Once vouchers ran out, [homelessness] began backing up real fast," says Ralph da Costa Nunez, President of the Institute For Children, Poverty & Homelessness, in explaining today's crisis numbers.

As homelessness rates ticked towards 50,000 sheltered homeless people towards the end of his time in office, Mayor Bloomberg seemed to lose interest in the problem, outside of making the occasional tone-deaf remark that New York's homeless families didn't have it that bad.“ It is a much more pleasurable experience” the Mayor opined to explain why so many families stayed in shelter so long. Needless to say, most shelters were not the pleasure palaces the Mayor envisioned. Bloomberg had also expanded the number of so-called "cluster-site" shelters. These are low-income apartment buildings where landlords are paid by the city to take in homeless families. Where traditional non-profit shelters are supposed to provide supportive services, these landlord-operated shelters offer amenities like rats, roaches, and obstructed exits, as a Department of Investigation report released in March found.

Meanwhile, New York City rents skyrocketed. While in many parts of the country poorly paid service jobs disqualify poor people from the elusive American Dream of living in a home, in New York City the gap between income and rent hits especially egregious levels. 

Kewanee Colbert, for example, makes 11 dollars an hour at his food delivery service job. That hourly wage does not make his family the most attractive tenants. He says the places he called told him they're looking for people making 50,000 a year. 

"The shelter's not the best living situation. So you want to get out of there soon, but if you don't make enough money it's kind of hard," he says. "It's almost impossible."

At least he makes that much and works full-time. New York's minimum wage is $8.75, and many low-wage workers do not get 40 solid hours of work per week. Thirty-seven percent of New York workers make less that $15 dollars an hour, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a non-profit research and policy center. 

Meanwhile, rents have jumped by 32 percent citywide since 2002 (adjusted for inflation), according to an analysis of census data by the Community Service Society. In central Harlem, rent has risen by 90 percent since the early 2000s. Over 30 percent of New Yorkers sink more than half of their income into rent, according to analysis by the Coalition for the Homeless. For those who ambitiously aspire to a life of "a bare-bones family budget in New York City," the Fiscal Policy Institute notes that two adults must be working full-time at 15 dollars an hour at a minimum. The number of affordable apartments for families living below the poverty line fell by 13.3 percent just between 2011 and 2014. That helps explain why one third of homeless families have jobs -- just not ones that pay enough for them to afford to live somewhere, notes the Coalition report. 

As rents have risen, so have rates of eviction, and so have rates of evicted families with no choice but shelter. The Coalition report notes that between 2002 and 2010 the number of homeless families entering shelter after being evicted has quadrupled. 

"Truth be told, shelters are the surrogate for low-income housing," says Ralph da Costa Nunez of Institute for Children and Poverty. "If you're really poor in America in the twenty-first century, at some point, you're probably going to need the shelter system."


When Vondell James and her 10-month-old daughter stayed in a shelter during her 10-day investigation, she says she made "best friends" with a bottle of bleach and set about scrubbing the place. "It was dirty. But hey, nothing some Clorox couldn't get into!" she says brightly. 

But she discovered that the magic of Clorox had its limits.

"You know those rats in the train [station]?" she says, hugging her daughter to her chest. "They have those loooong tails. They're big and they're nasty. Yeah, that's what I saw in that apartment." With almost impressive tenacity, the rats stuck it out even in the absence of the things that usually interest rats. "If you don't have any garbage in the house and you still see rats running back and forth -- and it's the big ones -- that's disgusting," she says.  

Inspectors from the Department of Investigation were similarly dismayed after surveying 25 cluster site and city shelters last year. Conditions were "bluntly Dickensian," declared DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters when the report came out in March. They found infestations of rats, mice and roaches. Among other delights investigators observed, "a dead rat in a cluster apartment where four children lived, the decaying smell of which permeated the hallways."

In addition to varied species of vermin, investigators discovered locked exits and blocked passageways that could obstruct escape in emergencies. In one city-run shelter, a rusted-out staircase was unusable, giving 140 residents only one way out of the building; when DOI called on the FDNY to inspect the site, they deemed the situation so dangerous they wanted to evacuate the building. Instead they made do with posting fire guards to regulate traffic in case of a fire. 

They also found exposed electrical wiring and nonworking fire alarms, water damage and mold. One woman told investigators her electricity was often shut off for days at a time. 

Although infractions were also found in non-profit shelters, the worst offenders were cluster site shelters (though city run shelters also had dangerous and unsanitary conditions). For the public service of taking in homeless families with vermin-infested apartments, the city paid landlords an average of $2,451 per month, according to the report (some are paid over $3,000). The market rate for regular apartments in these neighborhoods range from $528 to $1,200 a month. 

Even under much better circumstances -- regular access to electricity, fewer rats -- homelessness has myriad negative effects on children, even if they're living doubled up in someone else's apartment or in a shelter. For decades, social researchers and psychologists have documented a depressing array of symptoms linked to homelessness in early life: from higher rates of illness  to learning difficulties to mental health disorders. Homeless kids are four times as likely to have asthma, six times more likely to stammer or have other speech problems, and go hungry twice as often as housed kids, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.  Even when compared to housed children who are poor, the stress of unstable housing leads to more severe health problems. 

19,000 kids who spent time in shelter in the past fiscal year are younger than 5, according to a report by Child Welfare Watch at the New School. 

"For babies and toddlers, whose brains are developing at an especially rapid clip, a family’s exposure to the kind of chronic tension and trauma common to shelter-living can be particularly debilitating," notes Kendra Hurley in a report for Child Welfare Watch. "It can prevent infant-parent bonding, wreak havoc on how children’s bodies respond to stress, and ultimately derail their development." In 2014, families spent 427 days in shelter, she notes. "For a baby, 427 days is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for intense learning. It’s long enough to go from being a newborn with a floppy neck to learning to smile, sit up, feed oneself, walk, fall and say “Mommy” and “Daddy.” It’s also long enough to intuit whether the world is a generally benign, benevolent place, or one fraught with danger."

The report points out that, while older kids might fare better, they face their own unique problems. A stressful housing situation is not conducive to academic achievement. "Some of the biggest impact is on education," says Ralph de Costa Nunez. "Where are you going to study? Being doubled up is almost as bad as a shelter, since at some point you know you're not going to be doubled up anymore."

According to the National Center for Family Homelessness, nationwide, fewer than a quarter of homeless high schoolers graduate. Homeless kids get worse grades and they're more likely to be held back. 

Costa Nunez notes getting held back or dropping out of school is hardly helpful in breaking the cycle of homelessness. 

"We're bringing up our third generation of future homeless parents," he darkly observes. 


Since taking office (with Dasani, a homeless girl made famous in a New York Times series, a featured guest at the inauguration), Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken a number of steps largely lauded by advocates for the homeless. He devoted a percentage of NYCHA houses to families coming out of shelter, introduced a rental subsidy program called Living in Communities (LINC) and has committed $100 million to fighting homelessness in his annual budget. 

But the Mayor's progress has been slowed by conflict with the Governor's office. The launch of LINC was delayed after Gov. Cuomo threw various obstacles in the program's path. As Jared Murphy has reported in City Limits, the Governor initially tried to keep the program out of the 2014-15 budget cycle, and then pushed for such low rent levels that landlords didn't want to participate. The state is also diminishing funding for NY/NY, a city state agreement inaugurated during the administrations of Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins. The jointly funded program provides supportive housing to New Yorkers struggling with mental illness. As the Gotham Gazette notes, " ... though it has proven to be singularly successful, housing 80 percent of its participants for life, the future of the program grows increasingly uncertain as state funding fades." Although the Mayor has asked for 12,000 units of housing, the Governor's budget allows for 3,900 (advocates have pushed for 30,000, according to the New York Times).

The mayor's and governor's offices have also quarreled over funding to improve the city's dilapidated shelters, with the governor threatening to yank funding until they were fixed up, and administration officials countering that depriving public services of funds does not usually improve them (the governor's office reversed their position after public outcry). 

Many homeless advocates also say that the de Blasio administration could stand to do more given the historic crisis at hand. Sheltered families increased by 14 percent during de Blasio's first year in office. Although there were small declines in sheltered families during the first two months of this year, it's not clear if they're the result of the subsidy or a quirk. In a March report the Independent Budget Office noted that the city's forecast that they'll move 6,551 households into permanent housing this year might be too rosy, since "funding for additional placements in future years is uncertain, and therefore the long-term impact of these programs on the city’s homeless shelter population—and shelter costs—may be less than anticipated." 

"I think people are surprised that Mayor de Blasio could do a hell of a lot more," Jennifer Flynn, executive director of VOCAL-NY, says. 

The mayor's office has also been widely criticized for apportioning only 750 NYCHA units to homeless families (fewer than Mayor Rudy Giuliani). "We feel that the number should be at least 2,500," Patrick Markee says. There are also concerns that the mayor's affordable housing plan is targeted at upper and middle-income families rather than low-income New Yorkers. 

"Homes for Every New Yorker," a coalition comprised of organizations like Legal Aid Society, Coalition for the Homeless and Vocal-NY, has laid out a plan that they say would eliminate the city's mass homelessness crisis within five years. They back big picture reforms like increasing the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour and work with building developers who use union labor. They call on de Blasio to allocate 10 percent of new affordable housing units to homeless families and individuals. They point out that previous administrations have helped move thousands of families out of shelter by setting them up with federal public housing apartments (NYCHA) and Section 8 vouchers. They're also calling on de Blasio to set aside 2,500 public housing units a year. They also demand stronger protections against eviction, and the conversion of cluster site shelters to regular apartments.

For now, the families stuck in the shelter system are making due and hoping for a way out. "It really sucks, but I'm doing it for my child," Vondell James says. "She's young, she's not going to remember this and I swear I will never return. The conditions ... it's horrible."

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