By Jorge Morera, Crisis Intervention counselor
Aside from the stress of losing one's home, belongings and stability, homeless families have the added pressure of having to prove their "homelessness" in order to receive on-going shelter from the city.
Homeless families seeking shelter must apply at the Prevention Assistance & Temporary Housing (PATH) offices located in the Bronx. The PATH requires all homeless families to prove they have no other housing options available. DHS then performs an investigation to ensure there are indeed no other options. This "investigation" is the biggest flaw in the application process. PATH investigators do not conduct comprehensive assessments. Instead, they often focus their attention on any available housing the family may be able to access: How large is a family member's home? Are there extra bedrooms in a friend's apartment?
Obviously, there are many contributing factors that determine whether a family member or friend's home is available to a homeless family. Factors such as: domestic violence, abuse, lease restrictions or child welfare matters among others. These are often overlooked in the investigation, and unfortunately, the system routinely denies families shelter, claiming that it has other housing available with families or even friends. Families in desperate need, knowing that they have no other options, are forced to track down proof, get certified letters stating that they are not allowed to stay with family, research public records and court cases to demonstrate that it would be an inappropriate living situation, and take other measures using precious time and money to support their case. Then, they must go through the application process again - sometimes multiple times. They spend days in the intake office hoping that this time, they have enough proof that they will finally get a shelter placement. Below is an example of an actual case which I have worked on recently.
Ms. G and child were consistently denied shelter because the PATH insists she can live with her mother who rents a two bedroom apartment. Ms. G had not lived with her mother since early childhood and informed PATH that she and her mother have a poor relationship. Within minutes of meeting Ms. G, I discovered that she was removed from the home as a child due to neglect, physical and sexual abuse. She had been placed in foster care and aged out of the system, never having been placed back in custody of her mother. Clearly, the mother's home is an inappropriate location for Ms. G and child to reside. This information eventually helped the family prove they were truly homeless.
With all the risk factors involved, PATH must conduct better assessments of these cases or families will have to endure additional hardships during their greatest time of need. Until DHS steps up and begins performing real investigation, rather than making assumptions, the Coalition will continue to be there, challenging them, doing the leg work, and helping families with their application for shelter.
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