The ‘Next Step’ Punishment

By Sarah Murphy

Imagine you live in one small room with your five children. Just to get home you have to pass through airport-like security. Men rifle through your bags and your phone gets confiscated because it has a camera in it. You hike up four flights of steep stairs with your infant in one arm and your toddler holding your hand. You finally get to your room and see rat droppings on the floor – again. No heat. The kids are hungry, and so are you, but you don’t have a kitchen or even a hot plate. There is a cafeteria, but the food is often spoiled and made your children sick many times. You take your older daughter down the hall to the bathroom – you are scared to let her go there alone because you share it with 30 other people on your floor. But first you have to go back downstairs to ask for a few sheets of toilet paper. Humiliating. Back up the stairs. In the morning you’ll meet with your case worker and tell her you still can’t find a job. All she’s ever given you is threats, no help. But now, it’s time for bed. The kids are fighting. There just isn’t enough space. No peace and quiet, and worse, no way out.

This is Sandra’s life.

Sandra is one of the thousands of New Yorkers who live in what are called Next Step shelters. According to the Department of Homeless Services, Next Step shelters were intended to provide “intensive case management” to clients who need more attention, to get them out of shelter. But in reality, it has become a punitive system targeted at long-term shelter residents. It wasn’t always this way for Sandra. She had an apartment uptown. Sure, it had problems, but it was her home. Then one day her Section 8rental subsidy voucher was revoked in a bureaucratic mix up. She worked for months to get it back, but after the rent piled up she received an eviction notice. To make things worse, she was hit by a car while crossing 125th Street, putting her in the hospital for two days and causing her to miss her fair hearing. She vividly recalls that when the marshals came, she grabbed as many of her belongings as she could carry in trash bags and headed to PATH, the homeless intake center, with her five children in tow. “It was the worst day of my life, Sandra said. “I’m not a big crier, but I cried whole way there. It’s not like I wanted to be homeless.”

She was placed in a Tier II shelter for families. Tier II shelters are apartment-style facilities with a cooking space and bathroom for each family. But, in shock from the eviction, Sandra fell into a debilitating depression and was unable to follow the shelter requirements to look for a job. She was threatened with being sanctioned (evicted), and she began to look for work. But it was slow, and landing even a job interview was impossible. Despite her efforts, her caseworker labeled her as “noncompliant,” and Sandra and her family were transferred to the Next Step shelter.

Now, each day, she and her children contend with hostile security guards, noisy hallways, often broken communal bathrooms, arguing residents, putrid smells, bad food and an overall feeling of dread and isolation. The crowded conditions, longer stays and stress of homelessness have created a perfect storm for violent outbursts among residents. Sandra’s daughter, Delia called it, “scary…like prison…and makes it hard for me to sleep. I’m afraid I’m going to fall asleep in class sometimes.”

We met Sandra and her children through Bound for Success (BFS), our after-school and summer day camp program in one of the City’s Next Step shelters. Our classroom provides tutoring, guidance, and fun activities, which give kids a sense of security and comfort in the otherwise tense shelter environment. It is a safe place for them to relax, have fun and focus on their studies.

Sandra told us about when she first heard about BFS, “I didn’t walk, I ran.” Two of her girls needed a good deal of help in school, and she wasn’t able to provide it. When her children were enrolled in BFS, Program Director Angie Carabello worked with each of them individually to see where they were academically and where they needed the most help. For Delia, it was her math.

She said, “Before BFS helped me with my math, it was hard…it was confusing, but once I got to BFS, it got fun to solve things. They encourage you to work hard at school.”

Angie noted some of the difficulties that come with being placed by DHS in the Next Step shelter. “As I walk past the lobby, I see children trying to do homework or who have fallen asleep at the entryway because their parents aren’t there to escort them upstairs to bed. There are sounds of adults cursing and people running through the halls, so when I finally get to our classroom, I feel relieved.”

This sense of relief is reflected in the faces of the kids and their moms, including Sandra. For at least a few hours Sandra knows that her children are in a safe and welcoming place, so she can focus on getting a job. Sandra has some tough odds stacked against her. With the Bloomberg Administration eliminating all housing assistance for homeless families, she doesn’t know when she will be able to leave, “No programs, no apartments. Everyone is on hold. How will we get out?” Sandra shares her story directly in one of the first video blogs the Coalition will be posting that will allow homeless New Yorkers to personally tell us about their experiences, struggles, and successes.

End of Advantage

In the last issue of Safety Net, we discussed the end of the City’s flawed Advantage subsidy program. At that time, the City had threatened to cut off benefits for 14,000 households immediately. The Legal Aid Society, working with CFH, sued and forced the City to continue to pay rents as the litigation continued. There were delays, but as of September 13th, the court gave the City permission to terminate the program. It’s official, now. Mayor Bloomberg has nothing in place to help homeless people out of the shelter system and into permanent housing. The Coalition and other leading advocacy groups have called on the mayor to return to the proven solution of giving homeless families priority for federal housing programs. Go to www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/tell-mayor-1-in-3 to learn more.

Published in Safety Net, Autumn 2011