Growing Chaos in How City Shelters Homeless Evacuees of Hurricane Sandy

Thousands of people have been displaced and made homeless by Hurricane Sandy, many low-income families and individuals. Weeks later, the City’s efforts to shelter storm evacuees have grown increasingly chaotic.

Staff and volunteers from Coalition for the Homeless, the Legal Aid Society, and other groups have been doing outreach to homeless evacuees of Hurricane Sandy, and delivering food, clothing, and vital help with benefits. In recent weeks we’ve spoken literally to hundreds of evacuees, first in the makeshift evacuation shelters set up in high schools and colleges; then in the even more haphazard evacuation shelters crowded into existing homeless shelter facilities like armories; and since last week in dozens of hotels and YMCAs scattered across the city.

Increasingly what we’ve found is a chaotic and ever-shifting patchwork of shelters that fail to meet the basic needs of evacuees, many of whom are from low-income communities. This includes especially vulnerable groups like children, people living with disabilities, seniors, and adults and children with serious health problems.

With more than 1,000 such evacuees recently moved into hotels, and thousands more in temporary accommodations, many have been left without food or food assistance, access to medical and mental health services, and help getting to and from schools and employment.

Two recent news reports documented many of the problems the Coalition has seen. Last week, Nina Bernstein of the New York Times wrote about the strains the newly-homeless evacuees are placing on a shelter system that was already at all-time record levels:

Even before Hurricane Sandy, New York was sheltering more homeless people than any city in the United States: a record 47,000 women, men and children, in a system strained to the breaking point. Overnight, as the storm bore down on urban flood zones, city officials ramped up emergency spaces to shelter thousands more people, mostly in public schools and colleges.

And that was the easy part.

In the three weeks since, the city has repeatedly relocated evacuees on short notice. To reopen schools, it bused many to armories, turning drill floors into open dormitories for the first time since a 1980s lawsuit halted the practice. Amid complaints of chaotic, unsanitary conditions, it then scattered hundreds of those people to $300 hotel rooms, from Midtown Manhattan to remote parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

This week, officials closed all evacuation centers but two on Staten Island. Now they plan to rely solely on hotels, even as they brace for a new wave of people displaced from storm-damaged housing where they are facing winter without heat or hot water.

Hurricane Sandy was a disaster without modern precedent for the city that, in one night, created a new homeless population of thousands. But longtime advocates for the homeless, and families repeatedly dislocated since the storm, say it exposed and worsened the city’s acute lack of affordable housing options.

While City officials defended their actions to the Times, Bernstein’s article includes moving firsthand accounts of evacuees shuffled from place to place, often forced to sleep on cots on grim armory drill floors with hundreds of children and adults:

“Total disaster — like 11 feet of water altogether,” said Tareste Etienne, 56, a former cabdriver disabled by a heart ailment, who more recently worked as a street vendor to help support his four children. The flood destroyed his whole stock.

“Everything is finished,” he said last week at the LaGuardia Airport Hotel, after hunting in vain for a store in the area where he could use food stamps to feed the family. He looked shellshocked as he watched his youngest, Cedric, 7, sleeping on a real bed for the first time in weeks in a hotel room that they will have to vacate on Dec. 2.

Their landlady rescued them before the storm, he said, providing two unheated rooms with no way to cook. As the dimensions of the disaster unfolded, they moved to cots in a warm hallway of an evacuation center at York College in Queens, grateful for hot meals. But on Nov. 6 they were roused in the night, herded onto buses with hundreds of others and left at the Franklin Avenue Armory in the Bronx.

“It’s like you were being processed to go to jail,” Mr. Etienne said, echoing many others who described waiting for hours in the cold to enter a vast sea of cots under constant fluorescent lights, with one shower for everybody and one toilet for men, where guards yelled into two-way radios all night and, Mr. Etienne and a Salvation Army official said, a couple had sex in the open.

On the third day, the family fled back to the landlady’s cold rooms, then started over at another high school evacuation center. By then, the remaining evacuees included children with autism and elderly and disabled people, many from nursing homes and halfway houses.

For some families, like the young parents of Zayden Lewis, a sturdy 6-month-old, the storm only escalated a continuing search for housing — but brought a surreal silver lining.

Zayden’s maternal family lost its so-called Advantage apartment in Brooklyn on Aug. 30, after the city ended that rental subsidy program in a dispute with the state over money. Officially, they were not homeless, since their application for shelter was repeatedly denied in the months before the storm, the baby’s mother, Shabria Covington, 19, explained.

But with no room for them in her aunt’s apartment in Canarsie, Brooklyn, they ended up sleeping in her aunt’s Toyota van outside. It was wrecked by the storm.

Redefined as evacuees, she and the baby’s father, Zamond Lewis, 23, were soon sent with their infant son to the Park Central Hotel, on Seventh Avenue and 56th Street in Midtown, with a view of Carnegie Hall. They are grateful, if bewildered.

“Better than sleeping in a car,” said Mr. Lewis, who had a few dollars from his last job as a carpenter’s helper. “But now we’re inside this expensive hotel where we can’t even feed ourselves.”

Today’s Wall Street Journal includes another detailed report of the rising chaos facing hurricane evacuees sheltered by the City:

…New Yorkers displaced by the storm pose a daunting challenge to city officials charged with finding them places to stay as temperatures drop below freezing.

In Brooklyn, for example, a group of men sleep in spare quarters on a desolate stretch of Atlantic Avenue after having been moved around the city for a month. Newly homeless families distributed to more spartan accommodations across the city are struggling to make do in cramped hotel rooms miles from their old neighborhoods.

As it closed down temporary shelters in schools and colleges last week, the city relocated the remaining inhabitants to 29 different hotels, putting them in blocks of rooms booked on city credit cards at the rate for government employees. Some ended up in upscale Manhattan hotels while others found themselves sleeping near an airport.

The resulting arrangements, which will last until permanent homes are secured, is messy at best. Displaced residents say they can’t afford restaurant meals and don’t have cooking facilities. Medical attention is also hard to come by.

“Certainly putting families and individuals in hotels rather than on armory floors is better,” said Steven Banks, chief attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “But a hotel room is not a home, and there’s certainly an impact on children—in terms of their education and in terms of health—to have families crammed into hotel rooms that were meant for tourists and don’t provide a proper way to store and prepare food.”

Many of those living in hotels and other temporary housing are on their third or fourth stop since the storm. They’ve been bounced from place to place as the city has tried to reopen educational facilities that initially served as shelters.

The City’s failure to provide stable, safe, health accommodations for Sandy evacuees is troubling but unsurprising to those who’ve witnessed the Bloomberg administration’s homeless policy failures over the past decade. Indeed, an administration that has overseen a nearly two-thirds increase in family homelessness, and that refuses to provide affordable housing assistance to help homeless kids and families escape the shelter system would seem uniquely ill-suited to dealing with both the short- and long-term housing needs of evacuees and others displaced by the storm.

Looking forward, we hope that the Obama administration, the Congress, and State and City officials recognize the need for long-term housing assistance and make the necessary investments.

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