A Shelter for Families in
Need of a Push
Librado Romero/The New York Times
Wanda Rodriguez, Jose Medina and Destiny Rodriguez in an apartment at a shelter in Queens that helps families return to independent life.
By JULIE BOSMAN
Published: March 21, 2010
Denise Benson runs a no-nonsense, no-frills homeless shelter for the city in Queens. There is no common room for lounging and watching television. Most homeless families meet with their caseworkers several times a week. Staff members escort residents to job interviews and to tour available apartments.
The study room at a next-step shelter in Jamaica, Queens, where residents are reminded often of the importance of moving out.
The Jamaica Family Residence is a shelter where families who
have been homeless for a long time are sent to help them move out of the system.
“We are here to say, ‘Move it along,’ ” she said in a recent interview at the shelter, swinging her arms forward for emphasis.
Ms. Benson is on the front lines of the Bloomberg administration’s unsuccessful war against homelessness. During the eight years that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been in office, the number of homeless people filling city shelters has sharply risen, currently approaching 38,000, including 8,600 families with children. The number of families entering shelters has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years. In February, 1,152 families entered shelters. More than 400 had been in the shelter system before.
Against such a tide, Ms. Benson is trying to help the administration achieve one of its goals: coaxing families to leave shelters quickly. She runs a shelter where families who have been homeless for a long time are sent to help them move out of the system. To increase the support, and the pressure, there are strict deadlines, determined caseworkers and a bottom-line ethos.
From the city’s point of view, its efforts to shorten stays throughout the system have been a success. The average length of a homeless family’s stay is down to eight months, according to city data, a drop from 10 and a half months two years ago.
A recent study by the Department of Homeless Services showed that the median length of stay for families entering shelters last summer is even shorter — just over five months.
But others say the city is merely trying to make its failed larger efforts look prettier, moving families out quickly but too soon for many of them to complete education or training courses that would help them live on their own. Some of the families find their way back to shelters soon enough.
“What we’re seeing now is, everybody is pushing families out really fast, with no education and no preparation,” said Ralph da Costa Nuñez, the president and chief executive of Homes for the Homeless, which runs four city shelters. “We send families out, and we know we’re going to see them again. And that’s what’s happening across the system.”
Homeless shelters are tightly patrolled by security and closed to the public. But one recent morning, a reporter was allowed inside the shelter in Jamaica, Queens, run by Ms. Benson. Many of the 60 families staying there were off at job interviews or at appointments to view apartments.
Past the metal detector at the front door of the four-story building, the hallways were mostly quiet. A room in the basement, decorated with inspirational sayings, was dedicated to group meetings and workshops on conflict resolution, interview skills and setting goals. Many residents, said one staff member, Regina Butler, are resistant to all of the new requirements that are placed on them. “Sometimes they come down here and vent,” she said.
At every turn, residents are reminded of the importance of moving out and returning to an independent life. “Enjoy your TEMPORARY stay at JFR,” a hallway sign reads, using the initials for Jamaica Family Residence.
This is typical of a so-called next-step shelter, as the four city-run shelters for families who stay in the system for too long are called. Hoping to shorten stays in shelters even more, the city plans to expand its use of the next-step shelters by building two more by the end of the summer, officials at the Department of Homeless Services said.
The Rodriguez family, which is staying in the Jamaica shelter, entered the city shelter system in January last year. Ten months later, after the Rodriguezes had not found jobs or looked at a single apartment, the staff members told them they would be transferred to the Jamaica shelter.
“They said it was going to be rough here,” said Wanda Rodriguez, sitting in the tidy, sparse two-room apartment that she shared with her husband and two daughters. “They made it sound scary.”
Ms. Rodriguez said she welcomed the extra push. After five months in the Jamaica shelter, she said she had completed training as a home health aide, and her family was on the verge of moving into its own apartment.
But the pressure to move out quickly is not limited to next-step shelters. The administration has clamped down on the nonprofit agencies that run most homeless shelters, urging them to move families out as soon as possible. Nonprofit providers are paid more when a family leaves quickly, and paid less when a family lingers too long.
The shelters’ staff members have increased their efforts to help homeless families find jobs and apartments or obtain housing subsidies. They have passed along the administration’s message of “personal responsibility” to homeless families. Quite often, caseworkers begin discussing a move-out date with families on the first day that they arrive at the shelter, and families are required to sign off on rules governing their behavior.
“Everybody presses everybody else,” as an official put it.
Robert V. Hess, the commissioner of homeless services, said the shorter stay was the product of a change in the attitudes of both the providers and the homeless families. In 2007, Mr. Hess said, the homeless department began to pinpoint the families that had stayed in the system the longest. At the time, there were 300 homeless people who had been in the shelter system for eight years or more, and nearly 50 families with children who had been in shelters for more than five years.
“You want to start with the longest-term stayers,” Mr. Hess said, “and not have a culture where shelter becomes a home.”
The shorter stays in shelters have had some unintended consequences.
Larry Belinsky, the president of Help USA, which runs six shelters for families in New York, said homeless families had less time for education and training programs offered in the shelters.
“While everyone is happy about the average length of stay reducing, it used to be when the average length of stay was a year, we could get someone their G.E.D. while they were in shelter,” Mr. Belinsky said. “Now you can’t get someone trained in the period of time they’re here.”
Officials at the Department of Homeless Services say that some of the training programs the city offers take two weeks and that residents can continue high school equivalency programs after they leave the shelters.
“We feel that the most valuable skills are gained from living independently back in clients’ own neighborhoods where they are using the support systems around them to enable themselves,” Mr. Hess said.
“This is where they truly grow, develop, and get back on their own feet.”
Homeless families have gotten the message that they are not allowed to linger in shelters, Mr. Belinsky and other providers said.
“Most of them have adapted to the recognition that you can’t stay in a shelter for three years anymore,” Mr. Belinsky said. “Of course, there are still some that do.”