From Homelessness to Community: Homeless Women in the Bronx
Friday, July 5, 2013 • 7:22pm
The history of homelessness in New York City over the last 30 years looks like something of an upheaval if you were a climber trying to gain your footing. The numbers of individuals and families living in City-funded shelters have risen sharply; then dropped arduously at times, only to continue what seems like a relentless climb to the current peak of approximately 40,000. There is nothing basic about the distribution of numbers and that is the scary part to homelessness. The numbers:
Table 1: New York City’s Homeless Shelter Population -2013
Total number of homeless people in municipal shelters
Number of homeless families
Number of homeless children
Number of homeless adults in families
Number of homeless single adults
Number of homeless single men
Number of homeless single women
When and how the system will be able to find its way back from these unsteady levels, either through a new found capacity to provide adequate supplies of supportive and affordable housing or through a collapse in the City’s ability or willingness to provide emergency and transitional shelter that remains a serious question. There are certainly programs in place currently like Women In Need which was founded in 1983 when there were approximately 12,500 individuals in City shelters, less than one-third the current number which is a problem that will not fix itself.
Homelessness, which is a life crisis for individuals and families, means the loss of not only housing but also the role of a housed citizen and a fully functioning member of society[i]. We see the importance of housing in allowing the normal activities of living, for example, work and family life, to occur.[ii] Thus, homelessness entails not only a loss of housing but also disaffiliation from the community. We must examine the community integration of women who have experienced homelessness in the context of a sense of belonging in the neighborhoods in which they live.
Women who are homeless often face different challenges than other groups of homeless people. Specifically, homeless women, whether alone or accompanied by their children, experience high rates of physical illness and victimization,[iii] and many have histories of family disruption and violence in childhood[iv]. Homeless women report higher levels of psychological distress and mental health problems than homeless men[v]. Women who are unaccompanied by children are more likely than women with dependent children to report substance abuse difficulties[vi].
Homeless individuals are disaffiliated from the mainstream of society and cut off from conventional social structures[vii]. This includes experiencing low levels of social support and having low levels of education, little work experience, and few job skills[viii]. Homeless individuals are thus cast in devalued social roles, limiting their access to valued roles, such as that of a worker, parent, neighbor, or tenant. Over time, individuals might become increasingly acculturated to homelessness[ix], which might, in turn, lead to greater difficulty in becoming reintegrated in the community[x].
Serious questions have arisen about whether the Bloomberg administration has broken the rules protecting the rights of neighborhood residents and homeless people. Is this really just a case of the city pulling a fast one? Maybe. Or perhaps there is something deeper here, something illegal. The city maintains it does no wrong. The increase in the number of shelters in the Bronx, and the processes through which they are acquired, has been a heated topic across the borough.
Many feel bad for the homeless. Everyone needs a place to stay, but many say Mayor Bloomberg takes advantage of poorer neighborhoods.
Infusions of government money have revitalized many poorer neighborhoods in the Bronx, but the problem of people living on the streets has persisted. Now, though, a new strategy is showing surprising results: the number of single, homeless people in the borough has dropped roughly 80 percent since 2005, according to a recent estimate by the city.
At the Safe Havens, which began operating in 2007, the nonprofit groups help homeless adults find permanent homes with social services close by. The city recognized it was time to readdress the way street homelessness was dealt with, for example, BronxWorks, the nonprofit group in the Bronx. The widespread success shows that the system that they set up is a really good system.
The number of families in shelters set a record high in late 2009 and early 2010 and will most likely increase again because the city recently stopped subsidizing permanent housing for families moving from shelters.
In August, BronxWorks, which did street outreach in the Bronx, held a banquet called “Faces of Success” for the hundreds of homeless people the group had helped. Some had been off the streets for five years. Others for only a month.
If we single out Women In Need, we must remember that most were single men; some were single women when it started. Families were a very small part of the homeless population at that time. It was the needs of this group, however, that WIN was created to focus on. And, it is this group, women and children, who now make up the overwhelming majority of people living in New York City’s homeless shelters.
The vision was bringing together a great group of volunteer board members and they were very focused on the homeless women and children living in the infamous Martinique Hotel which was located on 32nd and Broadway. WIN began by partnering with the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown Manhattan to open St. Mary’s House, an emergency residence for ten homeless women with children. Next came Monica House, a shelter in Brooklyn that evolved into the Monica Apartment Program, a scatter-site “shelter without walls” that WIN still operates 28 years later. During these early years – and ever since, WIN has played an important role in identifying and meeting those needs of homeless families that extend well beyond a roof and bed. Much of this early growth, however, consisted of single adults while families represented a smaller portion of the overall census. WIN responded by opening several transitional residences, including the Lehman Brothers Residence in the Bronx, which continues to provide shelter for 27 families. After some decline and several years of relative stability in the overall census, New York City’s homeless shelter population once again began to explode in 1999. From a little more than 22,000 near the end of 1998, the numbers would surge to 38,662 in May of 2003. This time, the growth would come almost entirely from an increase in the number of families in the system, from 15,287 individuals in families at the end of 1998 to 30,408 in May of 2003. Once again, WIN responded, this time with shelter programs of larger size to address the growing scale of the family homelessness crisis. In 2000, the agency began to operate the Jennie A. Clarke Residence in East Harlem in partnership with the Hope Community. It has a capacity to serve 73 families.
In 2003, WIN opened its largest facility, the Junius Street Family Residence in East New York, a newly renovated manufacturing building serving 216 families in studio-style apartments. Three-years later, the agency completed development of the Liberty Family Residence, another renovated manufacturing building located on the same block, with a capacity for 203 families. Together, these two adjacent facilities can accommodate 419 homeless families, approximately 1,800 individuals in total. WIN now operates six transitional shelters for families in Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn and over 200 supportive housing apartments which accommodate more than 800 families with 2,500 people every night, including 1,600 children.
So what are the Challenges of Homelessness? Homelessness is an extremely complex, multi-faceted, and solution-resistant problem.
Homelessness is not an illness. It is not a mental health issue or an educational issue. It is not a children’s issue. It is not even a housing issue. It is all of those things. It is really the end result of what happens after all these other systems have failed. As a result, strategies to successfully address the problem must reach beyond the mere symptom of homelessness and tackle the underlying factor or more often the multiple factors which have caused individuals or families to find themselves in the shelter system. The only underlying sets of issues which have been successfully tackled are those affecting single people with serious mental illness. Supportive Housing has been enormously successful. The development of Supportive Housing for the dramatic decline in the numbers of single adults in the system, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the overall homeless population is important to realize. After all, Supportive Housing for Families has proven that until recently, it has not been readily available as a tool to address issues driving homelessness for many families. While it has been recognized that Supportive Housing works for singles, it was never recognized until quite recently that it can also be effective for some number of families.
At WIN, started was the taking of some federal money that was available and defining it as supportive housing for families. The agency began by developing housing programs for families headed by women with a history of substance abuse. In 1999, it developed Triangle House with 12 family units for families headed by women in recovery.
In 2007, WIN did its first replication of this program model at the Brooklyn Recovery Program, which provides housing and services for 15 families. The Bronx Recovery Program for 22 families followed in 2008. A similar program, Families in Recovery, serves eight women and their children in the Bronx. Two other supportive housing programs, both opened in 2003, addressed other key causes of homelessness for families. SHINE (Supportive Housing In a New Environment) is a Bronx-based, scattered-site apartment program for 77 families with histories of domestic violence. Approximately 40 percent of families in the shelter system have histories of domestic violence so it is important to treat this from reoccurring. It is one of the things that homeless people don’t always talk about right away but should.
In 2010, WIN collaborated with Robin Hood, the Department of Homeless Services and three other homeless service providers to create Home to Stay, 120 scatter-site apartments for families who have experienced repeated episodes of homelessness and who have returned to homelessness even after receiving rental subsidies. WIN has 30 of those apartments. WIN now has 226 units of supportive housing for families which has grown up over the years.
According to Economics and Affordable Housing too, personal challenges such as mental illness, substance abuse or histories of domestic violence, homeless families must also find a way to afford housing in one of the most expensive cities in the world. For much of the last 30 years, families in shelter had received a priority in the allocation of Section 8 vouchers and NYC Housing Authority apartments. In 2005 the Bloomberg administration ended this policy and replaced it with the Housing Stability Plus program, which offered homeless families a rental subsidy, which declined steadily over a five-year period. In 2007, the City changed its strategy again and implemented the Advantage program, which provided a one-year rental subsidy with the possibility of renewal for a second year. Over the years, both Housing Stability Plus and Advantage had been criticized by advocates for the homeless. But last April, when the Advantage subsidy was eliminated by the State and the City, in response, announced that it would be ending the program completely, everyone was very concerned. While a series of legal challenges have kept the program alive for existing recipients on a month-to-month basis, no new families are now being provided with rental subsidies of any kind.
There is a huge amount of anxiety and fear in the shelters. Poor people are not able to afford normal rents in this city without help. WIN is working with families to see if they can help them with employment and other assistance to piece something together, help them to find some way of moving out of the shelter which is very difficult. WIN provides a variety of education and employment services to help homeless residents find jobs in the hopes of supporting themselves in their own permanent housing. At the same time, however, the sudden loss of rental subsidy has hindered WIN’s ability to help residents find their way out of shelter. People are moving out, but at a much slower rate. The average length of stay in WIN shelters had been six months but is now rising. It’s probably seven or eight months now.
We must remember that usually social service programs will have a major change in policy and then everything settles in for ten or twenty years. In homeless services, every six or nine months there is some major change in the way you do business, the way you finance your programs, the expectations on staff and clients. It is endless, endless, endless change. We have to be very responsive. The policies change and we change; the system develops and we develop; needs shift and we shift. In part, WIN has maintained this resiliency by seeking private contributions to supplement government contracts. WIN raises a lot of private money. WIN believes that they need to fill in the gaps in the system and make this whole thing work. In FY2010, it raised $3.5 million of its $33 million budget through private contributions. This year, the agency’s benefit gala alone raised $2.5 million. WIN uses these private monies to offer or strengthen a variety of different services. They don’t get any funding from any source for domestic violence services. Childcare is huge for them. They get some money within the shelter structure to do a limited amount but we enhance that as much as they can. Private contributions also help to support WIN’s substance abuse health clinic, which exclusively serves women and offers on-site childcare, in the Bronx. WIN has lots and lots of volunteers who come in to run programs for work readiness, employment readiness and computer literacy. “They have esteem groups for teens. Kid Sista, for example, serves young girls ages 10-16 in the hope of reducing HIV transmission among young women of color by reducing high-risk behaviors through knowledge and empowerment. Robin Hood has been one major supporter, providing a Single Stop program at WIN, building the state-of-the-art Robin Hood Playground that serves children and youth living at Junius and Liberty shelters, and giving much needed general operating support. They have been incredibly generous.
Looking ahead, WIN has several major new projects in the pipeline. The Glenmore, located close to the Junius/Liberty Shelter complex in East New York, will provide 160 units of combined supportive and affordable housing. It took WINs a year and a half to get the zoning approval. But now, WIN is working on financing for the $50 million project. If all goes well, WIN should have people living there in two-and-a-half years. WIN is also in discussions regarding the opening of another women’s shelter and has several other plans in the works. These all take a great deal of time, but with almost 40,000 individuals living in shelters, it is clear that New York City has yet to solve the problem of homelessness and so too the Bronx.
[i] Breese & Feltey, 1996
[ii] Clapham. 2003
[iii] Buckner, Bassuk, & Zima, 1993; Fisher, Hovell, Hofstetter, & Hough, 1995
[iv] Farrell, Aubry, Klodawsky, Jewett, & Pettey, 2000; Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991; Shinn et al., 1998
[v] Roll, Toro, & Ortola, 1999
[vi] Farrell, Aubry, Klodawsky, Jewett, & Pettey, 2000; Roll et al.; Zlotnick, Robertson, & Lahiff, 1999
[vii] Zlotnick et al., 1999
[viii] Piliavin, Wright, Mare, & Westerfield, 1996; Zlotnick et al.
[ix] Grigsby, Baumann, Gregorich, & Roberts-Gray, 1990
[x] Farrington & Robinson, 1999; Grigsby et al.; Snow & Anderson, 1987
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