While currently dysfunctional due to lack of beds, The New York City shelter system is supposed to be entered by walking into an intake center. The homeless stay there while being assessed by caseworkers and doctors who help decide which shelter or housing they will be sent to.
Westchester has full-service shelters,* and an intake/assessment center in Valhalla. But to enter our system, the homeless must be referred by the Department of Social Services. We fill out an application and talk to someone for as few as five minutes before it is decided whether or not we will be aided, and how. There is no streamlined process, sometimes accepted clients are sent directly to providers instead of the intake.
Homeless people outside of the shelter system have to stay at a drop-in. Drop-ins in New York City have case managers and activities, are open all day, and serve three meals. In Westchester, they open late at night and close from five to seven in the morning, even in the winter. They are sometimes unsanitary, and have few services. Another source can fund a day program, but this happens rarely, and the results aren’t always great.
Some of the homeless such as undocumented immigrants, are ineligible for government aid. But the county says that most other drop-in clients refuse help, and are allowed to stay at them out of kindness. This is a lie. As these surveys prove, many of us have either been denied placement by Social Services, or are unaware that other shelters even exist.
Out of 32 drop-in respondents, 12 were refused entry into the shelter system and given no other aid. Some were given no reason. 8 clients were refused placement, but given ($590) room vouchers. They cannot however, find rooms on their own, or for that price.
2 people were totally unaware that they could go to Social Services, 5 clients went there (for food stamps) but were never told that they could go to a full service shelter.
There are some clients who do refuse placement, the survey found 5. One works, and the intake shelter is over two hours away in an isolated complex near the county jail. Another was told he must participate in a work program, though he can’t walk properly. One was put in a shelter, but was kicked out for refusing to hand over his entire paycheck to the county.
The survey shows a common denominator among most of those turned away; lack of income. It is my allegation (and an open secret among the homeless) that these people are rejected to save Westchester money.
When someone is put into our shelter system, all their income is taken by the county, except for a $45 monthly allowance. New York City takes only thirty percent. This makes it very hard for even people in the shelters to get out of the system, with some staying as long as three years.
As of 2015, the state paid only 29% of our shelter costs, so when it takes in many clients without money, Westchester has to actually spend its own on the poor.
It is no secret that drop-ins are cheaper. This contract states that one of their benefits is that they cost $38 dollars per person, while a shelter costs $105–148 per night. This contract states the same but with different numbers.
Two survey respondents state that they were told they would not be placed because the county would not spend $4,000 a month on them.
Minutes of a Mount Vernon meeting for providers) from 2009 read “DSS is denying claims baselessly- i.e. reasons are provided but they are untrue/ baseless/ confused……” I believe they are speaking about temporary assistance (the $590), but it shows the general trend.
Even clients the county is willing to help have to go to drop-ins, Social Services asks many to stay at one for 10–30 days as proof that they are homeless before they will place them. This is done through a letter from the facility, although the county currently pays around $200,000 a year for a computer system used to store the data of homeless people, and a consultant to help run it. In 2012, HUD said that this data could replace the letters, if the county fixed problems such as providers not actually using it. Guess they haven’t yet. Some drop-ins make getting letters difficult.
Because of this, most of the county’s drop-ins are over capacity by more than 30–60 people. For example, Oasis in New Rochelle has about 80 people or more, in what is supposed to be a 27 bed facility. The problem there has been made worse by the 2013 closure of the Mount Vernon drop-in due to community protests.
Even if the county relents, there may be nowhere for people to go. This year, it cut over half of it’s transitional housing beds for singles, as well as emergency housing for families.
The county just closed a shelter for employable single adult men, the Vaughn Glanton Residence, stating that there is not enough demand for its services. They turned it into a family shelter into which they put the families they took out of emergency housing. Westchester’s proposed 2017 operating budget states that they plan to cut even more units of emergency housing next year.
In 2014 the county closed it’s only shelter for medically frail adults, claiming that it was not needed because 68 of the beds in its system were vacant. Small comfort for the drop-in clients it won’t place in them.
As mentioned, the homeless are sometimes given a $590 voucher for a room, although there are few in our county for that price. There is an additional catch. Unless they have certain medical conditions or are in treatment programs, people receiving the vouchers must engage in Welfare to Work “employment activities” like other temporary assistance customers. Run differently this could be helpful, but while vocational training and searching for jobs are possibilities, people are usually placed in “community work experience programs” which require up to 40 hours of work a week for around $1,000 monthly in services.
Some customers go to work for nonprofits. But the county uses many as substitutes for actual employees whom they would have to pay minimum wage. Previously, most of this was done in Mount Vernon through the parks department. The people you see picking up trash for hours every day are one example. But according to Westchester’s proposed 2017 operating budget, this year they are going to expand the program to “all district offices and other County departments such as Public Works.”
The worst part is that some of these people could be hired if the county paid employees to do the work. Many of them are men of color. While they sometimes have input, customers cannot choose which employment activity or type of CWEP they do. If they refuse to “participate,” they are denied assistance.
Updates: The Proposed County Budget for 2017 increases spending on Social Services by 7 million dollars, which is great! But the department covers many areas besides homelessness, so it is unclear how much of this will reach my community. The amount of money is also deceptive, since a single program can cost over a million dollars. I believe we still have a very low-spending budget for a county of our size and (areas of) wealth.
*Full Service Shelter: A shelter open 24 hours a day, with three meals, caseworkers, and activities. They are supposed to find people housing. Clients are assigned rooms or beds, and have a place to keep their stuff.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on Daily Kos in a slightly different form.
Stay Tuned for Part Two & Three of this Three-Part Series!
Also check out Laura Case’s Homelessness In Yonkers Two Part series