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Homelessness In Yonkers Pt. 1: Yonkers Policies, Hurting it’s Homeless

Part One in the series on Homelessness in Yonkers

sharing-communityWhen people think of homelessness in New York they tend to think of the city, but Westchester county has a severe problem as well. Our homeless system is very poorly run. Social Services often refuses people placement in shelters. Many of the homeless sleep in drop-in shelters only open during the night. In Yonkers the problem has been made worse by a city government bent on ridding itself of the homeless in a way other than housing them.

Locals will be aware of recent incidents such as the temporary closure of a drop-in which forced people to sleep outside for a night through a rainstorm. To really understand the situation, one has to go back a bit.

It began with major changes in the zoning code , which quietly created what may be the strictest anti-homeless laws in the country. According to Yonkers zoning code chapters 43–73 H, and 43–35 C and A; social service organizations cannot be within 400 feet of each other. Church’s within residential districts may not engage in social services, period, including soup kitchens. All agencies must apply for special permits, to be renewed yearly unless they only use their offices for administrative functions. The permit application includes a detailed plan of staffing, operations, hours, maintenance, etc. and is reviewed by the commissioner of buildings who can reject them for any reason and then by city council which can do the same.

Any social services entity in the government district must be on a “designated redevelopment site.” No, I do not know where the government district is, I was told it costs $20 to see and or copy the zoning map. Finally, none of this allows shelters to actually operate. The zoning code states: “Philanthropic institutions providing social services are neither emergency shelters, overnight shelters for the homeless….”

In 2014 Christina Gilmartin the mayor’s press secretary confirmed this in an email: “The Zoning ordinance was revised in the year 2000. Chapter 43, section 43–73 H (7) specifically prohibits a homeless shelter causing a requirement for a variance.”

These rules are selectively enforced. I believe most nonprofits are not even aware of their existence.

In the late summer of 2014 in the midst of a redevelopment push Yonkers began its ground campaign. The Gospel Mission was a 50 bed 24 hour men’s shelter located on North Broadway. Because it had a focus on religious education and prayer it was run through private donations.

It was already shutting due to lack of support. But that did not stop the city from making extra sure it left. According to a college project written shortly after which included an interview with it’s director, the city condemned the building three days before it closed, telling him they would do so to all shelters with “dormitory style ” setups.

Sharing Community is Yonkers major provider of shelter services including as of 2014 two county funded drop-in programs. The Yonkers men’s drop-in was in Holy Cross, a small church. The city closed it in September 2014. No building code violations were ever alleged to the best of my knowledge, I believe the city used the fact that the church was in a residential district. According to a church source I spoke to that year Development Commissioner Wilson Kimball had simply emailed Holy Cross that they could either be a shelter or a church, not both. The men were moved to the headquarters of Sharing Community at Saint John’s church (1 Hudson St.) in the downtown.

In November 2014, the city next shut Sharing Community’s day program, Host. It must be said that the program; run out of the headquarters’ basement, was not big enough for the number of people it served. There were not enough activities or housing counseling. But it kept people safely out of the cold, they had shower access, and neither of the above was mentioned among the “reasons” it was closed.

Allegedly, Sharing Community did not have the ridiculous special zoning permit as explained above, or a certificate of occupancy. Sharing Community alleged that their attempts to get them had been denied. Also cited were the drop-in clients sleeping there. The city’s logic seems to have been that the homeless men would simply evaporate into mid-air after they closed Holy Cross, so a new site would not be needed. The one valid reason given was fire safety problems (lack of sprinklers), but the Sharing Community alleged that their building permits to fix these issues were later denied as well.

Because the showers were at the day program, the clients have not had shower access at the shelter in two years. For five months after the closure there were no showers at all. I had pointed out that Yonkers had a taxpayer-funded bathhouse that was sitting locked and unused. Eventually, it was opened to the homeless three days a week, two hours a day….if you can walk two miles. It has not even remained open constantly.

The irony of this whole situation is that it was the city that had chosen Sharing Community to run the day program! Host was funded federally, through a grant to the housing authority, which then supervised and chose the subcontractor. If the city had been sincere about wanting what was best for the homeless and they thought Sharing Community was an unfit provider they would have just picked someone else, instead they allowed the homeless to be without showers and in the cold.

After months of protracted negations, the building permits were finally approved in 2015, however in exchange the county agreed to move all programs out of Saint John’s Church to a new location by the end of 2017 when Sharing Community’s lease is up. (as discussed in the recent court order keeping one of the drop-ins open) This includes the cities only daily soup kitchen, and a full service shelter. No one knows where it will go.

And it was too late for the day program anyways. HUD, the funder of the day program; cut it’s money for the 2016 year (because I am told, they do not like funding supportive service only programs) so it never reopened. The Drop-in clients now have to leave at 5:00 in the morning, rain or shine.

My next article will explain go into what has happened in the years since 2014 including attempts to force the shelter to move even sooner than agreed upon.


About Laura Case (4 Articles)
Laura Case is a writer, activist, and peer-advocate on issues concerning homelessness in Westchester County, New York. She stays on and off at a drop-in shelter. Laura also writes for Daily Kos, Talk of the Sound, Medium and more.
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