Like most people who find themselves seeking shelter at the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, the sole portal into New York City’s shelter system for homeless families, Jackie Fuller and two of her children were at the tail end of a run of extremely bad luck. Fuller, 44, had been living most recently in Brooklyn, but like many people who eventually wind up homeless, she had not resided at her last address very long or securely. She and her husband were New Yorkers who moved to Memphis in 1994, where just two years ago they had good jobs and were rearing the youngest three of Fuller’s five children from her first marriage in a rented house. But Fuller missed her two adult daughters and granddaughter, so the family decided to return north. Fuller’s husband came back ahead of time to set things up, but by the time Fuller arrived, he had lost a lucrative bridge-painting job and had had an affair with another woman. The marriage collapsed.
Fuller and her three youngest moved in with Fuller’s two grown daughters and granddaughter in the East New York section of Brooklyn — seven of them sharing a small two-bedroom apartment — while Fuller frantically looked for work. She began interviewing on Wall Street, where she’d received and delivered government bonds for 17 years before leaving the city, but no offers came. While she waited, she tried peddling bath towels at a flea market and audited a course in Web design. After Sept. 11, the interviews virtually ceased. Meanwhile, the landlord of the Brooklyn apartment objected to the overcrowding and set a deadline of Jan. 1 for the newcomers to move out.
On Jan. 14, Fuller and her two youngest children, Shanna, 16, and Darian, 12, set out for the Bronx, hauling their three suitcases to the Emergency Assistance Unit, or E.A.U., as it is commonly known. (Her middle son, who is 20, moved in with another relative.) ”We thought there wouldn’t be any kids,” Shanna told me later, referring to the E.A.U., ”but there were a whole lot!”
A sturdy, ebullient teenager with a penchant for pink accessories, Shanna had gotten the lowdown on the shelter system from her best friend, whose family was homeless a couple of years ago. But Shanna stopped short of telling her new boyfriend, a college freshman, of her predicament. ”You don’t know if you can trust him yet or whether he’ll put your business out on the street,” she explained. ”I told him I might be living with my aunt because she’s lonely, but I didn’t give him a specific location. I talked to him from the E.A.U. and he said, ‘It’s loud!’ and I said, ‘Those are my baby cousins crying and crying.”’
Her younger brother, Darian, had been machinating for weeks so that no one in his seventh-grade class, where he’s known as a jokester, would ever suspect he’d become homeless. ”I’m slick,” he explained. ”I told them my mother has a real job, but she sells towels when she’s not working to get some extra money because we’re moving. You know, to kind of smooth it over.”
Reporters aren’t allowed inside the E.A.U. or even near its doors, but I did manage a brief visit inside the one-story brick building early this past winter. A series of windowless rooms, it has the bright, 24-hour feel of a casino. The place is crammed with children, just as Shanna said; every member of each family must be present in order for that family’s case to move forward. There is a low din of crying and coughing, but I found the atmosphere weirdly hushed. Families sat or napped on long plastic putty-colored benches. Portable cribs were scattered around, many with older children folded inside them. Occasionally a family whose belongings included a TV or a video game would plug it into a wall socket, and then whole tides of children would surge over to watch.
On their first night as a homeless family, Fuller and her children boarded a school bus to East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, one of several locations where the city provides overnight beds to those families still in the application process. The next day she was interviewed by the Eligibility Investigation Unit. New York is unique among American cities in that, by consent decree and subsequent court orders, it must provide shelter to every homeless person or family that requests it. But beginning in the 1990’s with the Giuliani administration, proving one’s homelessness became a notoriously arduous task. Today, each applicant must provide a two-year housing history so that investigators can visit all prior residences and decide for themselves whether the family has other housing alternatives. If the investigators deem that alternatives exist, the family becomes ineligible for shelter and must leave the system immediately (though families may reapply). If granted eligibility for shelter, the family is ultimately placed in what is known as a transitional, or Tier II, housing facility run by a not-for-profit corporation under contract to provide an array of services — counseling, job training, housing assistance — to help the family ”transition” into permanent housing.
While the city conducts its investigations, the family is placed in ”conditional shelter,” usually for 10 days. This housing may be either a room or rooms in a privately owned hotel or one of about 1,300 apartments the city has begun renting to catch the overflow of families from the hotels. Fuller, Shanna and Darian ended up in a small studio in a run-down building on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where they shared two single beds pushed together, arguing over who had to lie along the crack. (Modest, yes, but consider the fact that in Chicago, a mere 6,000 shelter beds exist to accommodate a nightly homeless population of 15,000 to 20,000, nearly half of whom are families with children. The majority are left to sleep in cars and abandoned buildings, even in winter, according to John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.)
”It’s small, but it’s neat,” Fuller told me, sitting at a small kitchen table five days into her stay. She’s soft-spoken but an easy talker. Her children adore her. As we sat, Darian absently fingered his mother’s gold earring and ran his hand through her hair. He’s an ungainly youth, sweet-tempered, but he was grumpy about his new circumstances. He ruminated obsessively over his hair, which he likes to keep braided. He missed playing video games on the family TV set with surround-sound, still in storage in Memphis. He missed being able to walk outside and play basketball. Now he can’t walk anywhere; a single key existed to the apartment — Fuller isn’t wasting money on copies when the family may be out within the week — so everyone’s entrances and exits had to be coordinated. Darian paced and moped in the tiny space, peering out the window and occasionally repairing to the narrow fifth-floor hallway, where he practiced boxing moves.
As for Shanna, she was determined not to let homelessness impinge on her life as an extremely popular high-school junior. She woke up at 5 a.m. and left the apartment at 6, taking three subway trains followed by a bus ride — a two-hour odyssey to her school. Both her brother and her mother marveled at her resolute good cheer, but the grueling commute was taking a toll. While we were talking that night, Shanna lay back on the bed and was abruptly asleep, fully clothed.
”Disaster kept striking little by little,” Fuller said, still stunned by the turn in her fortunes. ”This has to be the bottom.”
Fuller and her kids were joining a skyrocketing population of homeless families in New York City. An average of nearly 32,000 people slept in shelters each night last month, up by 23 percent from a year ago — the largest one-year increase in the city’s shelter history, and possibly since the Great Depression. That number far exceeds the previous high of 28,737 in 1987 — despite the fact that the number of single homeless people has actually dropped in that time by more than 3,000. Today, families make up 75 percent of New York’s homeless-shelter population, with more than 13,000 children having slept in city shelters and temporary apartments most nights this winter.
The root causes of what is called chronic homelessness — the adults drifting perpetually among shelters and haunting the nation’s downtowns — are held to be mentall illness and substance abuse, but the chronic homeless constitute only 10 percent of the total shelter population, and children, obviously, don’t fall within their ranks. A typical homeless child is under 5 years old, very poor and living with a sibling and a single mother. The mother may well lack the education or job skills to lift her out of poverty; often, she has been the victim of domestic violence. Compounding such children’s precarious circumstances are two long-term economic trends: stagnant or falling wages coupled with a rise in housing prices. Ultimately, these children are the youngest members of troubled families too cash-strapped to afford a place to lay their heads. In an era regarded as generally prosperous, the numbers are staggering: between 900,000 and 1.4 million children in America are homeless for a time in a given year. Most of them are homeless only once, and for months, not years. And while the impact of homelessness on these children is difficult to distinguish from the many other hardships of poverty, there is evidence that homeless children have more health problems, more hospitalizations and more developmental problems than poor children who have never been homeless. Homeless children are more likely to wind up separated from their parents for periods, either with other relatives or in foster care. Children who experience homelessness are also more likely to become homeless as adults.
Because these children are not sleeping in parks or begging on subways, the fact of their homelessness is largely invisible — outside the context of a homeless shelter, they just look like children. And while I did meet families in New York who said they’d ridden subways overnight with their very young kids or slept outdoors with teenagers, these parents were taking a big risk — failing to provide adequate shelter for one’s children can result in having them removed from one’s care by the Administration for Children’s Services, New York City’s child welfare agency. Yet because we don’t see homeless kids asleep in our streets — and because the shelters and residences they shuttle in and out of tend to be in the city’s poorer neighborhoods — their plight has not provoked the outcry that the rise in homelessness did in the 1980’s. Nevertheless, these children make up 40 percent of the nation’s homeless population, and for the time they remain without homes, and for who knows how long after, homelessness is the defining fact of their lives.
The Emergency Assistance Unit is situated on what I’m convinced is the coldest street corner in New York City, at 151st Street just off the Grand Concourse. For many nights and days this past winter I stood on that corner in a riptide of winds, watching young, mostly black and Hispanic women (and occasionally men), shepherd their children into and out of a set of gray metal doors. They arrive with suitcases and duffel bags and shopping carts, with blankets and Barbies and television sets. When families are too stir-crazy to sit inside another minute, they get temporary passes to come outside and smoke or drink coffee. Children beg their parents for candy at the R&A Deli-Grocery, across the street, the E.A.U.’s de facto commissary (food is served within, but it is notoriously awful), then eat it in the cold while their parents swap stories. A portion of families at the E.A.U. are first-time applicants, but most of them say they are reapplying after having been deemed ineligible, often several times, and the mood of paranoia is intense. Wild rumors abound: how investigators told an applicant to put her children to bed in a bathtub; how the E.A.U. is paid each time it denies a family eligibility (not true).
The kids tend to tune out these harangues — the youngest play, while the older ones stare resolutely into space. Children in and around the E.A.U. are accustomed to the uncomfortable spectacle of their parents as supplicants, powerless and dependent. They’ve seen their mothers cry and lose their tempers with city employees, only to be punished for it. The illusion that a parent can protect them — shelter them, literally, from the world’s indifference — is broken swiftly and severely. You see the result in the teenagers; angry, full of shame, but afraid to vent their anger on their beleaguered parents. Many look on the verge of implosion, especially the boys, who skulk outside the E.A.U., taking big, hard breaths of cold air. One morning, I watched a boy who looked about 16 get led out in handcuffs; he managed to kick out the window of a police van before it took him away.
For those who can afford it, there’s a McDonald’s up the street on the Grand Concourse, which offers the added attraction of a clean bathroom. One afternoon a few days before Christmas, I went there for lunch with Denise Boone, 28, and her kids, Shannay, 9, and Dennis, 11. Both children are in fourth grade. Dennis was quiet, retracted inside his puffy coat. But Shannay was wild with life, as if all the spirit that had been leeched away from her sad-looking mother was churning inside her.
”It’s three months since the World Trade Center got knocked down!” Shannay reported with enthusiasm. She had gold earrings, red, white and blue beads braided into her hair and a knit cap that read ”God Bless America.” She listened as her mother claimed, in a dejected monotone, that she had been rejected six times since she first applied for shelter the previous April. The city, she maintained, first wanted her to move back in with a female friend who was on crack and took out a restraining order against Boone, then with Boone’s mother, whose two-bedroom already houses five adults, including Boone’s AIDS-stricken brother. In June, with nowhere to go, Boone put her kids into foster care, she said, but they ran away. The foster parents treated them badly, Boone said. (She herself spent a portion of her youth in foster care and group homes, as did a number of homeless mothers I interviewed.)
Boone and her children found themselves back at the E.A.U. on Thanksgiving. A church group arrived with turkey dinners, Boone said, but was not allowed to bring the dinners inside. (No food or drinks, except baby formula, can be brought into the E.A.U.) Instead, the families ate sandwiches in the cafeteria. According to Boone, the place was packed that night, and several families were left overnight on the E.A.U. benches and floors — an outlawed practice that still goes on periodically.
”They don’t want to help you,” Shannay informed me in the proud, bossy tones of a child playing the expert. ”When you’re laying in the street with your kids, they’re gonna call B.C.W.” (She was referring to the Bureau of Child Welfare, the previous name for the A.C.S.)
”What do B.C.W. do, lock you up?” Dennis asked, interrupting his sing-along with the Christmas carols on the McDonald’s soundtrack.
”They take you to jail and they keep your kids until you have enough money to take them out,” Shannay replied.
Like many homeless parents, Boone had been unequal to the task of trying to keep her children in their original Bronx schools as the city moved her among boroughs on 10-day placements. Instead, she registered them at whichever public school district the family happened to be placed in. ”She’s too smart to be out of school,” she said of Shannay. ”She’s an A student; she’s going to fall behind. Last time they’ve been to school this month was . . . what was the last day on your homework?
”December 10th!” Shannay instantly replied.
”And they just got into school four days before that. Then they found us ineligible. We had to come back here.”
”I miss my teachers,” Shannay said.
Earlier that same day, I’d had breakfast at a different McDonald’s with Deborah Williams, 41, and her two children. I met Williams and her kids outside the E.A.U. a few nights before, where Williams, worn out and hoarse, was pushing a shopping cart containing bags of clothing and a small television set. The family had just applied for shelter and was on its way to its first conditional placement. Her daughter, Tynisha, 12, wrapped her head in a long black scarf to avoid me and a photographer. Davonte, 5, a human Superball, promptly informed us that his birthday was Halloween and that he would be playing Jesus the following night in his school play. Then he mugged ecstatically for the camera.
Williams, a postal worker, has a much higher income than most E.A.U. clients — even after being garnisheed for back rent owed to her prior landlord, she was taking home around $350 a week. She was one of many homeless people I met who were holding jobs, a number of them full time. A single parent, Williams pays $425 each month for Davonte to attend God’s Kids Academy, a private school near the Bronx post office where she worked at the time. Her life hasn’t been easy; she lost two brothers to drug addiction and to AIDS, and she had been in a long, abusive relationship with a man who is now incarcerated. But the bad luck that brought her to this pass was largely of her own making: after a dispute with her landlord led to eviction proceedings, she began withholding rent last May, but instead of saving that money in escrow, she gambled it away in Atlantic City and in neighborhood card games. ”I was totally out of control,” she told me. ”That was a really messed-up time in my life.”
When the eviction became final last October, she moved her children into the small one-bedroom apartment in New York City housing where her godmother lives with her husband, intending to stay there until her earned-income tax credit came through in late January and gave her enough extra money for the two months’ rent and broker’s fee required to secure a new apartment. But tensions soared in the crowded quarters, and on Dec. 15, Williams and her kids entered the shelter system.
In early January, Williams left me a frantic message from the pay phone at Town and Country, a hotel near Co-Op City, at the northeast edge of the Bronx, where she and her children had settled into their second conditional placement while they sought eligibility for a second time (they’d been denied the first time when the city claimed they could go back to Williams’s godmother’s). Now they’d been turned down again: ”This is Deborah. They sent me an ineligible letter underneath the door at 12:20, obviously I was at work at that time, telling me to hurry up and make it to a conference in four hours, at 4:20. We walked in the door, all of our belongings were gone. They say they put them in storage. . . . We have no choice but to go back to the E.A.U.”
The next morning, I went to the E.A.U. to meet Williams. Though it was midmorning, school buses were still rolling in, disgorging families from their overnight shelter stays. Women helped each other wrangle strollers and suitcases from the buses; older children carried younger children inside to begin the day’s wait. I felt defeated just imagining the logistics of these women’s lives — ferrying all their possessions back and forth, pocketbooks crammed with birth certificates and other original documents they constantly need to produce; matching children to socks and snowsuits and bottles; keeping everyone fed. I was amazed by how well dressed and cared for most of the children looked.
Williams emerged from the E.A.U. exhausted; Davonte and Tynisha were sleeping on a bench inside, she told me. The bus hadn’t brought them to Powers, a city-run overnight shelter five minutes from the E.A.U., until 1:40 a.m. (These late arrivals are quite common and a particular hardship for working parents and schoolchildren, who must catch the ”early bird” bus at 5:45 a.m. to log in at the E.A.U. before going to work and school.) Outside Powers, Davonte had vomited on the pavement. Everyone slept in their clothes — Powers is known for being underheated — and at one point, between bouts of vomiting, the boy awoke in his own feces. But because their belongings had been locked away at Town and Country, they had only the clothes on their backs. Williams rinsed Davonte’s underwear but was worried that if she washed his school uniform pants in the cold room, they wouldn’t be dry by morning.
As Williams spoke, a slight woman with a pierced tongue burst from the E.A.U. with two small children in tow: Joshuann Russell, 26, whom Williams had just met inside. Russell, who described herself as a longtime victim of domestic violence that had cost her both her job and her apartment, said she’d called the city’s domestic violence hotline some weeks ago, after her ex-husband threatened to kill her in front of their children. The city operates a separate shelter system for victims of domestic abuse, but perhaps because it advertises this hotline aggressively on the subways, its beds are often full; the spillover falls to the E.A.U.
Russell’s youngest child, a 2-year-old boy, was clutching an empty bottle and wailing for milk. We crossed the street to the deli, where Russell filled her son’s bottle with a shaking hand while continuing her wild story: against her wishes, the E.A.U. had placed her last night in the Bronx, near where her ex-husband lives. Sure enough, Russell maintained, she woke to find him beating her head with the butt of a gun, having been let inside the hotel by a friend of his who works there. By now her little boy, who seemed to function as a kind of dowsing stick for his mother’s anxiety, was becoming agitated as her volume rose. Her attacker had escaped, Russell told me, after she dialed 911 on her cellphone. While I pondered the credibility of this story, the boy began to weep, reaching for his mother in his heavy winter jacket.
”You wanna babo? What? What you want? Drink that bottle,” Russell implored. ”No, it doesn’t hurt,” she said, as the boy peered up at her. She was holding one cheek where she said she’d been hit with the gun. ”Just my head a little bit.”
Outside, Russell had to run back into the E.A.U., and Williams offered to watch her children. The boy cried for malted-milk balls, which his 4-year-old sister denied him. He had a terrible cold. When he realized that his mother was gone, he went rigid with fear and began to scream, choking, coughing, his face a contortion of terror and despair. Nothing we said could calm him. His sister offered him the candy, but he no longer wanted it. She put her arm around him, a 4-year-old soothing a 2-year-old, diminutive figures in puffy jackets, big hoods bobbing like pompoms. I thought of how alien the world must look to these kids without any of the familiar objects or routines of home — an unending series of new circumstances and people. No wonder their mother’s presence felt so crucial — she was all that stood between them and chaos.
In the late afternoon, Williams reappeared with her children. I was taken aback by the change in Davonte — groggy, unsmiling, nothing like the goofy giggler who had mugged for the camera two weeks before. We went to a Chinese restaurant nearby, where Davonte picked listlessly at a bowl of chicken soup and sipped from a plastic cup of greenish lemonade.
”Every time I cough,” he said softly, ”my stomach keeps jumping and jumping.”
”Whatever you do, don’t throw up on the table,” his sister said.
A slender girl, proud and opaque, Tynisha was deeply unhappy to find herself still in yesterday’s silver studded jeans. At 12, she’s still half a child — her heart’s desire that week was a $40 Tweety Bird doll she’d seen in a window. But she’s an adolescent, too, fighting to manage the few things in her life she can still control. She struggled to do schoolwork in various inauspicious settings — a report on mummification at Powers, math problems on the top bunk of a temporary apartment without a desk.
Davonte got up to use the rest room, walking oddly, perhaps out of self-consciousness over his soiled uniform pants. Williams hadn’t retrieved their possessions yet from Town and Country; she was worried the errand might prolong their time at the E.A.U. She’d missed work this day — one of many absences caused by her homelessness — and her supervisor was running out of patience. ”There’s going to be some kind of retaliation,” she said. ”I’ll pray on it tonight.”
Davonte returned from the bathroom and slumped against his mother. ”I’m cold,” he murmured. ”I want to go home.”
There was a pause. It was unclear where, exactly, he meant: the apartment where they’d lived until October, whose contents, including a large Buzz Lightyear doll he pined for, were in storage? The East River Family Center, their first and favorite placement, where they’d had a Christmas tree and opened presents before they’d been deemed ineligible and had to vacate the premises? Or some primal notion we all carry around in our minds of a comfortable place that is our own, where we can retreat to safety?
”Are you sleepy?” Williams asked her son.
”Well, we don’t have a home,” she said. ”Isn’t that sad?”
It was dark by the time we returned to the E.A.U. and Williams and her children went back inside. That night they would be given a third conditional placement at a temporary apartment in the Bronx, but it would lack heat or hot water, as Williams would report to me the next morning, sobbing over the cellphone I’d lent her to keep in touch with me. No one was able to bathe, and they slept with the oven door open and the gas on. Davonte’s pants remained soiled, and Williams missed another day of work and the children another day of school to sort things out and finally retrieve their belongings from Town and Country. (The heat resumed the following morning, and there was hot water from that point on.)
After they’d gone inside the E.A.U., I stood beneath the single pink-orange stadium light that hangs above its entrance doors. People were still arriving, some having clearly come from work, accompanied by schoolchildren with bright school backpacks on their shoulders; others who looked dead-tired, dragging garbage bags full of clothing over the pavement.
At around 8 o’clock, school buses began pulling in to pick up families for their overnights. The buses would keep arriving into the wee hours, children tottering aboard holding blankets and pacifiers and stuffed animals, looking groggier and more disoriented as the hours passed. Some fell asleep before the buses had even left, their faces mashed against the glass.
While there is diversity among homeless families and the chains of events that lead them to seek public shelter, there is also a shared context: in 1970, there were approximately 300,000 more of what are called extremely-low-income housing units in America than families who needed them; now there are 4.5 million more extremely-low-income families in need of housing than there are units in their range of affordability. Many factors have contributed to this reversal: in the decades since 1970, rent prices in urban areas have outstripped inflation while wages in low-end jobs have at best remained flat. A lot of poor urban neighborhoods have been gentrified as city life once again became attractive to the affluent. And a large influx of immigrants beginning in the 1980’s has created an enormous demand for inexpensive apartments in the biggest cities.
In New York, where income disparity between the rich and poor is nearly twice the national rate, the housing problem is especially acute. Between the late 70’s and the late 90’s, the incomes of the poorest fifth of New Yorkers fell by 33 percent in real terms, while in the 1990’s alone, the city lost more than 500,000 apartments renting for less that $500 a month (in part through the relaxation of rent-control regulations) — more than half the total low-rent units available. This placed a particular burden on poor families: in 1999, more than 25 percent of New Yorkers who rented an apartment spent more than half their incomes doing so. For a family stretched so thin, a single disaster to a parent — becoming sick or injured or losing a job; splitting up with a spouse or partner; developing a drug or alcohol or gambling problem — can result in a child being suddenly without a home.
In a middle-class family, such personal blows tend to be cushioned by savings. Poor families without savings look to the government for help. But whereas all poor families able to qualify are entitled to Medicaid, there is no entitlement to housing in America. Indeed, since the late 1970’s, the amount of federal money available for providing low-income housing has decreased by around 90 percent, according to Cushing N. Dolbeare, a senior scholar at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard who has been a housing advocate for 50 years. As for rent subsidies: in the late 1970’s, the federal government provided 300,000 new units of rental assistance each year, most of them in the form of Section 8 vouchers or certificates, which can be used by poor families toward rent payments in privately owned apartments. By the 1990’s, the number of additional new vouchers had fallen to 40,000 a year, and for two years beginning in 1995, the federal government eliminated the creation of new vouchers entirely. The proposed Bush budget allows for 34,000 new vouchers, to be added to the approximately 1.8 million already in use. But this increase will not put even a small dent in the problem. In New York City alone, the waiting list for Section 8 is more than 200,000 long.
As for welfare housing allowances, they are pitiful. A family of three in New York can receive a maximum of $286 a month for shelter allowance — try renting an apartment for that. And during the 1990’s, the city’s once-robust investments in building and developing low-income housing were slashed by about 50 percent. Poor people struggling to pay the rent will struggle much harder to find new housing, should they lose what they have. And when they can’t, they drop with their children into the homeless system.
Jackie Fuller and Darian and Shanna waited in their city-provided single room on Ocean Avenue for some word from the city. Another bed was delivered; pots and pans appeared in the kitchenette, lent by Fuller’s grown daughters. Ten days passed, then 15. On the 18th day, they found a note requesting more information about the family’s residence in Memphis. Certain this meant she was ineligible, Fuller became physically ill, then lay awake praying most of the night.
At school, Darian still hadn’t disclosed to anyone that he was homeless. I met him at school one afternoon and took the hourlong bus ride back to Ocean Avenue. When I asked how his schoolmates would react if they learned his secret, he said: ”I don’t know. I hate this school. There’s too many people that think they run me.” Then he waxed nostalgic about the school he’d left behind in Memphis. ”Everybody knew me as Mace,” he said wistfully. ”I was the king.”
According to city guidelines, any family not notified of their eligibility status within 10 days should automatically be made eligible, but this rule is regularly broken, and Fuller didn’t know about it anyway. She didn’t know anything — no one does, because like most bureaucracies, New York’s Department of Homeless Services often functions in a lurching and seemingly arbitrary way. For example, when Fuller first came to the E.A.U., she was offered what is known as a one-shot deal: if she could find an apartment renting for around $600 a month — a tall order, to be sure, in a city where the rent for a nonsubsidized one-bedroom is seldom that low — the government would pay her first month’s rent, security deposit and broker’s fee. The offer was useless to Fuller, who had no income to pay the subsequent months’ rent, but for Deborah Williams, who has a steady income from her postal job but lacked the chunk of money required for a new apartment, such an offer would have averted her homelessness altogether. But Williams says that no such offer was made to her.
Williams and her children remained in their city-provided temporary apartment in the Bronx for eight days. When a third ineligibility letter arrived, they reapplied for shelter at the E.A.U. and were eventually sent on a fourth conditional placement to the Park Family Residence, a hotel in Queens, near Kennedy Airport. At 5:30 each morning, the three waited in darkness for a bus that would take them to a subway; they took two trains that finally delivered them to work and school in the Bronx: a two-and-a-half-hour trip. At the end of the day, same story: a fast-food meal in the Bronx (rooms at the Park Family Residence have no kitchen facilities), followed by the long ride back to Queens, where they would arrive between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. By the fourth day, Williams was feverish; she nearly passed out at work, she said. The next day she stayed home, as did the children — she was too sick to take them to school. That evening I went to see them.
The Park Family Residence has the look of a large, run-down motel. Set off by a chain-link fence from Rockaway Boulevard and engulfed in a howl of traffic from the nearby Belt Parkway, it makes an unlikely setting for the many children still gamboling near its front doors at 8 o’clock. Outside, under a lunar fluorescent glow, Tynisha and two other girls wielded double jump ropes, each taking their turn at the intricate footwork. It was a testament to the resourcefulness of children, their ability to wrest delight from the most barren circumstances.
When Davonte threw his arms around my legs and smiled up at me, I noticed a change in his antic face: a bottom front tooth was gone. He’d lost his first tooth in the Park Family Residence, where it had vanished into the clutter of their small room before the tooth fairy could visit.
”It’s cool,” he said, when I asked how he liked this new place.
”He’s happy because over here they can play in the hallway with the other kids,” Williams said. ”So he’s like the man on this floor.”
Hoarse and puffy-eyed, she wore her coat pulled over a pair of shiny blue pajamas, laughing at how ”ghetto” she looked in this ensemble. Tynisha wore a matching pair; these were part of a slew of purchases — new coats, hats, boots, earrings for Tynisha and a ring with a ”D” on it for Davonte — made with Williams’s earned-income tax credit, $3,600, which had finally come through. ”I got new boots,” Davonte bragged, showing them off. ”I got new sneakers!”
We left the hotel and stopped at the overpriced convenience store in the gas station next door, the only place nearby where groceries could be found. Then we wove among lanes of traffic to Burger King, across Rockaway Boulevard, where we ate dinner in a strobe of passing headlights. The children reminisced about a visit they’d made with Williams the previous summer to the Staten Island Children’s Museum and a nearby Disney event.
”We saw Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse,” Davonte recalled breathlessly. ”And we had fun. And we was on the slide and we was seeing a movie and we was dancing!”
”It was free,” Tynisha added. She seemed more withdrawn than the last time I’d seen her; there had been an incident in the previous temporary apartment when a faulty lock was changed without warning, and the family had arrived back that evening to find themselves locked out. According to Williams, Tynisha was devastated; she had a huge test the next morning, and after a super finally let them in, she had lain on the bed and sobbed inconsolably. But when I mentioned the incident, Tynisha went blank. ”My head hurt,” was all she would say.
After dinner, the children went to play video games at the Burger King, and Williams and I sat a while longer. Since receiving her tax-credit check, she’d been combing the papers for an affordable apartment, but to no avail. After buying the children’s clothes, paying her godmother for the weeks she’d let them stay with her and putting money aside for moving expenses, she had $2,000 left — enough for the first month’s rent and the security deposit, but not a broker’s fee. And that was assuming that she could find a two-bedroom for less than $1,000 a month, which was not proving easy.
”I’m ready,” she said. ”I have the money. But where is the physical apartment? I am worn out,” she concluded. ”This particular place is killing me.”
The saga for Williams would continue. She and her children would leave the Park Family Residence a few days later and be placed again at Town and Country in the north Bronx, closer to where she worked, with the help of Steven Banks, a Legal Aid lawyer, whom Williams met at the E.A.U. In early February, she would find an apartment she could afford and put down the rent and security deposit, only to learn two weeks later that she’d failed the credit check.
But later that very same day, Feb. 20, Williams would learn that at last, she’d been deemed eligible: after four rejections, the city had finally acknowledged that her family was homeless. This change in their fortunes most likely resulted from Banks’s involvement; so wary is the city of his litigation that his mere association with a case is often enough solve the family’s problem. It had been more than two months now since Williams first arrived at the E.A.U. The city had spent approximately $6,500, or $100 a night, bouncing her and her children among hotels and apartments — nearly the cost of a year’s rent subsidy through Section 8. Now that she is eligible, Williams can stay at Town and Country for 60 days, after which she will be moved to a Tier II placement and eventually to permanent housing; homeless families get top priority on the long waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers and New York City housing.
But the likelihood is that Williams, whose income is too high to qualify for subsidized housing, will find an apartment long before that. She and her children will join the majority of homeless households who pass through the system once and relatively briefly. The question is, at what cost to Williams and her children, and to the taxpayer? The federal government now spends $1.7 billion each year on homeless services, but that’s only a fraction of the total spent nationally; some 40,000 programs exist to deal with homelessness in America, many financed at the state and local levels.
In other words, a sprawling and expensive system has arisen to confront the problem of homelessness, and many have begun to worry that this system is creating problems of its own. One fear is that families are remaining homeless longer than necessary (their average stay in New York is 11 months, but more than 500 families have been in the system more than two years) and that moving them among shelters and then to transitional housing prolongs their identities as ”homeless families.” There is concern, too, that other safety-net programs like welfare and foster care may be letting troubled families fall off their rolls into the homeless system.
Homelessness among families is such a recent phenomenon — virtually nonexistent from the end of the Great Depression to the early 1980’s — that no one can say for certain what, if any, its long-term effects may be on the children who suffer it. But Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of a federally supported study of homeless families, has found that homelessness tends to ratchet up the already grim effects of poverty. According to her research, children in homeless families are sick twice as often as poor children who have never been homeless. Nearly 70 percent of homeless children, she found, suffer from chronic illnesses like asthma and anemia, and almost half of school-age homeless children have emotional problems like anxiety and depression. They also experience four times the rate of development delays and double the learning disabilities and are twice as likely to be suspended from school or repeat a grade than other poor children.
Bassuk’s research was conducted in Massachusetts in the 1990’s, but experts say that her findings are representative of the state of homeless children nationwide, including those who are homeless today in New York. The Bloomberg administration understands that there has been an increase in the number of homeless children in recent years, but it is not clear yet whether the new mayor is planning any significant changes in the system now in place. Linda I. Gibbs was named Bloomberg’s commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services in January, having served as Mayor Giuliani’s deputy commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services. When I spoke to her earlier this month, she said she did not think her department was overwhelmed or that the problem of homeless children had become particularly acute.
”The crisis would be if there were children living on the streets,” she said. ”I think the fact that the homeless system is here is a crisis averted.” She did add, however: ”There’s always room for improvement. We really intend on looking at the eligibility process to see if there are ways that we can minimize or reduce the amount of school disruption that happens when families become homeless.”
Supporting a homeless family in New York costs city taxpayers $36,000 a year — an amount that could subsidize at least four families’ yearly rents or finance countless much cheaper preventive measures: emergency grants to pay back rent or help families to secure new apartments; legal aid to help fight evictions. It is hard not to feel that putting these dollars to a different use would be not just more humane, but more fiscally responsible. ”You could spend a dollar on prevention and save four dollars on shelter care,” says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. ”Once somebody becomes homeless, it’s that much harder to rehouse them.”
Still, fiscal responsibility alone is not likely to serve as a rallying cry. Make no mistake: ending homelessness for families with children would cost money. The question is how much responsibility we, as a society, feel for the children of people whose poverty, or pathologies, have resulted in those children’s having nowhere to live. A shift toward spending money to end children’s homelessness rather than simply trying to manage it will come only if enough people decide that the social costs of having a million American children homeless each year are too high to tolerate. It will require a consensus that the suffering and damage inflicted on these children through illness and lapsed education and trauma that could very well compromise their productivity as adults not only reflects badly on all of us, but is actually bad for us — that we, as a society, are worse off because of it.
After hearing nothing from the city for a month, Jackie Fuller went to the nonprofit group Coalition for the Homeless, which contacted the Department of Homeless Services and learned that she’d been eligible for 10 days, but no one had told her. Fuller went limp. She phoned Shanna, who shrieked into her ear. Only Darian’s reaction was muted. ”I already knew,” he insisted.
His equanimity crumbled at the news that the family would have to move yet again — into Tier II housing — and then again, at some more distant point, when permanent housing became available. ”We have to move?” he moaned, ”Oh, Ma.”
When I visited the family that evening, Shanna was more subdued than usual. Her boyfriend had stood her up the day before — Valentine’s Day. ”My friends all got flowers and big teddy bears,” she said, ”and I was empty-handed.” Since becoming homeless, she’d talked to him less often, she admitted; the reception on her cellphone was terrible in the apartment, and he was tired of leaving voicemails. He’d come to visit once, believing it was her aunt’s apartment, but Shanna had made him wait downstairs rather than invite him up.
On the day Deborah Williams and her kids found out they were eligible, they went to an all-you-can-eat Chinese seafood restaurant to celebrate. I spoke to Williams en route, Davonte and Tynisha hooting in the background. I asked whether Davonte’s missing tooth had ever turned up. Yes, Williams said; she’d spotted it stuck to a bath towel at the Park Family Residence shortly before they left. But the tooth fairy still hadn’t visited.
”I let Davonte know I had it,” Williams said. ”I thought that would be something to save for our new place. You know: ‘Now we’re here. Now it’s good again. Put it under your pillow.”’
Copyright (2002) The New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission. New York Times material may not be used in any manner except for personal reference without the written permission of The New York Times Company.