by HOLLY GILBERT
The story of how Landy Acevedo and her three children came to live in an emergency housing facility is one that resonates with many homeless families in the South Bronx – a landlord that refused to fix leaks and broken doors, unruly neighbors, and the responsibility felt by a mother to better provide for her children.
“I could either keep paying rent like an idiot,” Acevedo said in Spanish, “or I could move out.”
But upon leaving her private residence, finding an affordable apartment turned out to be a fianancial impossibility.
The alternatives to having her own home, she said, were not desirable.
“I didn’t want to be in a shelter,” she said. “I had heard of their conditions, and that people were always fighting. I couldn’t believe people were living that way.”
Rather than living in a federally funded facility for the homeless, Acevedo, 34, from the Dominican Republic, went to her sister’s house for a few months. Although she and her family had a roof over their heads, the apartment was small and extremely cramped.
“It was very uncomfortable,” she said. “I slept on the floor with my kids.”
According to New York City Government Web site, the South Bronx is one of 10 neighborhoods in New York City experiencing the highest rate of family homelessness. Because of that statistic, a growing number of housing facilities have been built in the community to temporarily shelter families such as Acevedo’s, until they can find a private residence.
But housing advocates say that number is disproportionate to the number of shelters being constructed in the rest of the New York City.
“The poorest communities in the Bronx have the most special housing,” said Victor Rivera, director of the Bronx Parent Housing Network. “And it shouldn’t be that way.”
His organization, which runs four housing projects in the South Bronx, has assisted hundreds of homeless families in the area with their cases, but wants to see more communities build shelters. However, because New York neighborhoods are able to pass zoning laws against building shelters, constructing temporary housing facilities in certain places is virtually impossible.
“This burden falls on all New Yorkers, it doesn’t just fall on one person or one segment of the people,” Rivera said. “It’s discrimination. You can build it in the South Bronx but not in Riverdale?”
With the number of emergency shelters increasing, the South Bronx is serving more and more homeless families seeking a roof over their heads. When Acevedo and her children moved into the facility on 166th Street run by the BPHN, they were comfortable for the first time in months. Their apartment is complete with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen.
“When I got here, I said, ‘This isn’t a shelter,’ ” Acevedo said. “It was a long time that (my children) didn’t have a place where they could be calm, where they could eat in peace, where they could lay down in a bed.”
While having those basic comforts is something Acevedo’s family feels fortunate to have, not everyone receiving housing assistance from the City of New York is as lucky.
Rivera says there is a stark difference between housing facilities specifically for families, like Acevedo’s, and other shelters, sometimes referred to as “drop-ins.” Homeless individuals kicked out of subway stations and bus terminals often sleep in such places which for families can mean less privacy, and often substandard conditions.
“I’ve gone to shelters that are decent, that are reputable, where there’s no drug dealing,” Rivera said, “But then I also know of facilities, for a fact, that are being supported and funded by the City of New York where there’s drug dealing and infestation of rodents.”
For Rivera, these kinds of shelter conditions are simply unacceptable.
“Our tax dollars should not be running facilities like that,” he said.
Rivera does not speak on the subject of homelessness solely from an administrative standpoint. Nineteen years ago, he was among the people without a home in New York City.
Born and raised in the South Bronx, Rivera was involved in drug abuse from the age 12. His lifestyle of lawlessness, which eventually led to his imprisonment, was curbed when he was helped by the Narcotics Anonymous program. Eventually, he became involved in advocacy for the homeless and HIV/AIDS population in the South Bronx.
Now, Rivera can now drawing upon his experience in order to help homeless families.
“I know what people’s perception of the homeless population is,” he said. “But someone actually believed that I had the potential to be someone else when I didn’t believe in myself.”
On the most basic level, he said, assisting the homeless population means treating them as human beings.
“Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean they don’t have dignity or pride,” he said. “You can’t put everyone under the same roof. Think about the client, not as a number, but as someone that has needs.”
The needs he refers to are vast, ranging from medical care and legal aide to substance-abuse counseling and post-incarceration programs. While attempting to provide extensive support for his clients, Rivera claims his organization does not receive adequate funding from the city.
In 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made major changes to the shelter systems of New York City by designing a market driven, incentive-based program. As a result, federal funding for organizations such as Rivera’s are cut short if families are not ejected from shelters after living there a certain amount of time. According those supporting the measure, the policy was supposed to reduce the number of homeless individuals in New York by assuring that shelters would help them find private housing.
However, the number of homeless individuals seeking shelter was up 30 percent in 2008 from 2007, according to a May 2009 New York Times article entitled “Bloomberg Policy blamed for Families in Shelters.” Based on that increase, housing advocates argue, the policy is having the opposite effect than the one intended.
“Why are (they) paying Bronx Parent Housing Network 75 dollars a day, when we are clearly telling (them) that it’s not enough to sustain these clients’ services adequately?” Rivera said. “(The money) is never enough because the city also has financial constraints right now.”
Rivera says it would actually take somewhere between $95 and $125 per family for him to help them lead a lifestyle that isn’t “substandard.”
“If we’re not providing a sound environment, then we’re defeating the purpose,” he said.
Rivera is not the only housing advocate concerned about the city’s families living in emergency facilities. Basilio Vega, who works for Catholic Charities of New York, helps Rivera place clients in the BPHN facility on 166th Street. He says housing projects that serve families with nutritional care, job-referral service and other assistance are in crucial need of financial support to sustain their effectiveness.
“When you find someone that can provide all-around services, sort of like a holistic approach, then you’re talking about money,” he said. “You’re talking about hiring people that are qualified to do those particular things.”
Because the number of homeless families is overwhelming, said Vega, more emphasis also must be placed on helping them find private housing. In turn, they not only will be off the Department of Homeless Service’s list, but they also can become self-sufficient. Without the financial support for the housing facilities, he says, that simply won’t happen.
“If you don’t have the money to (provide services) then you’re just providing a place to sleep, and you’re not making a difference,” he said. “Is there something you can do to assist them with becoming independent again?”
The federal government does provide vouchers for low-income families looking for private housing through the Section 8 program. If a family is determined eligible for the money, however, they are then faced with the dilemma of finding affordable housing. And it comes as no surprise that the nation’s current economic conditions have made that search a tough one.
“It really has become very difficult to find affordable housing in New York,” Rivera said. “The problem is growing so fast, so there’s more demand (for housing).”
Victoria Wolanek, 27, who also lives in a BPHN facility, said the Section 8 vouchers only provide about half of what is really needed to live in a New York City apartment.
“It’s hard because they allow, I think, 1,090 dollars for a two-bedroom,” she said. “Honestly, where are you really going to find a two-bedroom apartment for that much? And that’s with everything included.”
For Wolanek and her 10-year-old daughter Alyssa, having a home to call their own is entirely different from living in a facility designed for the homeless.
“It’s not the same as going to your own house,” she said. “I would just settle on being able to walk into my own apartment.”
According to NYC.gov, finding private housing for families in emergency facilities is the ultimate goal of the Section 8 voucher program. Currently, more than 83,000 New Yorkers participate in the program, making it the largest in the nation of its kind.
While housing advocates such as Rivera want nothing more than to eradicate homelessness, he said a personal approach to assisting homeless families is the only way to affect real change. Money can be critical to transforming lives, he said, but so is providing encouragement to families during the hard times.
“People are not motivated by jobs or things,” he said. “I think that only people can motivate people. Empowerment is crucial.