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Homeless Out-Of-Towners Welcome


January 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Jacqueline Garcia, her husband, Peter Vasquez, and their children, from left, Eladio Vasquez, Yusmary Garcia and Anessa Vasquez, in their Bronx apartment.

PHOTO: George M. Gutierrez for The New York Times

Ramon Almestica came from Puerto Rico seeking a better standard of living. Rosland Jackson fled an abusive boyfriend in North Carolina who had tried to abduct her youngest child. Jacqueline Garcia and her family were evicted from their apartment in Miami while vacationing in New York and have been here ever since.

All three are or have been residents of the city's homeless shelters.

New York has always been a Mecca to out-of-towners dreaming of bettering their lot. Some scrub dishes in restaurants, others audition at theaters or fill its schools. And as it turns out, there is a sizable number who seek to improve their lives through the city's vast and fast-expanding shelter system.

In October, the most recent month for which data were available, 10 percent of those seeking assistance at the Emergency Assistance Unit, the city's primary intake office for homeless families, reported that they spent the previous night outside the five boroughs; historically, the monthly average, which fluctuates, has been closer to 5 to 6 percent, city data show.

Of the 16,628 families that applied for shelter in the first 10 months of 2002, 2,681, or 16.1 percent, resided outside the city a month earlier, according to an average of city figures. (The city does not ask homeless individuals to report where they were last housed.)

Behind the statistics lies a debate that has long caused rifts in other cities, like San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif., that have generous policies toward the homeless: are the families truly in need, or are they using an already overburdened system as a taxpayer-financed relocation service?

The Department of Homeless Services investigates each family to evaluate whether it is truly homeless or whether there might be relatives who can offer shelter. Some homeless families readily admit that they sought help from the city, through the Emergency Assistance Unit office in the Bronx, after friends and relatives said they had found decent apartments with the help of the unit's caseworkers.

But advocates for the homeless say that for the most part, families are not exploiting the city's homeless policy, but they come to live with relatives or for economic opportunities and end up in the shelters when things do not turn out as expected.

"They come for the same reason immigrants have always come: they think the streets are paved with gold," says Beverly Cheuvront, a spokeswoman for the Partnership for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy group. "And they are completely unprepared to deal with the realities of our housing market and our current economic situation."

New York is the only city under court order to provide shelter immediately to any people who can prove they need it, regardless of their origin or immigration status. As a result, it has perhaps the most tolerant admissions policies and greatest array of services and housing to offer its homeless clients. While that has raised some concern that the city could become a magnet for the poor, city officials remain sanguine.

"We are a city of immigrants, and the fact that the homeless system reflects that diversity is not surprising," said Linda I. Gibbs, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. "Our focus is to ensure that people who have lost their homes here have access to housing but to make it clear that the E.A.U. is not to provide relocation services."

Certainly, New York is not the only city to shoulder the burden of the destitute from outside its borders. More than half of the people in the shelter systems in Spokane, Wash., and Minneapolis come from out of town, most frequently from surrounding rural counties where there are no equivalent services for the homeless, according to Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who does research on shelter systems nationwide.

Other cities, like Philadelphia, demand that shelter seekers prove they have been city residents for at least six months. Mr. Culhane and other academic researchers who have studied New York's shelter system say their own research from previous years shows that an average of about 4 percent of the families seeking shelter say they have spent the previous night out of the city, a figure considerably lower than the 10 percent reported by the city this month. Mr. Culhane said he was not surprised by the rise but could not explain it without further study.

Others were more skeptical. Marybeth Shinn, a professor of psychology at New York University who studies homeless families, said focusing on where the city's homeless came from was a red herring that distracted from real problems, most important a lack of affordable housing.

"Politicians have frequently put out a Greyhound theory that problems have been dumped on us," Professor Shinn said. "All around the country, homeless populations are for the most part homegrown."

Ramon Almestica, his dark eyes peering out of his black down hood, says simply that he came here "to make a better life." Mr. Almestica grew up in New York, but left at age 12 to live in Puerto Rico with relatives. He said he returned because he was not making much of a living as a carpenter.

Mr. Almestica, his wife and their 6-year-old daughter had been living with his mother-in-law, but he said he decided to seek help through the shelter system because his mother lives in a "nice place" in Brooklyn that she got through the Emergency Assistance Unit. He went to the unit, he said at its Bronx office, because she encouraged him to do the same.

Rosland Jackson came to the shelter system after moving out of the North Carolina home she and her three children shared with the father of her third child. He had become verbally and physically abusive, she said, and it got so bad one night when he was drunk that he threatened to kidnap the children. She responded by threatening him with a gun, she said.

Ms. Jackson, 36, said she tried to seek refuge at a shelter in North Carolina, but her batterer soon tracked her down and she decided to flee to New York. Ms. Jackson was raised here, but she had not lived in the city for 10 years. A friend who knew of her situation encouraged her to come here, and she went directly to the Emergency Assistance Unit after she arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in February 2001.

Now she is housed in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, and she says she is feeling much more secure. "The city is large," she said, "and it is easy to get lost."

While many homeless families come to New York knowing of the Emergency Assistance Unit, a larger percentage seem to hear about it after they get here. Jacqueline Garcia said she, her husband and their three children were visiting relatives in New York in February 2001 when her mother called from Miami to say that an eviction notice had been placed on the door of their two-bedroom apartment.

Her husband had recently been laid off from his job as a shipping and receiving clerk and they were having trouble making their $575-a-month rent, but even when he was working and earning $200 a week they were stretched, she said. "We had nothing to return to, so we decided to stay here," Ms. Garcia said. The family of five was living with relatives when she heard about the E.A.U. from her welfare caseworker.

Now settled in a federally subsidized three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx and with her husband working as an assistant manager at a Foot Locker shoe store, Ms. Garcia is glad she made the move. "I could never qualify for public housing in Miami," she said, saying her husband's salary disqualified her. "I love New York."

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