Public Employee Press
Part 2 of a series
Ragged hole in the safety net
By JANE LaTOUR
New York City provides a system of shelters for its homeless people - a population like a town of more than 40,000, depending on the season and the economy. People who enter the system often find it a mean town - unwelcoming, dangerous, and reminiscent in ways of the poorhouses depicted by Charles Dickens almost 200 years ago.
Many of the homeless choose to sleep outdoors to avoid the shelter system. The 7th annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate took place on Jan. 31, 2011. Volunteers for the HOPE Survey counted 2,648 unsheltered individuals in the city.
It's also a mean system for the poverty fighters who work in the city shelters, starved of funds by a harsh city administration that has no qualms about ruling truly homeless people ineligible for a last-resort roof over their heads in a shelter.
Union workers in the shelters - Social Workers, Community Assistants, clerical staff and others who serve the clients, conduct intake interviews, determine eligibility under ever stricter guidelines, serve the food and keep the vast system running - bring expertise and compassion to their jobs. They understand that the clients in the shelters are people forced to give up their homes because of economic and other hardships - low wages, lost jobs, huge medical bills, diseases such as mental illness and addiction - a cross-section of New Yorkers in trouble.
Recently, members of Social Service Employees Union Local 371 shared with PEP some of their stories about working in a shelter system that fails its residents just as the poorhouse failed Dickens's Oliver Twist.
Many of these members have decades of experience in the system. "The biggest problem is always doing more with less," said Vela Sutter, an Assistant Superintendent with 25 years on the job who does intake and vacancy control at the huge 30th Street Shelter in Manhattan for single men.
"The population at 30th St. is close to 800, depending on the time of year," she said. "We are constantly losing staff through attrition, retirement and a few promotions. They're not being replaced, but we still have to get the same amount of work done - and more. If you do it once, then there is the expectation that you have to do it always.
"The stress level is much higher than ever before," said Diane Silver, a veteran worker who chairs Local 371's Shelter Chapter. "Working with less means not only less staff, but less of everything - functioning equipment, computers, everything!"
Coping with extreme conditions
Superintendent II Walter T. Alexander, a Social Worker with 24 years on the job, explained some of the daily frustrations at the 30th Street Shelter. "With 800 clients and all of the staff on eight floors, there's one working elevator. The freight elevator is either out or it's on for a half-hour and then shuts down. The computer printers haven't worked since October 2011. We have a new computer program, and when it comes together, it looks like it will be great, but the training was minimal. You're teaching people a new program and it takes time for them to adjust. Meanwhile, the pressure is on to get it done quickly."
Avis Miller serves the breakfast at 30th Street. "We have to stretch the food," she said. "They get one slice of bread - no eggs, no juice, one cup of coffee, a little cereal, but sometimes the milk is frozen or spoiled. Sometimes they throw coffee at me."
"It's a mixed population," said her co-worker, Sheila Ray. "They parole prisoners right from Rikers Island to 30th Street. It's dangerous."
Grievance Rep Michelle Blackstock described how field workers have to go out to family and friends to look for a space for the clients to sleep. "If the homeless person has ever stayed there before, the agency's policy is to insist on rearranging the person's home. They call that a "reasonable housing option."
According to Diane Silver, "If there is four feet of space in an apartment of a relative, then management can deny the client space in a shelter."
Compassion and guts required
Babatunde Osunbayo has been working in the system for seven years as a Fraud Investigator. "Our job is to collect information for the people who approve or disapprove eligibility," he said. "We have problems. There aren't enough materials. The laptops break down. We're taking notes manually and they still expect us to do a certain amount of visits."
Fraud Investigator Maria McBean said the rules are getting stricter: "The fact that a person says the client can no longer stay with them is not considered a valid reason to count the client as homeless and eligible for the shelter - especially if it's a family member. Even if the client has an order of protection - it has to be against the person who rents the space, not someone else who lives there."
Shirley Gray, assistant to SSEU Local 371 President Anthony Wells, said the city was sued successfully to stop an earlier version of this harsh program. "Now they don't try to force it. They just find the client ineligible," she said.
Other programs that worked have been cut by the Bloomberg administration, including "efforts to separate the mentally ill and people who were vulnerable. They were isolated so that they wouldn't fall prey. There was a special facility in Brooklyn for young people," Gray said.
As Walter Alexander recalled, "There were 'clean and sober' shelters. There were shelters with social services for teens, who adjusted so well that they didn't come back into the system. But the programs that worked so well are gone now."
Community Associate Anita DuPrey has been on the job for three years. "It's been like a roller coaster," she said. "I've been spat at and one co-worker was stabbed."
Vela Sutter spoke about the frustration of the clients: "They call 311 and they are promised housing and social services. When they come into the system, they are disheartened."
"The elderly are sent to shelters where they are robbed, abused and afraid. There's tremendous hardship," said Michelle Blackstock. The dangers and frustrations that the workers confront are part of the system that treats the clients like Fagin treated Oliver.
|Local 371 members are on the job at city's shelters|
Walter T. Alexander Social Worker
Vela Sutter Asst. Superintendent
Anita DuPreyCommunity Associate