Three in four applications by families seeking homeless shelter got rejected last year — the most since the Department of Homeless Services started disclosing numbers a decade ago.

Families and shelter providers describe an arduous eligibility review process that became even more unnavigable during the pandemic. The state’s public assistance agency is seeing a surge in families appealing their rejections — and a record number of cases reversing DHS decisions, ordering the city to provide families with shelter or reevaluate applications.

“The city has made it virtually impossible to get into a family shelter,” said Craig Hughes, a senior social worker at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.

It took seven attempts for Ms. D and her family to get approved for shelter, which only happened after a lawyer got involved, she told THE CITY. 

Ms. D, her fiancé and their 1-year-old daughter had their application repeatedly rejected starting in July because DHS investigators concluded that the family still had housing options available and could return to their previous residence — the home of her soon-to-be mother-in-law, who had already demanded they leave. 

“We told them numerous times that the person don’t want us here. The person kicked us out and there were threats involved,” said Ms. D, 27, who asked to remain anonymous. “And they still denied us.” 

PATH to Holding Pattern

Like thousands of other families from all five boroughs, the Manhattan couple and their daughter made their way to the Department of Homeless Services’ Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) intake center on 151st Street in The Bronx, where families obtain an emergency placement while their applications are investigated. 

From a pool averaging about 2,000 applications a month from families seeking shelter in 2021, just 24% were accepted, according to DHS figures. 

After years of hovering between 40% and 50%, the share of applications accepted began to decline during the pandemic, with 34% admitted in an average month during 2020, down from 40% two years ago.

The shelter acceptance rate plummeted even as the number of applications declined with the help of New York’s eviction moratorium, THE CITY’s analysis of Department of Homeless Services data shows.

DHS staff — with the job title of “fraud investigator” — demand family shelter applicants provide a two-year history of recent housing situations, along with emergency contacts. The investigators then decide, within 10 days of the family being placed in a temporary shelter, whether they have a place other than a homeless shelter where they can live.

Prior to the pandemic, when a family was rejected they had to gather their belongings and return to PATH to begin the process again. But pandemic-era changes allow families to reapply remotely from their temporary shelter. 

Ms. D had reapplied over and over again from the Queens shelter where she and her family had been living when, in a stroke of luck, she connected with a social worker during a pediatric visit who told her that she could receive free legal assistance to help make her case to DHS. 

With help from a lawyer from the New York Legal Assistance Group, the family was finally approved in October. 

“That’s the only way you’re going to get out of that shelter. If you don’t have anybody, they’re going to make it hard for you. They’re going to make it really hard,” Ms. D said. 

DHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The wave of rejections coincides with a drop in the number of families in homeless shelters.

Asked by Gothamist a year ago as acceptance rates began to plummet, then-Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks pointed to the pandemic pause on requiring families to leave and head back to PATH with their kids before trying again.

“The eligibility rate reflects the fact that individuals who are in the shelter system and not being asked to leave are continuing to reapply,” he said.

Overturned on Appeal

New York City is legally required to provide shelter to all families with children as dictated by the judgment in a landmark 2008 case that ensured their right to shelter. 

Banks, with the Legal Aid Society at the time, was the lead attorney who filed the suit against the city. 

Kathryn Kliff, a Legal Aid attorney monitoring that case, said that the eviction moratorium has, in some cases, made it harder for applicants to prove they have nowhere else to go. At the same time, pulling together the necessary paper trail has not become easier.

“The families that we speak to, they’re really struggling to provide the documents PATH needs. It’s especially difficult to get some of those things during the pandemic,” Kliff said.

Judge Jacqueline Silbermann in her decision warned New York City never to reject families solely “because of the non-cooperation of third parties” or “based on their inability to provide requested documentation where the family has otherwise cooperated with the investigation.”

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in his 2013 campaign to “reform unfair and overly punitive eligibility review rules that deny shelter to too many needy families.” New state rules opened the door wider in 2015, allowing refusals by friends and relatives to house them as proof that a family needed shelter. 

For a time, as many as 61% of applicants prevailed, helping drive a record number of families into shelter. But in 2016, at the city’s request, the state gave the city more leeway to reject applications and put the burden of proof on families. Acceptance rates started dropping.

The PATH family intake shelter in the South Bronx. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Appeals decisions from hearing officers at the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance show myriad reasons why DHS staff say they’re rejecting families. 

Often, it’s because investigators can’t verify their place of residence, sometimes rejecting applications because of a gap of mere days in documentation.

Missing shelter records, illegible letters and difficulties reaching relatives and friends to confirm the applicants lived with them also show up frequently as reasons.

The state heard 1,389 “temporary housing assistance” appeals last year — 470 more than in 2020 and nearly triple the number in 2019. The hearings are now being conducted by phone as a pandemic measure, which Kliff said has made the formerly in-person appeals process more accessible to more people.

In 523 of the hearings in 2021 — 38% of the cases — the court ruled DHS decisions “not correct” and ordered the department to admit families to shelter. The rate of reversals in 2021 was nearly double the rate in previous years, dating back to 2012.

“The documentation standards can be very challenging for people who maybe didn’t have a formal lease,” said said Jacquelyn Simone, a policy director at Coalition for the Homeless. “So many people who enter shelters, prior to entering shelters, they might have been doubled up or couch surfing.” 

The reversed cases show technicalities or DHS missteps can kill an application.

In July, a couple in their mid-20s with a 3-month old child had their application denied because the Department of Homeless Services was unable to verify where the family had been residing for six days in July and for a month and a half in the fall of 2020, despite a letter from her aunt confirming they had been staying with her and a letter from a case manager stating that the family had been residing in a DHS shelter in July. 

The applicant was told that her aunt’s letter was “too dark and illegible.” When investigators spoke with the aunt, she confirmed that the family stayed with her — prompting the state to order DHS to reevaluate the application. 

The state ordered DHS to provide shelter to a 45-year-old father, who had been living on the No. 4 train, utilizing public restrooms to wash up and panhandling to earn enough money for food. The man told an investigator that he had no way of proving his residence. 

While he and his 13-year-old son had been staying at a city shelter since September of last year, city officials declared they couldn’t verify the family’s residence for the bulk of November.

The man testified that he did not understand “why the agency did not acknowledge that he is residing there.”

And applicants who were kicked out of a prior residence can’t necessarily count on their hosts to cooperate with investigators.

Another father and his 17-year-old daughter were turned away on Christmas Day, after getting into a fight with the work friend they’d been staying with — and she “declined to cooperate” with the investigation. 

The 41-year-old applicant testified that “he and his friend had gotten into a fight and that is why he left her apartment and that she is not going to answer the phone for DHS since she is still mad at him.”

In yet another case reversed by the state, a mother with two children attested that her former host would be likely to call the cops if she tried to move back into the home DHS demanded she return to, also putting her on the radar of child welfare authorities.

In these three cases and many more, DHS did not send a representative to the hearing to defend its reasoning for the rejections.

Advocates for homeless families say the system puts an unfair burden on applicants.

“It’s not the client’s fault. The third party has no obligation to pick up the phone. And so often, they’re calling people who are at work during the day over and over again,” said Deborah Berkman, an attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group. 

Try, Try Again

Shelter providers say they are also noticing an increasing number of families who have to apply more than once before they are deemed eligible — an observation borne out in the numbers.

In November, 515 families were accepted for shelter out of 2,292 applicants. Of the ones found eligible, 62% had to apply more than once before the DHS found them eligible, while 31% had to submit more than three applications. 

A year earlier, 53% of the accepted families had submitted more than one application. 

Although reapplying does allow families to extend their temporary shelter stays, it also prolongs instability for children and their parents, who cannot access aid to obtain permanent housing. Homeless advocates say it doesn’t bring any stability to the children or their parents. 

In a report last year recommending reforms, the shelter provider WIN described the shelter eligibility review as “traumatic.” 

WIN CEO Christine Quinn, a former City Council speaker, said families repeatedly go through the PATH intake system “because they have no other option.”

“This is taking people who have been in trauma and making them go through more trauma. And by denying them shelter, you are putting the children through even more trauma, which is just unconscionable,” Quinn said.