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Family Has Housing Voucher and an Apartment — But They’re Still Homeless

A for-rent sign in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
A for-rent sign in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, on April 7, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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During the six months she’s lived in a Brooklyn shelter, Amy estimates she answered more than 100 listings before finding an apartment on March 5: a $1,450 one-bedroom for her and her two daughters.

The landlord accepts the city Human Resources Administration’s rental assistance. So, under normal circumstances, the trio would not be homeless anymore.

Instead, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the family’s transition to independent living has braked to a sudden halt, Amy said.

Amy, who asked that her full name be withheld, said her HRA case manager insists that all cases are “on freeze” — meaning the agency can’t help her transition to permanent housing until further notice. Five other homeless families who spoke to THE CITY described similar situations.

In Amy’s case, the building manager for her new apartment said, also because of the pandemic, that cannot make the necessary repairs to allow her into the unit anyway.

Now Amy, who has asthma, and her daughters are stuck, at a time where there’s a heightened urgency to get people out of the city’s overcrowded shelter system.

“I suffer a lot of anxiety and depression and panic attacks and this is all very stressful,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m just here.”

‘One Issue After the Next’

For its part, the Human Resources Administration — which includes the Departments of Homeless Services and Social Services — insists homeless family housing cases are not on hold.

“It is not accurate in any way, shape or form to say cases are paused,” agency spokesperson Isaac McGinn said in a statement.

HRA says it has made changes to how it provides public benefits, including increasing remote availability and waiving many of its means-testing requirements, as THE CITY previously reported.

But families — some of whom live in shelters, others who are now staying with friends or relatives — described experiencing canceled inspections, lost documents and case files, and being ghosted by their case managers.

All said their HRA managers blamed delays on cases being “frozen” or “paused” for the duration of the pandemic, even though they had already identified apartments to move to, like Amy.

One woman trying to escape homelessness in Brooklyn said a mandatory inspection for her intended new home scheduled for March 18 had to be postponed after the case manager left all of the woman’s paperwork in her office — and was unable to retrieve it after the offices closed indefinitely to in-person services.

The 30-year-old woman, who left a shelter to live at a friend’s apartment with her two young children, ages 3 and 1, was forced to restart all of her paperwork from scratch.

“It’s just one issue after the next, it’s not like I’m trying to waste my life,” the woman, who is a full-time student and asked not to be named, told THE CITY. “I only have five classes left to get my bachelor’s degree, I work hard, and leaving school would put me 10 steps behind.”

“I just want to have a stable roof over my kids’ heads,” she said. “I just need a little bit of help to get to where I need to get to.”

HRA requires that new apartments for clients transitioning from homelessness have to be inspected by the Department of Homeless Services to ensure the unit is habitable and free of health hazards.

But that has proven challenging as landlords and brokers have halted in-person viewings under a directive from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a statement to THE CITY, McGinn acknowledged that in-person inspections — and listing viewings — have been “challenging” during the pandemic.

“In our ongoing response to a rapidly evolving situation, we are actively exploring ways to add remote alternatives to the housing search process, as we build on the unprecedented changes we’ve already made,” McGinn said, without offering specifics.

Adding Injury to Insult

Advocates are urging the agency to set the record straight with its staff.

“Case managers are telling some of our members, and we assume many others across the city, that everything at HRA is frozen, or that they are no longer doing apartment inspections, which delays the move out process indefinitely,” said Annie Carforo of Neighbors Together, an advocacy organization for low-income New Yorkers.

“DHS/HRA needs to make sure there are clear guidelines and expectations for DHS staff regarding move outs,” she said.

The delays have only added another layer of hardship and confusion for families trying to avoid shelter life, many of whom already face unlawful source-of-income discrimination, according to Carforo.

All the families THE CITY spoke with said they had experienced some form of source-of-income discrimination prior to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the current situation has underscored the need to move people with housing vouchers out of shelters as swiftly as possible to reduce overcrowding and slow the spread of coronavirus.

“We can’t wait any longer because this is the reason so many people are sitting in shelters,” Carforo said. “Discrimination you can handle, but you can’t even be discriminated against if you can’t find an apartment.”

The Wrong Move

As of April 5, some 35,500 people resided in the city’s family shelters, most of them children, according to DHS’ daily shelter population report.

After inquiries from THE CITY, the Human Resources Administration, through its spokesperson, offered to directly intervene in the women’s cases.

Meanwhile, as she waits for her would-be landlord and her case manager to sort out their issues, Amy is concerned about a prolonged stay in the shelter system.

Though she’s had a room of her own with a private bathroom and kitchen, the threat of COVID-19 looms. She’s become even more secluded as a precaution, she told THE CITY.

“I stick to myself,” she said. “I don’t talk to anybody.”

Last week, Amy received a notice from her case manager — the first in weeks — saying she was to be transferred to a new shelter.

She’d overstayed her welcome at the current shelter, the case manager explained, because she’d been a resident for more than 180 days.

Amy was told to pack her bags immediately and that her move to an undisclosed shelter could happen “any day now.”

On Tuesday, Amy said, she learned she could only bring two bags of possessions to her new shelter – the rest would have to go into storage.

“It doesn’t make any sense that this is happening under these circumstances,” she said. “It’s bullshit.”

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