Out of the Shelter, Into the Fire

New city program for homeless: Keep your job or keep your apartment

Lisa Hendley should have been the poster child for the Bloomberg administration's five-year plan to end homelessness. After spending time in a domestic-violence shelter, the 26-year-old mom had found herself and her daughter a place to live with the help of Housing Stability Plus, the mayor's new program to aid shelter residents in renting private apartments. And she'd landed a job packing groceries for Fresh Direct, the first step on the road off of public assistance.

And then, she recalls, she was told by her city caseworker that she needed to quit. Her $8-an-hour job, it turned out, gave her too much income to be eligible for the new program's housing aid. Faced with the choice of keeping her job or her apartment, she chose the roof over her family's head.

It was an embarrassing moment for the mayor—especially when city councilmembers paraded Hendley before the cameras in early May to point out the need to reform city housing programs. But, say the legal-aid attorneys who handle housing complaints, stories like Hendley's have become all too common as HSP, one of the linchpins of Bloomberg's war on homelessness, enters its second year. "Almost all my walk-in emergencies have been people with HSP on the verge of being evicted again," says Karen Takach, housing unit director for Legal Services for New York City in the Bronx. "In my experience, it's been a disaster. Rather than decreasing homelessness, I think it's going to be a revolving door back to shelters."

"I'm a certified nursing assistant," says Haneefah Bilal (above with son Eric). "I can get a job with no problem. And you're telling me I have to work at McDonald's? Are you serious?"
photo: Cary Conover
"I'm a certified nursing assistant," says Haneefah Bilal (above with son Eric). "I can get a job with no problem. And you're telling me I have to work at McDonald's? Are you serious?"

The troubles began in 2004, when the Bush administration effectively scuttled Section 8, the federal voucher program that helped homeless families pay the rent on private apartments. With city shelter stays already soaring, the Bloomberg administration crafted Hous- ing Stability Plus, a state-managed, city- implemented program, to fill the gap; then-homeless-services commissioner Linda Gibbs bragged that it was "the most significant discretionary rental- assistance program in the city's history."

It's hard to find people served by the program who'd agree. "I don't know who invented it, but it's a big mess," says Miosotis Aponte, a Monroe College criminal justice student and mother of six who was initially thrilled when the city told her it could get her an apartment in one week. "I've been in the program for a year, and right now I have two eviction notices. It's not a safe program, because any time you could be back on the streets."

The trouble, say both those seeking housing and their advocates, stems from two major changes from the old program. For example, Section 8 was open-ended, but HSP comes with a time limit: Each year, tenants face a 20 percent reduction in aid (called a "stepdown"), until after five years the housing aid evaporates entirely. The other difference is that unlike Section 8, the new program is linked to welfare benefits—meaning that if your public assistance is cut off for any reason, your rent check goes with it.

Put the two together, legal-aid attorneys say, and you have a situation in which people are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but if they tug too hard, they lose it altogether. "It's a very narrow window to be able to make enough to cover the stepdown without knocking yourself off of public assistance entirely," says Ed Josephson, housing-law unit director for South Brooklyn Legal Services. "That would get you through year two—and then year three you'd still be dead, because if you're making enough to cover the 40 percent, you're making too much for public assistance."

There's some dispute as to whether the window is as narrow as all that. Heidi Siegfried, supervising attorney for the Partnership for the Homeless, suggests that if someone were to piece together food stamps, child care aid, and the earned-income tax credit, even a low-wage job should provide enough income to pay the bills without the need for HSP. But Siegfried readily acknowledges that she can't name people who have actually done this. "I wish we had more success stories," she says.

Failure stories, meanwhile, are everywhere you look. Haneefah Bilal, who shares a one-bedroom HSP apartment in the Bronx with her two children, says she'd love to go back to work, but like Hendley, she can't afford to. "I've sat down with a calculator and said, 'This is how much I'd make a month.' Look at my rent. Add it all up—I could not do it."

Bilal, who landed in a city shelter after fleeing an abusive relationship, says it was bad enough that HSP forced her to go on public assistance for the first time in her life, which meant closing out her bank accounts and her children's college fund. To now be told that anything but a minimum-wage job would cost her her apartment is the last straw. "I'm a certified nursing assistant," she says, her voice rising with incredulity. "I can get a job with no problem. And you're telling me I have to work at McDonald's? Are you serious?"

Bilal, at least, has kept up with her rent payments, though that could change once she hits her first 20 percent stepdown, which could come as early as this month. With most HSP clients only now beginning their second year, housing attorneys note that they're not yet seeing many stepdown-related cases, since landlords are unlikely to boot tenants immediately so long as they're still paying most of their rent. Instead, what they've found is a flood of complaints related to the program's link to welfare benefits.

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