By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
With no fanfare, Bloomberg officials in June began charging residents of at least four Brooklyn shelters up to 30 percent of their income, records obtained by the Voice show. People who don't pay could be kicked out of the shelter, the documents show.
Eric Deutsch, a spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services, tells the Voice that the so-called Client Contribution Program is a "very small" pilot program for people with a significant amount of income in the shelter. "We're trying a variety of new strategies to help families and individuals move towards permanency and into their own homes," he said.
According to Deutsch, the first month at the shelter is free, with fees rising from 10 percent in the second month to 30 percent in the fourth month. Deutsch said the money goes into a pool that "clients" can draw from when they leave the shelter. But shelter residents say a number of people have already refused to pay the rent fee because they can't afford it, and because the city hasn't offered any additional rights or benefits in return.
"From the time I walked in here, I've done what I'm supposed to do," says Dawn Ashwood, a domestic-violence counselor living in the 66-bed Saratoga Women's Shelter in Brooklyn, where residents are already required to save 30 percent of their income. "Most of the permanent residents have complied. So why am I paying rent just to stay in a shelter?"
The program got similarly poor reviews from residents at Brooklyn's 200-bed Pamoja House, a shelter located in an old armory on Marcus Garvey Boulevard.
"It's bullshit," says Dale Peterson, 46. "It's just not right to ask homeless people to pay rent to stay in a shelter."
Ezra Matthews, 27, agrees. "I have other expenses, and I can't afford to pay it when they are also asking us to save another 30 percent of our income," he says. "If you ask us to give up what money we do make for rent, it's going to take us longer to get out of the system."
Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst with the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, calls the program "deeply misguided" and suggests it may be part of an attempt by the Bloomberg administration to counteract the rising numbers of homeless in the system.
After pledging to reduce the homeless population by two-thirds by 2009, Bloomberg has watched the number of homeless families increase to record highs this year.
"DHS is under pressure to reduce the population, and what they've done is turn to a more punitive model that is reminiscent of the Giuliani approach, which was to blame the poor and homeless for their own problems," Markee said.
Ex-mayor and now presidential candidate Giuiliani tried to install a rent program during his tenure. but he was defeated in court. Bloomberg quietly appealed that decision and eventually won the right to do so in 2003, but held off until two months ago.
Markee has written a letter to the state raising complaints about the rent program. Michael Hayes, a spokesman with the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, tells the Voice: "We are aware of the program, we do have some concerns, and we are looking into it."