Helter Shelter


Jason-Eric Wilson, the homeless teen who swallowed a deadly cocktail of heavy medication earlier this month in a Harlem shelter hotel, was a smart kid with a troubled mind. It’s impossible to know what pushed him. But to his father, Eric, the threat of being sent back to the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx—the grim brick bunker of office space where the city has been illegally dumping homeless families—finally broke him.

“No doubt about it, my son killed himself because we had to go back,” the father told the Voice. “It was too much for him. He said, ‘Dad, I can’t do this again.’ ”

Those currently trapped in the EAU understand. “I can see how it happened,” said 15-year-old Herbert R. Bennett Jr., who’s been haplessly impounded in the EAU for months. “This place is mad stressful.”

Here, parents and small children sleep on the floor, on benches, and in office chairs, without air-conditioning. The crowd is triple what the fire code allows. People stuck here said blankets are rarely provided, sandwich meat is sometimes served spoiled, and babies have been getting food poisoning. Drinking water is scarce, and little piles of shit constantly turn up on the benches.

The EAU is the city’s lone entry point for homeless families looking for shelter. Even if you’re evicted in the middle of the night in Brooklyn, you must go to the Bronx office because there are no longer “assistance units” for the homeless in other boroughs. The flow of homeless families is so heavy that the city has turned the EAU into a 24-hour emergency shelter, violating a court order by not actually creating livable space for those who need it.

“I’d rather sleep in the street,” said Joanette, a teary-eyed 20-year-old mother of two boys, four and three. Because she’s a victim of domestic abuse and suffers from kidney problems, the courts have ordered that she be placed in a special domestic-violence shelter. Instead, she’s been sleeping on the EAU floor. “The mayor needs to close this place down,” she said. “It’s doing us more harm than good.”

There are more homeless people in the city than ever before. And the number of homeless families has risen 29 percent just in the past year, meaning that more than 15,000 children, most under the age of 10, still have no permanent place to live, according to the local Coalition for the Homeless.

There’s definitely a crisis, but advocates contend that this was no unforeseen emergency. “It’s really the manufactured result of a decade’s worth of poorly aimed homeless policies,” said Ann Duggan, a policy analyst for the coalition.

The Giuliani administration made significant cutbacks on money spent to create affordable housing, she said, and the bad economy has made the situation worse because families tend to stay in shelters longer, creating bottlenecks in available space. In 1990, the average time a homeless person spent in a shelter was five months; now it’s almost a year.

The long-term solution is affordable housing, but Duggan said the city isn’t even handling short-term solutions in the most efficient way. To house a family of three for a year, the city estimates spending $38,000. But rent subsidies would make more sense—the coalition estimates an annual cost, under its Rent Assistance Program, of $9000 for that same family. “Rent subsidies can get families into private housing and save the city money,” she said.

So far, the Bloomberg administration has responded to the overflow by reopening the former Bronx House of Detention for Men. It’s a 64-year-old jail still decorated with razor wire, and the homeless have had to shower in groups and sleep in cells with white cloth draped over the bars. But after four nights of use, the discovery of chipped lead paint influenced the city to stop housing children under age six there.

Still, jail is better than the EAU to Herbert Bennett and his father. In limbo at the EAU since June, they’ve been found ineligible for public housing seven times. That’s because Herbert’s grandmother lives in public housing, the Bennetts said, and the city wants them to move in with her. Grandma’s apartment’s too small for a teenager and a 46-year-old man, Herbert Bennett Sr. said, and moving in might violate the grandmother’s lease.

“My grandmother’s lived a good life,” Herbert Jr. said. “I don’t want to spoil that.”

His parents lost their Bronx apartment five years ago. Herbert’s mother is bedridden in a nursing home. He and his ailing father, who hasn’t had a steady job in years, have moved around from family member to family member, until this June.

Herbert’s new life in the EAU has been a nightmare. Some days, father and son would be transported from the EAU to a Brooklyn shelter by bus at 4 a.m., and the boy would have to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make it back to his school in the Bronx before the morning bell. Now he can’t do his summer math homework, he said, because of the noise.

He can’t do much of anything, except wait. And nobody has answers for him. Pretty tough for a teenager who dreams of becoming a poet or a lawyer.

“They want you to be robots, to not ask questions,” he said. “I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised to ask questions, and it’s like, ‘Why am I still here?’ “