Six months after Hurricane Sandy swept across New York City’s coastlines, most people affected by the storm have moved on from crisis mode. Power’s back, insurance has (hopefully) kicked in. But there’s a smaller group of people–a little less than 200 households altogether–for whom Hurricane Sandy is still an everyday battle. This time, though, they’re not wrestling with storm surge. Their fight is with the city.
Some 1,500 people have lived in New York City hotels with the assistance of the Department of Homeless Services after their homes were destroyed by Sandy. Those who haven’t yet found new housing are called “homeless,” but they weren’t before the storm. Some lost their jobs in the aftermath, some are undocumented–and at least one is a recovering victim of a violent crime. In March, the DHS sent notice that the hotel-dwellers had until April 30 to leave, despite the fact that some housing was not yet ready for the 125 households that were in the middle of transitioning, and that 71 other households had no place to go at all.
This week, judge extended that deadline until May 15, but victims could find themselves in the same situation in another two.
On Tuesday, the city defended itself in court against a class-action suit blasting the DHS for poor handling of these refugees’ cases. Leslie Brown, one of the plaintiffs, told the Voice that her caseworker showed her only one house, an illegally-converted “three-quarters” home in the Bronx, in which she could take one bunk bed in a room with two bunk beds.
“I wouldn’t take it, so they said I’m resistant–I’m not complying,” Brown said. In order to live there, Brown added, her caseworker told her she’d have to get a tetanus shot. “I never lived in a place where you had to have a shot to live there!”
Brown’s caseworker told her two women’s shelters were her last option. A shelter, though, is the last place Brown wants to go: Almost a year ago to the day, she became the victim of an unspeakably horrific crime, and as a result suffers from PTSD and depression. The Nassau County District Attorney had placed Brown in a Staten Island hotel in the aftermath, but then that hotel was soon destroyed by Sandy. FEMA began helping Brown, but then discontinued–after which she was hospitalized for anxiety.
“We were under the impression we would be safe, that we’d be okay until we found decent housing,” she said.
The city’s law department maintains that the DHS did its job and that it’s time for people like Leslie to leave. “DHS caseworkers have performed heroically in helping hundreds of Sandy victims access a tremendous range of services and successfully transition back to normal life in the six months since the storm,” the department told the Voice in a statement.
“Many families whose stays were not extended will return to loved ones where they resided prior to the storm, or avail themselves of the City’s strong social services programs and shelter system which can best accommodate their significant needs,” DHS spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio said. “Although vast, this was a finite program and was never intended to be open-ended. This is consistent with the temporary housing assistance provided by FEMA, which is being discontinued.”
Councilman Donovan Richards, who has been hearing stories of early eviction and unprofessional case management from his constituents in the hotels, has been meeting with the DHS and Speaker Quinn to work out a more sustainable solution than overburdened shelters. “I think [DHS caseworkers] have to look harder and look smarter. They need to be as flexible as possible,” he told the Voice.
“Part of the problem is that there’s not enough affordable housing in this city,” he added. “And not the Bloomberg definition of affordable housing–but housing for working people who aren’t at the top of the ladder.”
In the meantime, the city will find itself back in court on May 13, and the state will get an influx of funding from the federal government–some $1.7 billion–for Sandy relief. That boost in figures should help, Richards said.
But Brown feels like she’s only been treated like a number, too. “They don’t care whether you lost everything in the storm or not,” she said. “One day, you feel you’re settled, somewhat stable, and the next, it’s ‘get out!'”