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Homeless Woman in NYC Strains to Pay Her Own Way

Monday, September 10, 2012

Women and children are driving up a homeless population that can't afford to pay New York City's high rents. One woman's effort to leave a city shelter after almost three years shows the financial tightrope she must walk.

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Women and children are driving up a homeless population that can't afford to pay New York City's high rents. One woman's effort to leave a city shelter after almost three years shows the financial tightrope she must walk.



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Credit: Jennifer/interpunct on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Ayanna, who does not want her full name used, has really good news.

She just found a market-rate studio apartment in Brooklyn's Flatbush area for $950 a month.

After living in a city shelter since April 2010, she and her 11-year-old daughter have their own place. It's not quite big enough for two people, but she's planning to fix up one area of the room just for her daughter.

"At least I'm out of here," she said in a recent interview, when she was still living in the shelter. "I'm still looking for other employment. I'm not trying to take a step backward but will need the assistance till my income increases."

This transition is a stretch for Ayanna, who's not quite sure how she will pay all the bills that loom ahead. Right now she's tapped out.

"It's tight," she says.

For Nan Roman, president of the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, it's too tight for Ayanna and legions of other women trying to make the transition out of city shelters into a prohibitively expensive housing market.

"People are paying way too much for rent and that keeps them unstable and [they] end up cycling in and out of homelessness," said Roman. "What is the sense in letting [a mother] take on an apartment she can't afford and then go back to the shelter system, especially given how much it costs to keep her in the shelter system?"

Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression, City Councilmember Letitia James wrote in a recent e-mail.

"In April 2012, there were an all-time record 43,000 homeless people, including 10,000 homeless families with 17,200 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system. Families comprise nearly three-quarters of the homeless shelter population," she said.

Processing Stopped

At the end of 2009, New York City's Housing Authority stopped processing any new applications for a federal housing-voucher program known as Section 8, under which recipients pay no more than 30 percent of their income for privately rented apartments.

Roman estimates that only a quarter of the people who are now eligible for subsidized housing programs receive it.

There are long waiting lists and a lottery-like reality. "The lucky people get, and the unlucky don't," said Roman.

Roman added that many people are figuring out ways to avoid being homeless. "They're finding cheaper apartments or they're sharing housing or they're paying too much for housing. The majority of poor people are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing."

In March 2011 New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's administration closed a rental-subsidy program called Advantage that was designed to help families come out of the shelter system.

Almost a year later, in February 2012, New York City abruptly stopped paying rent for an estimated 7,000 remaining Advantage households, James said, and now those people are struggling to stay in apartments they can no longer afford without the subsidy.

In March 2012, an appellate court upheld a trial court's decision that the city could drop the program, which formally ended a month later.

If New York follows the national pattern, women with children are at the center of this housing crisis. In a 2012 study of single motherhood in the United States, the advocacy group Legal Momentum found that three-quarters of homeless families are headed by a single mother.

'We Know They Work'

Roman advocates for programs such as Section 8 assistance, which she said have demonstrated the role that affordable housing plays in stabilizing struggling families, many of which are headed by women. "We know they work."

Both Roman and James want more programs that help people going through a housing crisis. But Roman fears there is no political or public will to help. "It's been the case for a long time."

Ayanna, a visual artist who holds a bachelor's degree, has a part-time job working as a college aide. In her new place she will also receive a modest monthly housing allowance from the city. She's hoping those two sources of income will cover rent, transportation to her work and her daughter's school and food and clothing.

She's also hoping that more income will come if she can find work with a program that provides after-school tutoring. Once she moves, her food stamp allowance will also go up.

Ayanna is 34 and wound up homeless almost three years ago when she couldn't find work, started falling behind in her rent and was evicted.

She never wanted to make the shelter-culture her own.

Before turning to a city shelter, Ayanna went to an office of Homebase, a New York City program to help families and individuals overcome immediate housing problems and develop a plan for long-term housing stability, according to the city's website.

"I'm not sure if she had said I was too behind in my rent, or if it was because I was still searching for employment," Ayanna said about her visit to Homebase. "Within five minutes she told me there was nothing they could do for me and that I would have to go to a shelter."

Ayanna was eligible to get help from a community-based organization to pay her back rent, but the landlord did not want to participate.

Transitioning Out

When Ayanna got her part-time job in February, city administrators began pursuing a formula for helping her transition to a life on her own. The city requested she begin sending in a large chunk of her income for a city-administered savings account--much more than she would have paid in Section 8 housing. She also began facing persistent questions about why she hadn't found a place.

In the shelter she and her daughter lived in one small room with a kitchenette and a bathroom. But that would not last forever.

Ayanna tearfully said she assumed she and her daughter would soon be relocated into a dorm-type set up where they would share a room and bathroom facilities with many other women and children if she did not find an apartment.

She desperately wanted to find permanent housing that she could afford. She combed through listings for apartments in newspapers and Craigslist. On Craigslist, the cheapest studio apartments were listed at $845 a month.

Ayanna had to make a choice: Either accept city money to cover her move-in costs--first month's rent, broker's fee and security deposit--or opt for monthly assistance of $283.

She's opted for the housing allowance and has used almost all the money she saved to pay for the first month's rent and security deposit. When she signs the lease, she will pay a broker's fee equal to one month's rent.

Now Ayanna takes it from here, keeping her fingers crossed she can stay in her new home.

Angeli R. Rasbury is an educator, artist, lawyer and writer specializing in women, girls and culture. Rasbury works with youth and has worked with girls in a juvenile detention center, women living in shelters and elders.

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