Emergency Assistance Unit




I

n
a corridor of the red-brick building that houses the Emergency Assistance
Unit in the Bronx, a teenage girl lies on a bench, her face inches
from a small portable TV. A woman is sleeping on the floor, rolled
up in white sheets. Men and women play cards around a metal barrel.
Four to six hundred people crowd the building every day; they’re
families who apply and re-apply to be recognized as homeless and
receive shelter in New York City. Because city rules mandate that
all family members be physically present throughout the eligibility
process—infants and school-age children included—they
can spend weeks, sometimes months, at the EAU.



Adults
and children can spend day after day sitting in enforced inactivity
and hanging around the building on four-hour passes. At night, people
sleep on benches and on the floor of the intake office. In the past,
families often spent the entire night there. Others say they slept
there until their turn came—sometimes as late as 4:00 AM—to
carry all their belongings onto the bus and to a hotel where they
had a bed for a few hours. Then, before the sun was up, they were
bused back to the office. 


On
this night, Destiny, nine, Raymond Jr., seven, and Miguel, six,
hang around with their parents, in the dim light of the only street
lamp at adjacent Franz Sigel Park, where there’s more trash
than trees. The three children won’t go to school tomorrow
because they have no clothes, say their parents Marisol and Raymond
Rodriguez. Their mother says they cannot afford to pay $2 for boys’
clothes and $3 for girls’ at a nearby charity shop. 


The
Rodriquez children have spent 12 days in and around the EAU office.
The family has been found ineligible to live in a shelter—they
have an address in Florida, according to EAU investigators—so
they have just reapplied. You need to be a family to apply at the
EAU: a legally married couple, a single parent with children, a
pregnant woman, or an unmarried couple with a municipal license.
EAU administrators decide if a family is eligible to live in a shelter
within 10 days. They turn a family down if they decide it has another
place to stay—even temporarily, even with relatives. But when
turned down most families re-apply. Of more than 27,000 applications
received last year, half were from families re-applying, according
to Department of Homeless Services (DHS) records. Of the approximately
9,000 families declared eligible for shelters, 32 percent had applied
twice or more. So they keep going through the process again and
again. It becomes a way of life. 


Twenty
years ago, homeless families represented by the Legal Aid Society
sued the DHS and the mayor—David Dinkins, initially—for
forcing them to sleep on benches at the EAU office. Last year, DHS
authorized payment of approximately $5 million in fines to 16,000
families housed overnight between 1991 and 1994. The city is paying
each family $150 dollars for the first night spent in the office
and $100 for each subsequent night. In 1995, under Mayor Rudolph
W. Giuliani, New York City paid another $5 million in fines to families,
covering the years 1986 to 1991. Hundreds more people still wait
to be paid, says Eva Landeo, a Legal Aid staff attorney. “The
city has told us that they are in the process of compiling a new
list of families that are owed fines,” she says. By last summer,
the DHS claims nobody slept overnight at the EAU, but 25 people
have signed a petition, circulated by the non-profit association
Picture the Homeless, stating that they did. 


The
EAU application process damages homeless people, says Jane Bock,
Legal Aid staff attorney: it’s too difficult to get passes
to seek medical help, to go to work or to school. Passes allow applicants
to stay outside the office for up to four hours, but if they don’t
return on time, they must restart the entire application process. 


“The
current intake model is not working as well as it could,” concedes
James Anderson, spokes- person for DHS. “DHS is working to
identify long term reforms to improve the process for families and
staff.” In a report published in November, the department said
that EAU investigations are now conducted more quickly and announced
that a welcome packet explaining the office’s services will
be distributed to applicants. 


A
panel of three experts, established last January by a Supreme Court
judge to evaluate the DHS programs for two years, has not yet issued
specific findings on the EAU, says Legal Aid attorney Landeo. A
November preliminary report, however, recognizes the DHS overall
efforts to prevent homelessness, but also criticizes the EAU staff
as small and insufficiently trained, unable to help families obtain
public assistance or emergency grants to help pay their rent. In
its own report, the DHS admits that the re-organization of the EAU
staff has fallen “behind schedule.” 


The
EAU, designed as a placement system to support impoverished families,
actually makes it more difficult for parents to keep their children
in school. Returned to the EAU from overnight placement at 5:00
AM on a Wednesday, after lining up for 2 hours to get passes, Ivette
Colon and Frances Gonzales, mothers in their 20s, take 15 minutes
to cross the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Each pushes a baby stroller
stuffed with sheets, medicines, and documents. They are escorting
the oldest ones to elementary school PS1. It’s their thirteenth
day at the EAU. 


PS1
principal Lillian Garcia, says “homeless children are not an
issue”—they’ve always been there and they are treated
as equals. Teachers are not even told which children are homeless.
“We do the best we can,” Garcia says.  


There
is no data available on where EAU children go to school, if they
do, or on their attendance, says Partnership for the Homeless education
specialist Kristen Woolf. DHS keeps no records on EAU children and
it says it doesn’t poll school enrollment of children in families
seeking shelter. It’s also difficult to compare records from
DHS and the Department of Education, because the computer systems
used by the two departments are different from each other, Woolf
says. 


But
each EAU child has the right to be educated, as stated in the federal
McKinney-Vento Act, a law protecting not only children in shelters,
but also “migratory children,” who sleep in public or
private spaces where they’re not supposed to. The federal law
also says that if a school district refuses to accept a child, he
or she has the right to receive a written explanation. But not all
homeless families know that. Michael, 13, who was kicked out of
his aunt’s apartment with his mother Ernestine, arrived at
the EAU at 4:00 AM on a Sunday. He would like to go to school on
Monday, but he’s not “on the list.” Lynn Lewis, an
advocate from Picture the Homeless, thinks that the EAU needs an
independent advocate to tell applicants about their rights. The
Department of Education doesn’t have personnel there.  


When
children spend days in crowded office rooms, lacking playgrounds,
kitchens, or private spaces, their emotions suffer, if not their
physical health. Crowded environments interfere with sleep and the
lack of daily schedules creates anxiety, says David Goldberg, child
psychologist at Lincoln Hospital. When home routines get disrupted,
children can’t pay attention in classrooms, he says. 


In
the same hospital, Dora Alvarez, chief of pedriatric pulmonology,
enters her office holding a minuscule bright-colored suitcase: “Zoey
Asthma Care Kit.” In one year, she’s treated 50 homeless
children with respiratory problems, from week-old infants to 19-year-olds.
Both Alvarez and Goldberg ignore whether their Lincoln Hospital
patients come from the EAU and know little about the place. Picture
the Homeless advocate Diomaris Rosario thinks that the hospital
and schools should be better informed and put pressure on the DHS
to change the conditions. 


There
aren’t specific studies on the effect of the EAU (or of a prolonged
stay in such an environment) on children’s psychology, says
Beth Shinn, professor of psychology at New York University. Children
are likely to feel depressed and unhappy at the EAU, she thinks,
but probably without long term consequences. Descriptive research
shows that when families are re-housed, children recover from the
disruptions they suffered, Shinn says. She points out that homeless
families in New York live better than anywhere else in the country
and better than in the past. 


EAU
“clients” insist that virtually every child there is sick
with chicken pox, pneumonia, and ear infections; that the place
is dirty with cockroaches and rats climbing over kids sleeping on
the floor. But on Monday night at 10:30, a reporter who managed
to go inside (technically off-limits to the press) noticed few children
lying around—they were playing in the showers. Both female
and male bathrooms were clean, apart from a used diaper thrown into
one of the showers. So, maybe the place is better than it was a
year ago, when a photo of a mold-covered sandwich, now hanging at
Picture the Homeless, was taken. 


Advocates
say that school-age students should be screened more quickly at
the EAU, that school staffs have to be better trained on the rights
of homeless children, and that the coordination between DHS and
the Education Department must improve. Some, like Lynn Lewis at
Picture the Homeless and Kristen Woolf at Partnership, think that
decentralizing the EAU by having an intake center in each borough—as
they were before Giuliani, as DA in the 1980s, modified the EAU
—would cause less disruption. That would keep families in their
community and children in their schools, they say. But the DHS doesn’t
agree. “Decentralizing intake would only replicate the existing
process in other locations,” said spokesperson Anderson. “Our
goal is to reform intake, not reproduce a process that isn’t
working as well as it could.” 


Meanwhile,
400-600 families crowd the EAU every day.







 





Viviana Mazza
writes a weekly column for  the online edition of the Italian
daily



La Stampa.



She is currently a graduate
student at Columbia University.