The New York Legal Aid Society filed a class-action lawsuit on Monday, March 28th with an initial court date of April 21 – right in the middle of Passover.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of over 15,000 formerly homeless tenants using the Advantage housing subsidy because the subsidy has been cut from the 2011-2012 New York state budget. The plan is not to pay the existing rental commitments for those 15,000 currently housed with the subsidy.
Jewish folks and communities have been thinking about freedom, both generally and through our own community’s exoduses from Egypt, Europe and other places of modern injustice. I cannot help thinking that the April 21 court date is a fitting time to put a lens on a vulnerable and often freedom-less group of New Yorkers: homeless domestic violence survivors.
Domestic violence survivors in New York City’s domestic shelter system face two levels of un-freedoms. In their abusive relationships, women (and a few men) live in abuse, fear and dependence. Those with the strength to leave their abusers – especially those with children – who lack the finances to be self-sufficient or the support to move into other housing can move into the domestic violence shelter system. This option is even more critical for families whose alternative housing options with relatives and friends are unsafe because these locations are known to the abuser. Women in the shelter system have a maximum of 135 days to locate stable housing. This lack of housing and self-sufficiency is another form of un-freedom.
The un-freedoms these families face upon entering a shelter are harder to identify. I work with a program that provides housing readiness skills and placement assistance to families in shelters. Most of the women face structural challenges. The majority have less than a high school degree or a GED, and there is often a language barrier. With client after client, I hear stories about different housing subsidies until the abuse, inability to pay their share of rent, or the end of a subsidy forces them to move in and out of the shelter system another time..
In the domestic violence shelter system, the focus is on psychological help in recovering from abuse and not on housing. The much larger Department of Homeless Services shelter system is focused on finding quick housing using available subsidies. Most of the housing subsidies are time limited (I’ve offered some subsidy explanations below). Both systems face the same challenge. Without educational or skills enhancement, these individuals and families cannot pay rent in New York City without a subsidy. I have seen New York City Self-Sufficiency figures between $27-33 /hour and most of these women do not have the skills or training for high enough paying jobs.
New York City is a tough housing market. It has been in a housing crisis since 1965. There is a wait list for New York Public Housing. The Section 8 rosters are closed. The most recent housing subsidy, Advantage (described above), is being cut and families and individuals in the middle of their leases (supplemented by City, State and Federal funds) are likely to be evicted.
Since the 1996 reforms, the welfare system has moved towards emphasizing work, but not self sufficiency. Getting a job as a home health aide or security officer may fit short shelter time frames, but the average $8-10 per hour just won’t cut it in NYC. Where is the emphasis on education or raising the minimum wage to a living wage. I do not think anyone benefits from expensive cyclical poverty.
I have heard the argument that people should just leave the city since housing (and just about everything else) is cheaper elsewhere. But while other places may be cheaper, they lack the comprehensive services, benefits, and language and cultural offerings of NYC. So, how can we address the fact that many folks leave shelters and go back to the abuser, because there aren’t other sustainable options?
There has to be a better way. Shelters are expensive for tax payers. Cycling in and out of them is expensive for the system, not to mention difficult for the children who suffer along with the head of household. How can we think about our own historic challenges to fight for freedom in relation to the ongoing challenges of low-income domestic violence survivors?
When the ancient Jews left Egypt we left a “narrow place.” What search for freedom did you bring home this Seder? What un-freedom do you want to share with the Pursue community right here?
New York Housing Subsidy Information:
New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Public Housing: Known as “public housing” or the projects. This housing is owned and operated by the City of New York. There is currently a wait time (I have heard quoted from 6 months-5 years) with or without priority.
Section 8: Section 8 is a rental assistance program for use in private housing and is favored by landlords because it is not time limited and travels with the holder of the subsidy unless they commit a violation of the terms. With the subsidy, people pay 30% of their income towards rent and the subsidy pays the rest. The wait lists for Section 8 have been closed for over a year with no projected date of reopening. There is NYCHA Section 8 administered by NYC and HPD Section 8 administered federally.
Advantage: Available from the Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration (they also run the DV shelters). This subsidy can provide support for up to 2 years. Work Advantage had a 20-hour work requirement (+15 hours of approved training) in the first year and a 35 hour requirement in the 2nd. Fixed Income Advantage had a disability requirement. Neither subsidy is currently available.
Shelley Buchbinder hails from a not-quite pastoral hamlet in CT, but now resides in New York working at New Destiny Housing linking low-income folks to safe affordable housing. She studied International Relations and Human Rights at UConn (after short stint at NYU for film) and received her masters in Social Work from Hunter College. NPR is the “music” she wakes up and goes to sleep to and in lucid hours is an avid reader of nonfiction and good news but memoirs are growing on her as she mellows. Shelley has organized and engaged in social justice organizing around health education. She has participated in Jewish and secular service trips to New Orleans, Israel, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. She happily and intently wrestled with identity, social justice, and Jewish life in Pursue’s Justice and Jewish Thought and as a member of the City Team 2010-2011 and looks forward to continuing the conversation.