By Deena Farrell
Melissa Diaz, 24, knows what it takes to find a way out of the city’s homeless shelter system. After several months as residents in a Bronx homeless shelter, Diaz, her husband Carmelo Diaz and two children moved into an apartment in the Crotona Park area of the Bronx.
Their new home is a convenient 10-minute bus ride from Diaz’s job as a security guard at the Crotona 2 shelter operated by HELP U.S.A. With both her and her husband working, Diaz says that she has never been happier.
As Mayor Bill de Blasio prepares to grapple with the problem of growing homeless population, Diaz’s opinion of what he should do, based on personal experience, is to improve support to help the homeless become self-sufficient.
“I’m hoping and praying that the system gets better,” Diaz said. “There are so many people homeless and living on the streets. These people have options and they need to use them. It is hard, but I’ve been through it. I just really hope it gets better.”
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration were criticized by housing advocates for the rapid increase of homeless individuals and families in New York City in the past 10 years, according to the Coalition of the Homeless’ website.
Since Bloomberg took office in 2002, the number of New Yorkers sleeping in shelters is up 69 percent, according to the Department of Homeless Services. Its records show that in 2002, about 35,000 homeless New Yorkers were living in shelters each night. As of November 2013, that number has reached 53,270.
Diaz, the mother of a 3-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl, was able to find a way out of the system. Although Diaz and her husband had been working, the rent on their apartment became more than they could afford and the family was evicted. They then lived in the shelter for a stressful seven months. “You never know when you’re going to be able to leave,” she said. “There’s help there, but you still never know.”
Diaz has been in and out of the shelter system for most of her life. During her stay at the HELP Crotona shelter she was introduced to the Federation of the Crippled and Disabled Rehabilitation Services, a nonprofit organization based in Manhattan that provides training and job placement services for those who have trouble finding jobs.
While in the shelter, and with help from FEDCAP, Diaz was able to get her security license and become a certified security guard. She was then hired by HELP U.S.A. and placed in the main Crotona shelter. Before long, she was able to move into an apartment with her family.
“It feels incredible to have my own place again,” Diaz said. “It is very emotional for me coming from a shelter, but it is such a good feeling to be on your own and have your own job, it’s incredible.”
Although organizations such as the Coalition for the Homeless and other nonprofit organizations like HELP U.S.A. have been diligent in their fight to provide housing for the homeless. “Simply building shelter is only treating the symptoms of homelessness,” de Blasio said on his website.
Any homeless person seeking shelter must be accommodated, the New York State Supreme Court said in the Callahan Consent Decree of 1981. That is why people from out of state come to New York for help — because no one will be denied shelter.
Daniel C. Farrell, vice president of programs at HELP U.S.A said, “Many people do come to New York to seek help,” which is about 15 to 30 percent of the shelter population. “People rely on shelters for long periods of time,” he said. “Years ago people would only stay in shelters for a couple months, then leave, now it has increased to two-three years.” With the increased amount of time people are staying in shelters, organizations that run these shelters try to limit the duration of stays.
Frances Pierre, a former commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services Associate who is now working for HELP U.S.A, said, “The longer you keep these people in the shelter, the more they get accustomed to it and feel no urgency to move out. The goal is to give service that they need, whether it be medical, psychiatric, housing…anything they need to get back on their feet.”
One of the biggest concerns of both the Coalition of the Homeless and the new mayor is to end the cycle of homelessness. “We are trying to prevent the homeless cycle, especially within families, which is difficult to prevent,” Pierre said.
The number of homeless families with children under the age of 21 is increasing, in part because families are finding it difficult to afford rent and expenses, even when parents are employed. Many people, Pierre said, “are literally a paycheck away from homelessness.”