Living the Line

Budget Cuts Drive Homeless People Back To Shelter


Black Friday marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. This year in New York thousands of people flocked to crowded stores like Macy’s and Toys ‘R’ Us. Most of them will spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars during these big holiday sales. For those like Christina Serrano this time of year is harder than others. Because of the housing crisis she faces, she will likely not have any spending money for December.

“My children won’t have a Christmas,” she said dolefully. “I don’t know how I’m gonna do that.”



Ms. Serrano with her 6-year-old son, who has 7 medical conditions including autism, PDD and asthma.

Ms. Serrano is now in an affordable housing program called Advantage. For the past year and a half the city has helped her pay her monthly $1070 rent, through the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). However, due to recent budget cuts from the state government, she will likely be responsible for paying all her rent herself starting in December. More than 12,000 people are will be affected by the end of the Advantage program and many are expected to go back to the shelter system, according to Ms. Judith Goldiner, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Legal Aid Society.

“We have been seen people return to shelters at a rate about 500 Advantage families a month. That’s pretty high percentage of people getting off the program and coming back in. Probably one out of every two,” said Ms. Goldiner. “And over time we are expecting more.”

A victim of domestic violence, Ms. Serrano had no choice but to become homeless for the safety of her children. She had been in three different shelters with her kids until she got the voucher for the Advantage program. This program, with a two-year limit, was designed by the City to help people get out of shelters through employment. However, this is almost impossible for Ms. Serrano had to quit her job in 2007 to care for her children, all of whom are disabled.

After quitting her job, the family lived solely on the children’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) which amounted to approximately $1300 a month. This amount is meant to cover the children’s medical needs, but she stretches it. “I’m only supposed to spend 30 percent of their checks for rent and other things, and the rest of the incomes are supposed to go to the children, “ she said. “But it’s not happening that way.”

Ms. Serrano lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn with all three kids. Besides rent, she pays nearly $400 on the bills for electricity, gas and telephone. She doesn’t have cable, or a computer. Now with the subsidy, she is just able to make ends meet.

The commonly accepted guideline for housing affordability in the U.S., is rent or mortgage payments that don’t exceed 30 percent of a household’s gross income. If the rent exceeds 30 percent, according to Emily Goldstein of Tenants & Neighbors, the family is called the “housing poor”. “In New York a lot of people are spending 40 percent, and 50 percent of their income to just pay their rent,” said Ms. Goldstein. “That means there is simply less money for everything else you need.”

Once Ms. Serrano loses her Advantage benefit, she will have to pay more than 80 percent of her income to the rent, leaving insufficient fund to everything else she has to pay.“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” said Ms. Serrano. “I don’t want to go back to the shelter system.”

Now it’s the first time in twenty years when there is no program to help people housing from the City, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, a New York based nonprofit research and development organization. “With the recession, with unemployment staying around 9 percent in New York City, it was a horrible time for the city to cut the housing subsidy,” said Mr. Mr. Colin Bosio-Cady, a policy analyst at the Institute.

For the federal housing subsidy programs, choices are declining too. “The only truly affordable housing for the lowest income people right now is public housing or Section 8,” said Ms. Goldiner. “The Section 8 waiting list is closed, so the only option for people is public housing, and public housing has a hugely long waiting list.”

Public Housing

Due to extremely low vacancy rate(0.6%), people usually need to wait for years to get NYCHA public housing.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), who provides public housing and Section 8 vouchers for the City, is currently running a deficit as high as $170 million a year. Due to its long-term underfunding and deficit, NYCHA stopped taking new applications for Section 8 vouchers in 2007. With a turnover rate for NYCHA’s public housing at less than 3 percent hundreds of thousands of people remain on the waiting list for years.

According to NYCHA, as of Feb 1, 2011, the latest date available, there were 124,617 families on its waiting list for Section 8 and 143,960 families for public housing. Ms. Serrano has been on the waiting list for public housing since 2007. “It takes years,” said Mr. Bosio-Cady of the wait list. “[They could wait up to] three, four, five years.”

Without the chance to get affordable housing in any future, Ms. Serrano has to prepare herself to go back to the shelter system. But she is not alone, there are more than 41,000 homeless adults and children sleeping in the New York City shelters, a record high number, according to a recent report from Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization for the homeless in the City, in November. And for the year of 2011, an average of 49 percent of all families entering the shelter system had been homeless in the past.

As stated earlier this year by Seth Diamond, the Commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services, without the Advantage program, the city will anticipate the homeless family population to increase by 51 percent and the city will have to build an additional 70 shelters.

Ms. Serrano finds fault with that. “It makes no sense,” she said. “Why [will the city] build 70 shelters when you can just build 70 more buildings that you can actually put people in, permanently?”

Ms. Serrano says she doesn’t hate the shelter system, but she needs someplace more than a roof over head. “You won’t call a shelter home,”she said.

For more stories about the housing poor and why making rent is so important in New York City,

please click on here or visit