NEW YORK (–“I am forced to stay in a men’s shelter, in another borough, while my wife and two sons have to stay in the Bronx Emergency Assistance Unit,” complained Jose Rodriguez, 31.

He stands across the street from the Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU), holding his two sons, one three years old, the other a mere one-and-a-half. The pudgy-faced little one is crying and has a runny nose.

“He wants his mom. She is across the street trying to get paper work so they can return here tonight,” Mr. Rodriguez explained.


The New York Coalition for the Homeless says there are 36,000 homeless people in the Big Apple. The coalition says a growing number of families face the same circumstances as Mr. Rodriguez. Some 8,700 families are applying every day for emergency shelter, the group adds. The city went to court to force people out of homeless shelters who refuse to take places to live that the city offers–even if the places are unsafe.

A decision was supposed to come back in late October, but it has been delayed. As the court fight goes on, the need for housing doesn’t diminish and the lives of those who need housing doesn’t get any easier.

New York is not the only place where homeless families are a problem.

Surveys show homelessness among U.S. families is growing: Requests for emergency shelter by families with children in 30 U.S. cities increased by an average of 15 percent between 1997-1998, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That increase has continued, homeless activists say. Families with children make up some 40 percent of those who become homeless, according to one study.

Not having a home can be a harrowing problem. The city of New York was stunned when a teenager committed suicide rather than return to the EAU. New York is bound by law to provide emergency shelter to those who need it.

In June, demands for emergency shelter exceeded the city’s ability to house people so Mayor Michael Bloomberg reopened the old Bronx House of Detention for Men, a former prison, located a block away from EAU. Eighty families were sent there until permanent housing could be found.

Homeless advocates and the Legal Aid Society went to court, demanding that the city stop using the 64-year-old jail and arguing the solution was not criminalizing the homeless. Affordable housing and better social services are the solutions, they argued.

Ironically Mr. Rodriguez, who is on parole, was released from prison a couple months ago. “They say that I cannot stay with my family in a shelter because of the parole. They say I must get an apartment first, then they will help us,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

Was anyone helping him look for a job? “No,” he answered.

“They know we need an apartment. They know we need help, but they seem to only want to frustrate you. They want to break up my family,” Mr. Rodriguez said angrily.

The EAU building is located at 151 St. and Walton Ave. in the Bronx, blocks away from Yankee Stadium, where men earn millions of dollars playing baseball. Outside of EAU, women stand around talking, pushing baby carriages, and often hold onto two or three children. They are mostly Black and Latino and young. Many are pregnant. Occasionally a White face can be spotted in the crowd. Men also spend mornings in front of the EAU, trying to keep their families together.

Michael Mizelle, 33, works as a construction laborer, usually off the books. He waits across the street with his eight-year-old daughter, while wife Tamika, 25, gets paperwork that will allow them to get shelter. They were evicted in June. Both were laid off and unable to pay rent.

Usually, however, single women head families in need of emergency shelter.

Late one night, Tiffany, a 25-year-old Latino mother, came to the EAU with her six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. She had problems with her landlord and he kicked her out. She has to be at work at 7 a.m.

“These people are telling me there is no place for me and the children,” she lamented.

For the last four years, she has made $9 an hour working as a cashier. Tiffany can’t afford to lose her job and she isn’t getting much help from the EAU.

Housing advocates argue sending people to the EAU is not the solution.

“It is so bad inside the EAU, we have to go somewhere else to eat and take a shower; it is filthy inside there,” said Michael Mizelle. “But, I rather be here than in the shelter hotel they sent us to, because of the drugs,” he said.

New York City pays $3,000 a month to house a single family in a shelter hotel. The city placed the 80 families in two hotels in Queens on Sept. 25. It did not sit well with Queens Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Rockaway). He wants Mayor Bloomberg to halt plans to convert hotels into shelters.

“These hotel shelters are a stop-gap measure failing families in need of affordable housing,” Mr. Sanders said.

The Bloomberg administration argues the budget for homeless services increased from $360 million to $550 million. The budget for shelters and security has doubled, officials say. The city also argues that a 29 percent increase in homeless families has caused current overcrowding.

“The problem is not simply an increase in the newly homeless, but a decrease in available housing,” argues Queens Councilman Hiram Monserrette (D-Corona).

The Bloomberg administration wants to use a “demonstration project” that allows the city to remove a family from emergency shelter if they refuse an apartment in a high crime area.

Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of the N.Y. Coalition for the Homeless, believes the city really wants to “undo the right to shelter.” New York has had a right to shelter law since 1981.

Homeless advocates agree that the number one cause of homelessness in America today is the lack of affordable housing and a 41 percent increase in poverty, since the 1970s. Unemployment, underemployment and HIV/AIDS worsen the problem, they add.

Before Nov. 5 elections, there were four bills pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that would provide state and local grants to build affordable housing. With the Republican sweep of Congress, hope for meaningful housing reform and help for families have further diminished.