Playing Bingo in Purgatory
Janice, 47, waits on a red bench—body bundled under a camel-hair coat, green purse clutched in her lap. Her eyes are glassy, but expectant, as if she’s ready for someone to arrive any minute and carry her out of the stuffy, windowless auditorium. From the look of her neatly pinned headscarf, one would never guess she has been waiting here, at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Women’s Mental Health Shelter, for almost three years.
“We move like inchworms through this system,” says Janice. Like many of the 100 women who sleep at the Park Avenue shelter every night, Janice is a weathered veteran of the New York City homeless services. The first time she entered a shelter was in 1999, after being fired from her job as a clinical secretary and evicted from her apartment in the Bronx. A year later, living in public housing, she suffered from a series of “slow-motion” anxiety attacks that landed her in a psychiatric ward for two months. Eventually, the Park Avenue shelter—a program run by the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House—offered her a bed based on her status (single), age (over 45), and mental illness (schizophrenic paranoia).
“People here are agitated [and] just sick of waiting for [a] home to call our own,” she says.
According to the Department of Homeless Services, the number of homeless women has increased by 5.6 percent since 1996, making the shelter system nearly a quarter female. Of those New Yorkers living in shelters, the Urban Institute reported that 20 percent of them stay for five years or more. While Bloomberg boasts that new initiatives are successfully solving the City’s housing crisis, shelters continue to be overcrowded.
It is single older women like Janice who often wind up last in line for permanent housing. Women who suffer some form of mental illness find themselves in a particularly difficult situation: their conditions deny them the ability to care for themselves, but according to City law, they do not qualify for psychiatric hospitalization. Pathways out of shelters do not exist for many who are challenged by living alone without support.
“It is difficult to find providers who are willing to house mentally disabled women. Sometimes when a vacancy does appear, the waitlist is a year long. This year we sent out 201 housing packets, and got five calls returned,” says April Williams, a social worker at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. As of November 22, 2006, the Center for Urban Community Services’ Vacancies Update—a list that social workers depend on to find available apartments—posted only 16 vacant supportive housing apartments throughout the five boroughs. Vacancies vary slightly throughout the year.
Born to a West African mother in an Italian-American community in Rome, New York, Janice grew up loving cannoli and green silky malachite minerals. She attended the University of Maryland where she studied French and geography, but married before she finished her degree. She moved to the Bronx in 1991, eight years before her first nervous breakdown. Since then, she has struggled with poverty, divorce, and illness, but the process of applying for the Section 8 voucher program has been the most frustrating thus far.
“The whole system is dysfunctional. I feel like a lost number in a randomized computer program,” she says about the federal program, which provides rent assistance to low-income households. Today, there are 95,000 Section 8 vouchers in New York City. That may seem like a lot, but with 128,000 households on the waiting list, the chances of getting approved are slim.
According to Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst for Community Service Society, the average wait for Section 8 is between 8 and 10 years. Due to recent regulations, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has tightened allocation money; as a result, the NYC housing authority has turned to Section 8 funds to make up for the accrued deficits in public housing.
“The city and state are not providing enough money to cover [the deficit],” Bach explains. “As more money is taken from Section 8 vouchers and invested into the public housing, the fewer available vouchers remain for individuals and families on the waiting list.”
Besides dwindling funds, April Williams attributes a lack of apartment vacancies to the program’s decline. “Bloomberg cut and redistributed funds, and now everything is backed-up and behind. They have more people in need than they have available apartments for,” she says. The Lenox Hill Neighborhood House’s most recent recipient of a Section 8 voucher waited for 12 years for an apartment.
Maria’s birth name, Zehainesh, means “sun” in her native land of Ethiopia—something she hasn’t seen much of in the past six years. Due to a bad back and bad knees, Maria has been unemployed for the past eight years. During her time at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, she has noticed subtle improvements around the facilities: softer sheets, a new TV in the common room. But while the menu has upgraded to fruit and spaghetti, her housing status has stayed the same.
“I got no help when I applied [for Section 8],” she says, “It has been a lot of dead-ends. No house yet.” Despite the circumstances, Maria is hopeful that she will qualify for another City program, Housing Stability Plus (HSP).
In theory, HSP has the potential to fulfill the City’s demand for housing. The Bloomberg administration developed HSP in 2004; it has been a key element in the City’s strategy to reduce the number of homeless New Yorkers by two-thirds before 2009. The program offers a five-year rental supplement to families and single adults, phasing out the subsidy by 20 percent each year. For single adults to qualify, they must have had lived in a shelter for nine months and be receiving public assistance (which means they can’t work more than about 30 hours per week).
The program is growing quickly. Statistics published by The New York Times on May 8, 2006, cite that as of April of that year, 6,584 leases for permanent housing were signed under the HSP program. But many recipients, homeless advocates, and landlords argue that HSP spurs “revolving door homelessness”: rundown apartments, lack of financial support after five years, and unpaid rents are among the myriad complaints.
“What is going to happen to these people in five years? If you don’t have the education or qualifications to maintain a job that pays higher than minimum wage, the rent won’t get paid. As a result, landlords get burnt by HSP, and you see the same individuals ending up back in the shelter system,” Williams says.
The process of finding permanent housing has become so burdensome for homeless women that social workers often resort to using material incentives to keep clients engaged and motivated through the process. When a woman enters the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, she must go through a tedious process of approvals before she can apply for housing, and there are door prizes all along the way. Once she gets tested for tuberculosis, obtains a psychiatrist’s evaluation, and completes a psychosocial examination, she wins a pair of movie passes. After her application is approved and she goes through a series of interviews with social workers and assisted living landlords to determine which homes are most suitable, she receives a free manicure. If she makes it past the final round and into an apartment, she gets the grand prize: a 28-inch color TV, furniture, and a set of pots and pans.
Despite the incentives, Janice sometimes feels defeated, as though she is too old to begin life anew. “I’m surrounded by a whole bunch of elderly people who rant, scream to nobody in particular, and don’t get the proper care they deserve,” she says. “And these so-called social workers throw the word ‘psychiatry’ around so much it starts to make you feel crazy.”
Janice’s eyes cloud over. Slumping under her coat, she doesn’t notice Elizabeth Wynn, project director of the Lenox Hill House, approach. “I’ve brought you the lotions I promised,” Wynn says to Janice. After several days stuck inside, a group of residents has recently accompanied Wynn to Central Park—three blocks away—for fresh air and exercise. “If they participate in two activities like the walking group, I reward them with donated goodies like these cosmetics,” Wynn explains.
Janice smiles in appreciation, pockets an anti-aging cream, and relaxes back into the bench.
Katie Clancy is a writer and a dancer who lives in Manhattan.