May 21, 2020
For South Bronx home health aide Sabrina Purdie, a steady income and a year-long lease weren’t enough to keep her family from returning to homeless shelters several times over the past decade.
On various occasions, Purdie and her five children managed to secure affordable housing in Brooklyn, in New Jersey and in the Bronx, only to become homeless once more. “It wasn’t that hard to find an apartment because I do a lot of footwork,” says Purdie.
The hard part, she says, was holding onto the apartment when confronted with external problems, like a landlord who claimed she hadn’t paid her rent and went to court to evict her. She says she was paying consistently, but she felt intimidated, and she forfeited the home without realizing she had a right to challenge the eviction.
“I did not know that I didn’t have to leave my apartments. I didn’t know how to maneuver,” she says. “No one tells you that. The landlords don’t tell you that.”
Only later did Purdie get the support and information she needed for her family. After moving back and forth between stable housing and homeless shelters, she connected with the agency BronxWorks, which offers so-called homeless “aftercare.” Staff there tailor services to meet the specific needs of formerly homeless families to ensure they never have to return to shelters again.
“Most services are geared to responding to a crisis, but we really want to work with families before there’s a crisis,” says Shali Sharma, the director of BronxWorks’ Homebase department, a city-funded eviction prevention program that includes aftercare.
Purdie is one of about 13,500 New York City families who received aftercare support last year, according to the Department of Social Services.
Advocates and providers say many more families need intensive ongoing support to avoid a return to shelter amid an historic homelessness crisis — even before the COVID-19 outbreak forced thousands of low-income breadwinners out of work.
“We don’t even know the extent of economic insecurity and housing insecurity that New Yorkers will face,” says Raysa Rodriguez, the associate executive director for policy at the Citizens Committee for Children.
Her organization, known as CCC, is a member of the Family Homelessness Coalition, which prioritizes “upstream” preventive services to help formerly homeless families stay in stable housing. They have called on the city to increase funding for preventive services like aftercare in the next budget.
“Keeping families stably housed had been a challenge even before COVID, and now given the economic fallout, it’s even more critical that when families exit shelter they’re able to stay housed,” Rodriguez says.
Uneven aftercare support
More than 114,000 New York City public school students were homeless at some point last year, and families with children account for about 70 percent of the Department of Homeless Services shelter population. During the 2019 fiscal year, about half of those families had already stayed in a shelter at some point, according to the Coalition for the Homeless’ most recent annual report.
“Many families that are in shelter at the moment are not new to shelters,” Rodriguez says. “There is an alarming churn.”
Aftercare services are designed to halt that trend by meeting the individual needs of families — whether that means making referrals to behavioral health programs, helping families find services in their new neighborhoods or, in Purdie’s case, providing guidance on how to deal with a problem landlord.
During her most recent shelter stay, Purdie secured an apartment in a South Bronx home, but a rat infestation made living there unbearable. BronxWorks staff advised her not to return to a homeless shelter and instead helped her press the landlord into action. The landlord referred her to a broker who found her a new place in another South Bronx apartment building.
“They would get on the phone, tell me to take pictures, refer me to HRA.They kept my landlord on his toes,” she says “If I didn’t have these services I wouldn’t have known to do that.”
BronxWorks’ aftercare program, known as Transform, serves about 50 families and operates out of its Homebase office, which helps families and individuals at risk of becoming homeless.
The city’s 26 Homebase programs served close to 30,000 families in 2019, according to DSS. “We’ve moved mountains [to] ensure the people we serve are connected to supports and New Yorkers in need can access the resources that will help them make ends meet and restabilize their lives,” says DSS spokesperson Arianna Fishman.
But not all of the Homebase sites offer the same level of aftercare services as BronxWorks, says Rodriguez, of CCC.
BronxWorks and a handful of other organizations receive funding from the City Council to run their aftercare programs. Rodriguez says that money should be standard to ensure families get the support they need after moving into affordable housing.
“The aftercare model was diluted” once the city folded it into Homebase, Rodriguez says. “It’s a matter of resources. It’s difficult to do more with less.”
BronxWorks’ Transform program serves families for an indefinite amount of time, but the city often fails to track long-term outcomes for most families leaving shelters, Rodriguez says.
In 2019, just 1.3 percent of families became homeless again after moving out of shelters while receiving assistance, like housing vouchers and aftercare, DSS says. But the agency does not track what happens to them after a year unless they reenter city shelters.
“As a city, we’re not measuring beyond one year in a real and effective way,” Rodriguez says. “It’s short-sighted to say 1.3 percent return to shelter. What happens at the two-year mark, the three-year mark?”
A focus on landlord-tenant relations
Like BronxWorks, Henry Street Settlement receives discretionary funding from the City Council to run an aftercare program. The Lower East Side organization adjusts its aftercare services to meet the specific needs of clients who move from the organization’s three Manhattan family shelters and into independent housing elsewhere in the region.
In a January plan for addressing the homelessness crisis, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Councilmember Stephen Levin specifically highlighted the Henry Street Aftercare program for maintaining “trusting and stable relationships that can serve as an anchor and a guide” in the transition to permanent housing.
Henry Street case managers and social workers help families learn about their new communities — from Staten Island to Westchester County — and link them with local services for two years after they leave shelters.
“Homelessness is a chronic problem because often the challenges people face are not completely resolved,” says Henry Street Public Policy Vice President Jeremy Reiss. “So aftercare is a way to provide extensive support after people leave homelessness.”
As at BronxWorks, staff also focus on mediating or preparing for problems between landlords and their new tenants. They also coach clients about how to raise issues like unemployment — an increasingly common problem among Henry Street aftercare clients during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The big thing we do is, if they are at any risk of homelessness again, we can intervene with the landlord, resolve a misunderstanding,” Reiss says.
Teresa Young, the director of a Henry Street shelter called Helen’s House, says the organization encourages tenants to share information with the landlord well before any issues arise. If a client loses their job, for instance, staff recommend they inform their landlord and discuss plans before the rent is due.
“We impress upon our clients that the easiest way to damage a relationship and for the landlord not to keep you when the lease is up is to not communicate,” Young says. “A lot of the work ends up being landlord-tenant issues.”
But if the landlord refuses to negotiate a payment plan or tries to violate a state eviction moratorium, Henry Street staff will step in then, too, Young says.
So far, eviction hasn’t become a threat for aftercare client named Diamond, who lives in Staten Island and was recently laid off from her job at a Long Island pediatrician’s office. She asked not to use her last name in this story.
Diamond says she worries about becoming homeless again. On two other occasions, she says, she returned to the shelter system after being forced out of a home. At one point, a New Jersey landlord refused to renew her lease after her one-year Special One-Time Assistance voucher from the city expired. Another time, a landlord evicted her from an illegally converted basement apartment in Nassau County.
This time around, she says, Henry Street provides a sort of backstop in case she needs help dealing with her landlord. She may also work with staff to obtain unemployment assistance because she has not heard from the state about an application she submitted, she says.
“It’s security, knowing that if I ask for help I can get it,” she says.