Homeless Population Has Surged by More Than 20,000 in Last Five Years

By Katie Honan on August 22, 2014 7:33am 

 The Pan Am hotel is one of several new shelters in Queens. It sparked controversy when community members said it opened without notice.
The Pan Am hotel is one of several new shelters in Queens. It sparked controversy when community members said it opened without notice.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

ELMHURST — The number of homeless people in the city has surged by more than 20,000 people over the past five years — with a marked spike in recent months, records show.

The rise has caused a number of new shelters to open as city agencies work to cope with the problem and local officials try to counteract neighborhood protests.

As of Aug. 12, homeless shelters across the city housed 54,841 people, including more than 23,000 children, according to the Department of Homeless Services. 

That's 1,000 more than at the beginning of the year and 60 percent more than in 2009, when about 34,000 residents were in shelters, statistics show. 

There are currently more than 23,000 children from more than 11,000 families in the shelter system, according to DHS. 

Gabriela Sandoval-Requena, a policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, said the population has jumped due to a number of factors, the most significant being a crisis in affordable housing.

"Unfortunately you have a high influx of people dropping in the shelter system and there's no way to get out because of lack of affordable housing," she said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's $41 billion plan to create 200,000 units of affordable housing across the city — by rehabbing 120,000 existing units and building an additional 80,000 — will hopefully put the brakes on the crisis, according to DHS.

But that program is in the early stages of a 10-year plan. Meanwhile DHS has introduced smaller programs to help get homeless families into permanent housing.

Last week the agency announced several initiatives, funded jointly by the city and state, to help residents transition into permanent housing. 

One program will provide rental assistance to shelter residents who are working and another will assist families that have been in and out of homeless shelters for a few years, according to the DHS.

A third will assist domestic violence victims, DHS officials said.

Commissioner Gilbert Taylor said last month that the agency has increased the number of offices that assist residents with family or tenant/landlord mediation, emergency rental assistance and training and household budgeting.

 Dozens of kids living in the former Pan Am Hotel received school supply kits.
Dozens of kids living in the former Pan Am Hotel received school supply kits.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

The number of homeless residents usually peaks in the summer for a number of reasons, Sandoval-Requena said — including family issues and landlord disputes that may not be addressed until school is out. 

"Families dealing with housing court and facing eviction and living in apartments in poor working condition tend to put up with it until the school year is over," she said.

And many families living with relatives or friends may strain those relationships once school finishes, she said.

The push to find housing as opposed to creating more shelters was also echoed by community members who protested the Boulevard Family Shelter, formerly the Pan Am Hotel, at their most recent rally. 

The emergency shelter opened in June without community notification and was one of three set up in Queens this summer amid the spike in homeless residents. It currently houses more than 650 people, including 373 kids. 

The other two shelters are in East Elmhurst and Arverne. These locations, which are not considered emergency shelters, also sparked anger from residents and officials, who complained about a lack of community notification. The Arverne shelter will only house adults.

Hundreds of residents protested the Elmhurst shelter at large rallies, including one in June that included chants from opponents for homeless residents to "get a job" and some shelter residents countering "Go back to China."

The most recent rally was less hostile, however, and focused instead on the affordable housing crisis and suggested the city create more opportunities to get out of the shelter system.

"Warehousing does not solve the homeless situation," said one speaker at the July rally. "We must direct our anger towards a flawed process."

Local politicians and other groups have tried to ease tensions and the DHS has implemented a new seven-day notification process that includes community panels and public hearings to address concerns. 

Earlier this month, a nearby church helped organize a barbecue for shelter residents as a way to welcome them into the community.

And on Tuesday, Councilman Danny Dromm handed out dozens of backpacks donated by the Queens Center Mall to counteract the "vitriol" from earlier protests.

He said he understands the concerns of the community, including school overcrowding and the lack of notification, but would not tolerate negative comments.

"I would not be seen with or participate in vitriolic demonstrations," he said. "I spent my whole life fighting this type of thing."

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