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New York City taxpayers spend $800 million a year on a massive homeless shelter system, and keeping control over this system also means the city turns away families they believe have other options. Melissa Russo follows a mother and her children who say they had no other options and ended up in desperate circumstances. This story was published March 26, 2012 at 8:09 p.m.
It’s 8 p.m. on a school night – a time when 10-year-old Angelina and 6-year-old Nicholas Gayles should be finishing homework and preparing for bed. Instead, they are dragging suitcases along a city street looking for a place to stay.
Just moments earlier, the city informed their mother, April Gayles, that it would no longer provide them with shelter. The Gayles family has been through this before – three times now.
“Every time you feel frustrated because you don’t know why they keep doing it,” Angelina tells News 4 in an I-Team exclusive. “They’re the meanest people on earth.”
The city’s policies on homeless have been controversial, and the Bloomberg administration is in litigation again over a new policy to turn away homeless single men unless they can absolutely prove they have no other place to stay.
The city has been doing this with homeless families for years and the Department of Homeless Services claims it’s been successful.
April Gayles disagrees.
“I don’t understand the system. It’s just not working at all,” Gayles told News 4 as she and the two children carried their few precious belongings to the one place they felt was familiar and safe – Penn Station.
New York City taxpayers spend $800 million a year on a massive homeless shelter system where more than 40,000 people stay each night.
Keeping control of the system, the city argues, means turning away some families who may have other places to stay.
Gayles and her children moved to New York City from Chicago late last year.
First they were living with a friend who had a large apartment in Queens, while Gayles hoped to find work in the fashion industry and searched for a more permanent home.
Gayles had something tens of thousands of New Yorkers wish they could get – a federal housing voucher that would cover 70 percent of her rent for life.
But after a few weeks at the apartment in Queens, things turned sour. Gayles and her friend argued over household rules. Also, the friend was fighting with her ex and police were called.
“She asked us to leave and so I did,” said Gayles. “And so I have nowhere to go.”
After a short stint in a city shelter, Gayles was told to leave. She’d been declared ineligible for shelter.
Homeless Services told her to go back to the Queens apartment even though the friend had directly told city investigators that she and her children were not welcome.
Gayles appealed the city’s initial finding that she was ineligible for shelter, but lost. After receiving some help from churches and staying a night at the YMCA, Gayles says she ran out of options, so the family went to Penn Station.
“It’s kind of hard for us to find a place,” said Nicholas. “But, I know God has a place for us.”
This process would be repeated several times.
According to the Department of Homeless Services, six out of every ten families that apply for shelter are told to go back where they were. That’s an average of 34 families a day that are asked to leave a shelter after the city completes an investigation.
The city argues that those families ultimately do find shelter.
“There are no homeless families living on the streets of the city,” said Homeless Commissioner Seth Diamond. He said the city must draw the line somewhere in homeless aid, because too many families are attempting to enter the shelter system from out of state.
The reason, they say, is New York City’s “Right to Shelter” law which has created one of the most generous systems in the country. City officials argue taxpayers cannot afford to support everyone, especially those who are not willing to do their part.
Diamond characterized Gayles as "uncooperative" and said the city did everything it could to help her and her kids.
“She had options available and she rejected those,” said Diamond. “She chose to make a decision to go to Penn Station.”
Diamond said the Gayles family could have gone back to the friend’s house in Queens, even though the friend explicitly said, ‘No.’”
“She stayed there for several months. It was a large apartment,” said Diamond. “We believe that continued to be a good place where she could have lived.”
The agency gave News 4 access to her case file – with her approval – as well as her case workers. One said she didn't "avail herself" of all the department's services.
“We tried everything we could. She refused,” said another.
The workers said Gayles failed to tell them about the police calls to her friend’s apartment, repeatedly missed appointments and turned down viable apartments – a mistake they claim was inexcusable because it meant that her federal housing voucher expired.
Gayles said she turned down apartments because she didn’t feel they were safe.
She and her children were eventually declared eligible for homeless shelter after the agency determined that police had been called to the Queens home numerous times in the last year.
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