Homeless families with children were left to sleep in an intake center this week for the first time in more than a decade because of what officials are calling a "capacity crisis" in the shelter system.
De Blasio administration officials said they were unable to find appropriate shelter placements for five families who arrived late in the evening on Monday.
Instead of being sent to shelter units with beds and cooking facilities, as is required by law, the families slept on chairs in a basement lounge of a Bronx office building known as the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing office (PATH).
PATH is not set up as a shelter, and is intended only as a place to process shelter applications.
NYC Department of Homeless Services spokesman Christopher Miller said the families who slept at PATH Monday night were "thoroughly assisted and provided with a safe environment at the facility and were placed in appropriate shelter hours later.”
The scenario, while limited in scope, is a reminder of decades of contentious court battles dating back to the 1980s over the city’s housing of families on benches and floors of a previous intake office known as the Emergency Assistance Unit.
At the time, one of the most vocal critics of the practice was Councilman Bill de Blasio. Another key critic was Steven Banks, the Legal Aid attorney who fought doggedly on behalf of homeless families and is now serving as de Blasio’s welfare commissioner.
Josh Goldfein, Legal Aid’s current lawyer for homeless families, told NBC 4 New York he couldn’t immediately say whether Monday’s situation violated those families' right to shelter under state law and court orders.
"Every homeless New Yorker who needs a placement should get one," Goldfein said, adding he’s "hopeful it won’t happen again."
The incident prompted a visit Tuesday to PATH from Homeless Commissioner Gilbert Taylor, who went to speak to staff and see where the families had slept.
The city's homeless officials said they’re working hard to line up hotel rooms and open additional shelters to avoid a recurrence of families sleeping at the intake office. They said sheltering families is a complex process which can take several hours and that the families in question arrived after 10 p.m.
Complicating matters on Monday, they said, there were 90 vacant shelter units that had not been properly cleaned.
Several additional families who applied for shelter Monday at PATH said they did receive shelter units but not until 3 or 4 a.m. Tuesday.
Kiana Pennycooke said she and her baby were up all night: "One of the staff downstairs told us there was no more space. I was very upset about that."
Another mother said she and her two children slept in their car on East 151st Street after getting tired of waiting for a placement.
There are more than 56,000 people currently living in the city's family shelters, an all-time high. And more families aren't just coming into shelter, they're also staying longer.
With an especially low vacancy rate for shelter units, the city has resorted to placing seven families with children in the Auburn shelter in Brooklyn, for one night each -- despite de Blasio's announcement in February he would no longer house children there.
De Blasio made that promise after a 2013 New York Times multi-part expose uncovered deplorable conditions there while tracking a homeless girl named Dasani.
The urgent need for housing necessitated the one-night placements in the Auburn shelter, and additional security was stationed there during the families' stay, officials
De Blasio officials hope their new rental subsidy program will help more families move out of shelter into permanent homes, alleviating the pressure on the shelter system. They dismissed speculation that the availability of rental subsidies in shelter could actually attract families to the system.
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