Emergency Shelter, Single Moms and Campaign Rhetoric

By Hannah Biskind

Throughout this past presidential season, I have been repeatedly astounded by how often women’s rights were debated.  As I support equal pay and cross my fingers every day that Planned Parenthood will still exist tomorrow, I especially cringe at comments that single mothers increase the chance of gun violence.  This perspective seems out of touch with the root causes of vulnerability for so many of my clients, many of them single mothers, fighting just to stay off the streets and find emergency shelter.

Let me tell you about PATH, the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Office here in New York City.  This is where families with minor children go to apply for emergency shelter.  Let me tell you about the families who line up 24 hours a day, diaper bags weighing down their shoulders, just to submit an application and speak with a caseworker.  

Step inside the doors of 151 E. 151st Street here in the Bronx. You cannot bring any food or beverages inside with you.  Just dissemble your stroller, slide it and all other belongings through the security machines, pick up your child, and walk through the metal detectors.  Let the security guards go through your bags. Fill out an application.  Stand in line. Spend all day sitting in a black, plastic chair on the 3rd floor, the 5th floor, the basement. Visit the pantry to pick up some baby food. Watch the TV monitors, waiting for your number to pop up and a caseworker to call your name. Six out of ten families that apply for emergency shelter everyday are turned back out onto the streets.

New York City’s homeless population is the largest it’s been since the Great Depression, creeping up to 47,000 people a night. Nearly 20,000 of those individuals are children. Under New York law, all families with children who can prove that they have nowhere to go are entitled to emergency shelter. But go to PATH, talk to the applicants, and they will tell you the City is doing everything in its power to tell families that they do have alternate housing resources when in fact these families have nowhere else to spend the night. The City continues to debate how it wants to handle this crisis, how it does and doesn’t want to spend its money, but my clients don’t have time to wait for the City to spend months trying to come up with a solution that fits into the budget. They need a solution for tonight.

This September I began my AVODAH placement at the Urban Justice Center’s Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project (HOPP) as a Legal Advocate. My job is to help families navigate the shelter application process, re-apply, and ultimately acquire what they are rightfully entitled to as families with no housing resources: emergency shelter.

With winter fast approaching and November election polls opening, I wonder if anyone is thinking about these single moms and their shivering infants on the streets.

Meet some of my clients.  PATH told one mother and her four children to return to Puerto Rico while they investigated whether or not they are homeless.  One mom told me that she really wants to get her GED and go back to work.  “I just need to get settled first,” she said, “so I can start over with my son.”  She hops the turnstile at the train station to take her three month old child to his doctor’s appointment because she spent the last of her money getting him warmer clothes and a train card costs too much.  “How am I supposed to get settled and build my life again,” she asks me, “when I spend all day waiting around at PATH just to be denied and sent to an apartment that legally I cannot stay at?”

No one talks about the overwhelming number of single moms that make up the application pool at PATH. We are all too concerned with what will happen that night. Simply put, will my client be on the streets again or will PATH provide shelter while DHS conducts an investigation? But there are much bigger questions that sit heavily like dark storm clouds in PATH’s waiting room. Why are the majority of applicants single moms? Where are the services for young moms who have been thrown out of their homes? Where is the subsidized day care that will give moms time to find and hold a job? Left to sit in PATH with their children day after day, these women will never get the chance to start their lives over, gain independence, and raise their children if the City refuses them the shelter support that they are legally bound to provide.

This season, I look to the presidential candidates for answers to some of these questions. I look to them to describe an American future where homelessness will be more effectively addressed, government will be held accountable, and a safety net for young, single mothers will emerge. As Romney and Obama both preach hope of the American Dream, boasting to be living success stories of this ideal, I ask how they expect the single moms sleeping on the streets to also tap into this hope. We explicitly discuss women’s choice in this presidential election yet we continue to forget so many silenced single mothers in this conversation.

I am proud to be working for an organization that provides both emergency safety net services and advocates for broader long-term policy shifts. Systemic change towards greater equity across race, class, and in this case, gender, will certainly help create a culture that prevents such vulnerability. In the meantime women with children need emergency shelter and advocates on a daily, nightly basis.

Hannah Biskind grew up in Chicago with shockingly no allegience to either the Cubs or the White Sox.  She traveled to the Pacific Northwest for a collegiate adventure at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington where she earned her B.A. in English/Creative Writing.  Currently, Hannah is an AVODAH corps member in NYC and works at the Urban Justice Center’s Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project (HOPP) as a Legal Advocate. Hannah is passionate about the power writing has to forward social change, fight for justice, and engage in the values of Tikun Olam.

2 responses to “Emergency Shelter, Single Moms and Campaign Rhetoric

  1. Brilliant marriage of head and heart — thank you from my heart — and head! Daniel

  2. Pingback: A View Beyond the Cubicle | AVODAH: Jewish Voices Pursuing Justice

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