Landy Acevedo lives in a South Bronx housing project with her three children — ages 10, 12 and 15. When she and her family lost their apartment, she feared what might await her in a facility for the homeless.
“I didn’t want to be in a shelter,” 34-year-old Acevedo said in Spanish. “I had heard of their conditions and that people were always fighting. I couldn’t believe people were living that way.”
For a few months, Acevedo and her children stayed with her sister. While the family had a roof over their heads, the apartment was small and extremely cramped.
“It was very uncomfortable,” she said. “I slept on the floor with my kids.”
Acevedo was struggling to live in the South Bronx, which, according to the New York City Government Web site, is one of 10 neighborhoods in New York City experiencing the highest rate of family homelessness.
Acevedo knew she had to do something to get her children back into the semblance of a home. They left her sister’s house and visited the Prevention Assistance Temporary Housing office, which places homeless families in federally funded housing facilities.
After meeting the requirements, including being on public assistance, she and her three children moved into an emergency housing facility on 166th Street, run by the Bronx Parent Housing Network. Much to her surprise, she and her family were comfortable for the first time in months. Their apartment, which they share with another family, is complete with bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen.
“When I got here, I said, ‘This isn’t a shelter,’ ” Acevedo said. “It was a long time that (my children) didn’t have a place where they could be calm, where they could eat in peace, where they could lie down in a bed.”
The Bronx Parent Housing Network, a non-profit organization, runs four housing facilities in the South Bronx community, each one designed to meet the needs of specific members of the homeless population. Acevedo and her children live in a building specifically for women and children.
Victor Rivera, who founded BPHN and serves as its director, does not speak on the subject of homelessness solely from an administrative standpoint. Nineteen years ago, he was among the people without a home in New York City.
“I know what people’s perception of the homeless population is,” he said. “But (others) actually believed that I had the potential to be someone else when I didn’t believe in myself.”
Now, Rivera said, he can draw upon his experience in order to help homeless families. According to him, assisting the homeless population means treating them as human beings.
“Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean they don’t have dignity or pride,” he said. “You can’t put everyone under the same roof. Think about the client not as a number, but as someone that has needs.”
The needs he refers to are vast, ranging from medical care and legal aide to substance-abuse counseling and post-incarceration programs. According to Rivera, these supportive services are the key to a higher quality of life for his clients.
“If we’re not providing a sound environment, then we’re defeating the purpose,” he said.
Rivera is not the only housing advocate working hard for the city’s families living in emergency facilities. Basilio Vega, who works for Catholic Charities of New York, helps Rivera place clients in the BPHN facility on 166th Street. He says housing projects that serve families with nutritional care, job-referral service and other assistance are always in need of financial support to sustain their effectiveness.
“When you find someone that can provide all-around services, sort of like a holistic approach, then you’re talking about money,” Vega said. “You’re talking about hiring people that are qualified to do those particular things.”
Because the number of homeless families is overwhelming, Vega said, more emphasis also must be placed on helping them find private housing. In turn, they not only will be off the Department of Homeless Service’s list, but they also can become self-sufficient. Without the financial support for the housing facilities, he said, that simply won’t happen.
“If you don’t have the money to (provide services), then you’re just providing a place to sleep, and you’re not making a difference,” Vega said. “Is there something you can do to assist them with becoming independent again?”
The federal government does provide vouchers for low-income families to pay for private housing through the Section 8 program, run by the New York City Housing Authority. Currently, more than 83,000 New Yorkers participate in the NYCHA Section 8 program, making it the largest in the nation of its kind. To be eligible for the voucher, applicants must meet a list of requirements, such as making a certain income level, and can be denied for having a criminal background or history of drug abuse.
Families living in the Bronx Parent Housing Network facilities are given an allotted amount of time to find and arrange to live in a private residence. More often than not, Rivera said, the residents in his facilities are eligible for the Section 8 vouchers.
“Within in a year, either with the assistance from us or from Catholic Charities, (the families) should be able to get their Section 8 vouchers,” Rivera said. “It’s valuable because it’s guaranteed money from the city New York that’s going to be paid directly to the landlord.”
If a family is determined eligible for the money, however, they are then faced with the dilemma of finding affordable housing. And it comes as no surprise that the nation’s current economic climate has negatively impacted the search for a private residence.
“It really has become very difficult to find affordable housing in New York,” Rivera said. “The problem is growing so fast, so there’s more demand (for housing).”
Victoria Wolanek, 27, who also lives in a BPHN facility, said the Section 8 vouchers only provide about half of what is really needed to live in a New York City apartment.
“It’s hard because they allow, I think, $1,090 for a two-bedroom,” she said. “Honestly, where are you really going to find a two-bedroom apartment for that much? And that’s with everything included.”
In a prepared statement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged that many changes must be made to the way New York City deals with programs providing assistance to the homeless. He said more work needs to be done in order to provide families with a more efficient Section 8 program, which has faced financial constraints because of the national economic crisis.
“The New York City Housing Authority, much like every other public housing authority across the nation, has faced extraordinary challenges in recent years, especially as federal and state support has waned,” Bloomberg said in a May 13 press release. “NYCHA now more than ever needs sound management and accountability to ensure that its resources are put to the best possible use and preserving the future of public housing for generations.”
For Wolanek and her 10-year-old daughter Alyssa, the Section 8 program will provide at least some of what they need to move out of the temporary housing facility. Having a private residence, Wolanek said, is entirely different from living in a facility designed for the homeless.
“It’s not the same as going to your own house,” she said. “I would just settle on being able to walk into my own apartment.”