Why do homeless people use cardboard signs

The homeless business

The stairwell that leads to Pedro Acevedo's apartment smells of urine and marijuana. The building is located in Longwood, a district of the South Bronx. Almost half of the people here live below the poverty line. The 41-year-old truck driver Acevedo lives with his wife and nine- and seven-year-old daughters in a two-room apartment. The two girls share a bunk bed in the bedroom. He and his wife sleep on folding beds in the living room.

In fact, this is not Acevedo's apartment. It is a homeless shelter that is paid for by the city of New York - one of around 3,000 so-called "cluster shelters" (in German roughly "bundled shelters") apartments. A heated controversy is raging around these "cluster shelters".

Three parties are involved in this dispute: On the one hand, the New York homeless and organizations that stand up for their interests; on the other hand, private companies that make millions renting out the apartments; and finally the city of New York itself, which pays exorbitant rents for the "Cluster Shelter".

Money machines for the landlord

Department of Investigations (DOI) report in New York

The New York City Department of Investigations (DOI) recently released a report describing "serious deficiencies" in the city's homeless shelters. "Cluster Shelter", according to the report, offers "the worst social services for families". Generally speaking, they are the "worst-maintained, least-controlled" homeless shelters in town.

Pedro Acevedo talks about bed bug problems; In the girls' bedroom, a leaky radiator has softened the floor. There are days when they have no electricity or no running water for hours, says Acevedo. When things break, they are only superficially repaired, if at all.

When standing in your apartment, it is difficult to imagine that apartments like this one have become a money machine for their landlords. According to the DOI report, the city of New York pays two to three times the local price for the apartments: "The average monthly rent in a" cluster "program is $ 2,451, while the usual rent in the same area is between $ 528 and $ 1,200 lies." After all, around 60,000 homeless New Yorkers are housed in the homeless shelters.

Exploding rents and rising homeless numbers

The origin of the "cluster shelters" can be traced back to the early 2000s, to a program called "scatter-site housing". Around the turn of the millennium, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) faced the problem that the number of homeless families in the city continued to grow. Although the agency set up new conventional shelters for the homeless, there were still more homeless people than beds. Trying to find alternatives, the city contacted private landlords.

A study by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH), the research division of the homeless organization "Homes for the Homeless", describes how most landlords were paid monthly payments that were well above the usual monthly rents. It was an incentive for landlords to get involved in the deal. According to the ICPH study, the program started small, with only 50 apartments in August 2000, and exploded. Around two years later, 21 percent of all homeless families lived in over 2,000 apartments.

From the beginning there have been reports of dangerous conditions in the buildings or of tenants being forced out of their apartments to make way for the more profitable scatter sites. In 2007, the City of New York finally ended the program and replaced it with the "Cluster Shelters". From now on, the operators should offer social services for the residents, similar to other homeless shelters in the city. However, according to the most recent DOS report, these services, when available, were often incomplete and inadequate.

Death of a four year old

In April 2014, a terrible incident catapulted the topic of "Cluster Shelter" into the headlines: A four-year-old boy who lived in one of the shelters in the Bronx died after he was believed to have come into contact with rat poison. That put the issue back on the politicians' agenda. In May 2014, Gilbert Taylor, agent and head of the New York Homelessness Service, unveiled a four-point plan to tackle homelessness and called for landlords to be reduced. Since then, according to a report in the New York Daily News, the average homeowner payments have dropped from $ 3,013 to $ 2,522.

From the outside still quite nice: the homeless shelter where Pedro Acevedos lives with his family

When the investigative authority DOI published its latest report in March 2015, the calls for a general abolition of "cluster shelters" became louder and louder. After the DOI report was published, DHS director Taylor told the New York Times that the agency had already closed two of the properties in the report and that negotiations were underway with other cluster shelters to lower rents. Homeless organizations such as the "Coalition for the Homeless" or the "Legal Aid Society", on the other hand, are calling for all "cluster shelters" to be converted into private apartments in which the families can live as official tenants over the long term.

"If you only gave the families a lease and rent allowance, you could cut homelessness in the city by 3,000 families in one fell swoop," said Patrick Markee of "Coalition of the Homeless" of the news website "DNAInfo".

Get out of the homeless shelter

When Pedro Acevedo and his family first set foot in their New York apartment in October 2013, they were unaware of the discussion about the homeless shelters. They were happy to have a roof over their heads at all. Acevedo remembers spending the first two weeks in their moving van with their two young daughters. Then a New York City program got them the apartment.

Not much space: Pedro Acevedo in one of the two rooms of the homeless shelter he lives with his wife and two daughters

Pedro Acevedo talks a lot about "the system" and how people take advantage of shelter and support for the homeless. "If you manipulate the system, you can theoretically stay here forever," he says. After living in the "Cluster Shelter" for about a year and a half, Acevedo says he is determined to get out of there as soon as possible. He is grateful for the support he has received, but he does not want to be dependent on social benefits. He's heard of places like Nevada where he could afford a three-bedroom apartment for his family, or even a small house. "If the system doesn't help us find a decent place for my family, then I'll have to do it myself."