Media Mentions

Common Ground on BBC Worldwide Newshour

BBC Worldwide Newhour

To listen to the story, click here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02l1yzq and forward the playback to 29:50.

If you’re listening in the United States, you won’t need me to tell you just how bad the weather has been this year. Heavy snowfalls continue to bring chaos. Just last Thursday a passenger plane skidded off a snowy runway at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Well in New City itself, the low temperatures are causing particular pain to the high number of people without a roof over their heads. Despite the current economic boom in the city, homelessness is at levels not seen since the 1930s. Golda Arthur reports.

“We’re going to start our route actually going north. When we see an individual, it would be best if maybe two, at most three, people break off and do the interview. I say that’s particularly important to be aware of when the person appears homeless.”

It’s past midnight on a frozen street in Manhattan. I’m with a group of about a dozen volunteers who will spend the night surveying people that they meet at this hour. They’re trying to establish how many people are actually living on the streets. This is the Hope Count. It’s an annual event where the city sends out 3,000 volunteers, one night of the year, in groups just like this one, to fan out and try and get an estimate of the number of homeless people on the streets.

The city does this count in the dead of winter because, if you have no shelter on a night like this, then you’re considered chronically homeless. Walking alongside us is Gilbert Taylor, who is the Commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services in New York City. “Poverty in New York City manifests itself as homelessness more so than it does in many other places. Many people who become homeless in New York City are struggling with low income; they’re struggling with the lack of affordable housing. We are now, as a city, taking on these issues.”

The statistics from that count won’t be available for a few months yet. Last year, the estimate was around 3,000 people living on the street. Street homelessness is a very visible problem. But there’s also been a surge in people needing the city’s homeless shelter system, and that need is increasingly coming from families. The most recent figures show that 60,000 people sleep in a shelter every night. Of those, 25,000 are children.

This is the children’s’ section of the Brooklyn Public Library. It’s a bright, warm, cheerful place, which is why Susan Zatina comes here often with her newborn baby. Zatina lives in a shelter nearby. By coming here, she can get out of the shelter for a few hours when her two older children are at school. “My oldest, she’s been through a lot. First, adjusting to the shelter system was hard for her, not being able to tell her friends where she lives and her friends wanting to come over. That was difficult for her and it was sad for me to see. But I just have to explain to her – just tell them you have a very strict mother. Tell them your mother said you’re not allowed to have no friends come over. And my young one, she tells her friends that we live in a hotel. She tells her friends that we’re very rich and we stay at different hotels.”

28-year-old Zatina lives in a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. She struggles with mental health issues and has been in and out of shelters for many years. But now, she says, she wants a different life. “Having a new baby in the shelter system – I just want my own place. I want the freedom to just have my own place. I’m tired of being in the shelter.”

Although she gets some money towards rent, Zatina says it’s not enough for a decent place for her family. Rents in New York are notoriously high, and there’s a long waiting list of people in need of subsidized housing.

“It is brutally cold today in the City of New York, with snow and ice all over the place. And we have 60,000 people in the City of New York who have absolutely nowhere to stay tonight. That’s a crisis that we cannot afford to look away from.” Jimmy Van Bramer is the majority leader of the New York City Council. Back in the 70s, although his father had a job, his family couldn’t afford the rent and were forced to live in a homeless shelter.

“They sent our family to a shelter in Manhattan, which was not a pleasant place to be with rats and lots of crime.” Van Bramer says, just like his family, the working poor today can still find themselves homeless. So the city’s focus is now on preventing homelessness. Affordable housing has become a pressing issue for the city’s agencies and for organizations like Common Ground.

“We have buildings that are as small as 72 units and as large as this one, which has 652 and remains the single largest supportive housing residence in the country.” Brenda Rosen is the head of Common Ground, and she showed me around their enormous Times Square residence in Manhattan. It houses formerly homeless people, and gives them support services like medical and psychiatric help onsite.

Now, Rosen says, her organization will also focus on preventing homelessness by providing affordable housing for low-income families and insuring that rent is no more than 30 percent of their earnings.

“One of the ways to end homelessness is to stop it before it happens. So the families that are going to be moving into these apartments are really a paycheck or two away from homelessness. There are a lot of studies that indicate that a certain percentage of the families that we will be housing would otherwise become homeless but for affordable housing.”

Homelessness is at record levels in New York City right now. And while finding affordable housing in this expensive city is a problem many New Yorkers face, there’s a renewed focus from the Mayor’s office on helping struggling families and individuals before they get to that desperate point when a homeless shelter or sleeping on a subway train seems like the only option.