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Homeless suburbanites struggle amid affluence

Raymond Phillips is like lots of little boys in this upstate town. He likes to run in the woods, roll in the grass, and draw airplanes, and he dreams of one day becoming a policeman. But Raymond doesn't really live in Poughkeepsie; he is here ``until further notice,'' staying in a local motel with his parents and two younger sisters. The Phillipses are homeless suburbanites from Yonkers, in Westchester County, over an hour and two counties away from Poughkeepsie.

Like many families in suburbs throughout the United States, Raymond's is facing a system that is ill-equipped to deal with the growing number of homeless Americans. Westchester County, north of New York City, is known for posh commuter towns like Scarsdale and Bronxville. Yet it has more than 820 homeless families, including about 1,650 children, and not enough places to shelter them.

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Amid all the affluence of Westchester, there is scant low-income housing. So the Westchester Department of Social Services puts up families in motels throughout the county - and in at least five other counties in New York State. [Federal government reduces aid to the homeless, Page 5.]

To receive services, families must commute back to Westchester by cab. Raymond's father, Richard Phillips, points out that it is nearly impossible to conduct an apartment search in Yonkers from Poughkeepsie. The family gets vouchers for the long cab ride, but they can't go in on a daily basis, or on short notice.

At the Westchester Social Services Department, relates Mr. Phillips, ``They say, `Hmm. Take this. See you later. Until further notice.' The reality is, we're just waiting.''

Westchester is not the only suburban area in the country perplexed by the increasing problem. In Connecticut, one study estimated that there were as many as 10,000 homeless in 1985 (the latest year for which figures are available). In northern San Diego County, Calif., advocates for the homeless say there are as many as 4,000 homeless. In counties around Washington D.C. and Baltimore, private groups and government agencies are opening and expanding shelters.

John J. Allen, Westchester social services commissioner, notes that his county has the same proportion of homeless as New York City. ``There isn't any low-income housing,'' he says. ``The federal government has walked away, and the state has not walked in enough.''

A 1980 report said that 50,000 housing units would be needed in Westchester during the decade. Only 35 percent of those have been built. In Westchester, where the median rent is in excess of $700, only 90 rental units have been built since 1980.

The basic state housing grant for a parent and two children is about $285 a month. Federal aid can augment that amount to about $700. But vouchers are not easy to get; homeless families must compete with middle-income renters who are also caught in the squeeze for affordable housing.

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Housing is not the only issue involved, says Harry Kaplin, director of the Homeless Services Network in Yonkers. ``These families are living only for one day,'' he says. ``They have greatly-reduced control over their lives.''

Much school time missed

At the Yonkers network, advocates report finding children who have been homeless all their lives. Some nearly seven years old have never attended school. Older children have been out of school for a year at a time.

Kay Frank of the Westchester Student Advocacy Coalition says that many children here need special education. Making sure they even get to school is difficult. And motels do not have study areas for children, who are usually in a single room with preschool siblings. Some parents want their children to attend schools near their motel, but some districts outside Westchester refuse to enroll the children. These decisions are being challenged.

Access to health care, education, counseling, and day care are hard to come by for a family without transportation or even a definite place to stay at night. At the Yonkers network, families can drop in and see a nurse, get their children enrolled in school, or join a parent/child play therapy class, all at one spot. It's an idea others hope will be emulated throughout urban and suburban areas dealing with homelessness.

The cost of caring for the homeless is astronomical, Commissioner Allen says. The average length of a homeless family's motel stay is 12 months. Motel rooms can cost $2,000 to $3,000 a month, and some are higher. Last year the county spent $790,000 to transport homeless children to school.

Keeping families in motels can be both good and bad, advocates say. It is far better, they say, than having them in ``congregate'' shelters. Some of the better motels - with kitchens, space for the children to play, and a chance to stay longer than a week - have given families the stability to regroup and get stronger, says Kathleen Peters-Durrigan, executive director of the Westchester Student Advocacy Coalition.

But being so far from their home base can also mean that families must put their already-frayed lives on hold. Communities outside Westchester are not always happy to receive the homeless, and in some cases have their own homeless population to place. Some of the motels are simply unsavory.

``You got the wrong crowd,'' says Mr. Phillips, whose family has stayed at a number of motels since May, when they were burned out of their apartment in Yonkers. ``They what's called the rowdy type. Arguing. Stupid like. They be on drugs.''

His family is happy in Poughkeepsie, where they are close to grocery stores and a shopping mall. They can cook in their own kitchen.

``It's a nice place,'' says Phillips. I likes it because there's lots of room for the kids [Raymond, Shontay, and Margaret]. They can run around. We don't have to worry about no trouble here, anyhow, because it's peaceful and quiet at night.''

Both Richard, and the children's mother, Joann Wright, are jobless, although both have worked. They are looking into job possibilities in Poughkeepsie. But their goal is still an apartment in Yonkers, where they shared an apartment for five years.

Unfortunately, little low-income housing is being built anywhere in Westchester. Some communities have developed group homes for homeless families, in cooperative, public, nonprofit ventures.

In nearby Ossinging, nine families live in a converted house, which is a lot cheaper than a motel, and which gives the families a ``much greater sense of dignity,'' as well as wonderful views of the Hudson River, says Larry Salley, deputy commissioner of planning in Westchester. But these efforts are small, and few nonprofits have the technical skills for such projects.

Children at risk

Physical and mental health is an issue. Many children are depressed and in need of nurturing, as are the mothers, says Sheldon Sachs, executive director of the Center for Preventive Psychiatry.

``Generally it's a well population, but they are at high risk,'' says Catherine Hopkins of the Pace University School of Nursing. She is director of the health-care unit at the network. ``The children do show signs of stress.''

Joann and Richard know about stress and pressure. Their oldest daughter is in foster care, because Joann was under a lot of stress, says her partner. But there is much warmth between the parents and the children. They say they are working hard.

``We just sit down and talk to one another,'' says Phillips. ``We both in the situation, not one.''

``A lot of these parents have an inner strength,'' says Ms. Hopkins. ``It amazes me how they continue day in and day out. And it also amazes me that Westchester County spends thousands of dollars for shelter and transportation. It is penny wise and pound foolish.''

Long-range issues put off

So much effort is spent on emergency shelter, soup kitchens, and services that the long-range issues are being sidestepped, say most advocates for the homeless.

John Hand of Westchester Legal Services says: ``We put [these families] in situations of despair and leave them there. They know there is no housing. They don't have any rational basis for hope.''

Phillips says he understands why people in ``good'' areas don't want social service families; he says there are some bad apples.

``[But] you got people in the bad areas who are good people, trying to make something out of their life, and they are just, like, in the background.'' Joann sighs: ``Best thing would be to help families that don't have no houses.''

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