Employed but Homeless: The New Face of NYC’s Housing Crisis

Cordelia Henkis, a resident of one of Win’s shelters in Brooklyn. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Cordelia Henkis wakes her three youngest children up before dawn, prepares breakfast, packs lunches for them and helps them gather their school supplies. In record time, she puts on her work uniform, throws on the ID card neck strap where she also keeps her MetroCard, and says goodbye to her kids.

She does not talk to her neighbors. All she says is “good morning” if she bumps into anyone in the hallway. Her mind, she says, has no time to deal with other things. Her only goal: to achieve enough financial stability to have her own home.

For the last nine months Henkis, 47, has lived with her three youngest children in a small room in a shelter owned by Win [formerly Women in Need], one of the organizations providing a roof and housing support to families in New York City.

“I came here a year ago from Belize because my husband, who was an army veteran, died two years ago and the social security office told me that the only way to have access to his pension was by moving here, so I did,” said the mother of five, who currently works part-time as a home care assistant. “I was living with relatives at first, but I just couldn’t do it anymore and we were practically left on the street.”

The helping hand of a Win social worker “made her soul return to her body,” as Henkis said. Desperate because she had no home to give her children, she turned to the organization, where they immediately placed her in one of their 10 family shelters located across Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

Henkis has not lost hope in finding her “dream place.” Still, even though she has a $1,553 voucher from CITYFEPS – the rental assistance program helping families with children at risk of entering or already in shelters find a safe, permanent home – she cannot find affordable housing options.

Henkis has searched tirelessly for the last four months, but she said that she has been unable to find an apartment large enough for her and her family for that price. Landlords have told her that she could only find a studio for that price, which they would still be unable to rent to a family of four like hers.

“The voucher is not enough to pay the rent of an apartment for four people. I have looked for four months in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the voucher does not even come close to covering the price of the apartment my family and I would need,” said Henkis.

Henkis is not the only person who must resort to sleeping in a shelter despite having a stable job. María Álvarez, who lives in the same Brooklyn shelter, has a similar situation.

Álvarez, 41, lives with her 10-year-old son and his father. She splits her time between two part-time jobs: one as a home care assistant and the other at the Women in Prison Project.

She moved there exactly a year ago after living in two other shelters. Following a failed attempt to move to Florida with her family, she had returned to New York. However, the challenge of finding stability has taken a long time to conquer. In 2017, she received news that her son, who is in a wheelchair, had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy (…).

Like Henkis, Álvarez has a $1,557 CITYFEPS voucher but has been unable to find a home in five months.

“It has been truly challenging to find an apartment that meets my child’s needs,” she lamented. “Many families end up in unstable life situations when they leave the shelter and are forced to come back. I do not want that to happen to us.”

Win President and Executive Director Christine C. Quinn said that the profile of the homeless has changed. Her organization has helped nearly 10,000 homeless people, including 5,400 children, and more than 740 families find a home in the last year alone.

“The true center of this crisis are the families. The current profile of homeless people is a mother with small children, families who cannot cover their expenses despite having a stable income,” said Quinn. “I give credit to the actions the city has been carrying out in the last few years, but decades passed before it did something about these families.”

The director added that the traditional image of the homeless as a person begging on the street is far from Henkis and Álvarez’s reality. They belong to a group of nearly 60,000 homeless people who sleep in shelters every night.

According to the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS), 70 percent of them are families, of which more than a third includes an employed adult, and most of them are headed by a single mother. The department believes that the problem is due to stagnant wages that do not increase to match rent prices.

Quinn said that a significant aspect of the issue is the trauma of being homeless. For that reason, her organization is focusing its efforts on not just giving them shelter but working directly with each adult and minor, as well as with every family unit, to minimize the effects of the experience.

“If we do not start managing the trauma the child has endured, they will carry that trauma with them all their lives. That is why these children are more likely to live in a shelter as adults,” explained Quinn.


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