Wendy and her son Jajuan clapped as dozens of fourth- and fifth-grade children wearing cartoonish reindeer antlers clipped and clopped onto a small stage covered in tinsel. As the children belted out a rendition of “Jingle Bells,” Wendy smiled and hugged her son tightly. This was their last night in the home where they have lived for several years, but Wendy said she couldn’t be happier to leave.
“If you saw me out on the street, you would never know I live in a shelter,” said Wendy, who asked to use her first name only. “People think that homeless people are the dirty bums sleeping on the street, sleeping on subways, and that they look scary. But that’s not what most homeless people look like. They look like me. They look like my son.”
For the past three and a half years, Wendy and Jajuan have lived in the Saratoga Family Inn homeless shelter, a converted hotel near John F. Kennedy Airport. Home to more than 255 families with approximately 375 children, the Saratoga Family Inn is the largest of New York City’s more than 150 family shelters and among the largest in the country.
Demand for family shelters has skyrocketed; the number of homeless families with children in New York City has more than doubled over the past 20 years, according to the city. An analysis of city figures by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a nonprofit research and policy analysis organization, found there are more than 12,000 homeless families sleeping in New York City shelters on any given night, including some 24,000 children.
Linda Bazerjian has worked with the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness for years. She said when the nonprofit group Homes for the Homeless bought the Saratoga Family Inn and converted it to a shelter in 1986, they never imagined it would be needed nearly three decades later.
“They thought this was something that was going on in the 1980s and that they would be there for a few years and — boom, boom — get people on their feet and then close. But we are at record numbers,” she said. “Thankfully, we in New York City have a right to shelter, so the city must accommodate homeless people, but other cities just have waiting lists.”
Nationwide, there are an estimated 2.5 million homeless children, according to a November 2014 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness. The 2008 financial crisis, coupled with high rates of foreclosure and soaring rents in cities like New York, have led more families to turn to places like the Saratoga Family Inn to stay off the streets, Bazerjian said.
Sitting in the shelter’s after-school program room, Wendy wore a bright pink top, her hair pulled into a tight bun, silver bangles on her wrists. She said she had a career at a Long Island hospital and was pursuing a college degree when she lost her job. After working a few temp jobs, she said she was unable to find permanent work that would pay her bills as a single mother. That’s how she and Jajuan ended up living at the Saratoga Family Inn.
“You used to get full time jobs through temp work. Now they just hire you for covering pregnancy and sick leave, things like that. And then they don’t keep you. They just let you go. It was the combination of that and not being able to find a full-time job again that led me here. I had to go for public assistance, I had to get help, and then the rent couldn’t be paid. That was my downfall,” Wendy said.
She said adjusting to life in the shelter, where families share one bedroom and a private bathroom and eat meals in the building’s cafeteria, was difficult.
“In the shelter, you have to sign in, you have to sign out, you have to let people know where you’re going, literally tell people your whole life story,” she said. ‘That was very hard for me. I am a very private person, and I am used to doing everything on my own, and I usually don’t need any help.”
Wendy said that she struggled with depression after becoming homeless but that speaking to one of the shelter’s on-site counselors helped her.
“It almost makes you feel like you’re a failure. And the system makes you feel like you’re a failure as well,” she said. “Coming here, I am truly not homeless anymore. I do have a place to lay my head, and I do have a room and some privacy, and I am able to get myself together, gather my thoughts and get out of here. But it wasn’t an easy situation.”
The Saratoga Family Inn offers on-site drug, alcohol and mental health counseling, as well as social services and job training. The shelter also has on-site day care, preschool and after-school programs for children. These programs are open to local children who do not live in the shelter, giving children the opportunity to mix with and make friends outside the shelter.
Bazerjian said opening Saratoga’s services to the surrounding community also helps foster goodwill. “In a lot of these communities where homeless shelters are opened, local people feel they are already on the cusp, they are already poor, so why bring more poor people in? We can have people see us in a more positive light if we open up our GED classes or our after-school programs or our day care to the wider community. Then people view us giving something back,” she said.
Michael Fahy runs the Saratoga Family Inn and said caring for each family costs approximately $36,000 per year. But he stressed that homelessness is not just a housing issue.
“There are a myriad of problems and issues that have to be dealt with before we move people into permanent housing,” he said. He added that the model at Saratoga, where services, training and child care are all on site, is one that can and should be replicated.
“I want to see programs that are going to move people forward. I want to see people realize it’s not just about a guy lying in the street. It’s about kids. I think that in order to stop the cycle, we need to work on the kids and move forward from that,” Fahy said.
Bazerjian agreed. “Our model is based on trying to focus on the fact that while you are here in the shelter, make use of the time you are here, make use of the services. The kids lives’ don’t stop while they are here, and so we try to help them so they don't end up in the shelter again, rather than the other model of quickly pushing people out of the shelter and into housing,” she said.
Jessica, a single mother of a 4-year-old boy who also asked that we not use her last name, said she has been able to move forward at Saratoga. “At first it was very depressing, but as time went by and I started going back to school and then I just got a job today, it seems like it’s getting brighter,” she said.
“The therapy program helps me because I have mental health issues as well, and I was a victim of domestic violence,” she added. “My son is in the after-school program, so it gives him more time to be around other kids and help him develop his educational side.”
Wendy said Saratoga’s model has helped her as well. She said Jajuan has managed to get straight A’s in school during the time they have lived in the shelter and has made friends with many children in the after-school program. But thinking about moving to her very own apartment in time for Christmas is something she said she has only dreamed of.
“When I went to my apartment today, I just sat there for about an hour. The furniture hadn’t come yet, and I just sat there. I was so elated and so happy,” she said.
“Being without a home just made me feel lost, like I was nowhere, like I was floating. It was very difficult. So to finally come out on the other side — we are moving out of here and my son is getting his own room again, I am getting my own room again — is just something special. I haven’t had a kitchen for the past three years. I am going to cook my behind off when I get there. I can’t wait,” she said.
As Wendy spoke, Jajuan looked up at her and smiled. “When am I going to get to share my side of the story?” he asked.
Wendy laughed. “Go ahead!”
“It’s great that now we are moving,” he said, pushing up his wire-frame glasses. “But I have always been proud of my mother. She's a good mother. She takes care of me and makes sure that I am safe, no matter what.”