No, the Roberts hadn’t given the motel manager, Kenberg, any reason to call their caseworker at the department of social services, not for over a year, but on their way to their room an onion dropped unnoticed in the hallway and a security guard found it on his 6 p.m. tour of the halls. He sniffed at each door on the floor, and coming upon a telltale odor of frying onions, he knocked hard, then waited only a moment before bursting in, so the family would not be able to hide the evidence. Ben waved to his boys to stash the plates under the bed. A mad scramble ensued but was not fast enough. The frying pan stuffed under the bed did nothing to hide the smoke and smell of the onions and hamburger. “Too late, Roberts, we been watching you, your kids dropped an onion in the hall, your all history here, tomorrow morning, your outta here. Now give me the stuff, your pan, your hot plate, you can go to jail, you know for cooking here.” “My kids gotta eat, don’t they, they gotta eat....” Don’t you cook for your kids?” “Speak to Mr. Kenberg in the morning, first thing in the morning, I got my orders, nothin’ I can do ‘bout it;” the door closed.
“Dad? What about school tomorrow? We gonna miss school again like when got homeless? I got a test in geometry.” Don’t worry, Mark, just go on to school like nothin’s wrong. I’m gonna speak to the manager in the morning, maybe he’ll let us stay, he’s got to.” “Can we eat the burgers, Dad, or are they gonna come back and take them too?” “Take it easy Steve, turn on the TV.”
“Mr. Kenberg, I been here over a year, no fights, no drugs, nothin’. I got three kids in school, all doing good, you can’t kick us out ‘til school’s out, please, I don’t know where they’ll put us, might be far away or back in a hole in Yonkers, I can’t miss work, please, just give me a break, once.” “I can’t keep you, just can’t do it Ben. You and your kids made no trouble here, but I told yah, I told yah lots a times, the town wants me closed down, the fire people are over here every other day looking around to close me down. They don’t want no homeless here. It’s gettin’ hard as hell to run this place. You gotta go, sorry Ben, you gotta get down to welfare right away, with all your stuff, down to welfare this morning. Check-out’s at eleven. I’ll call the worker for you if you want.”
I had to hand it to Roberts, sending me a fax from a neighborhood store was ingenious. He explained later that getting through the host of intake workers at our office was if anything more challenging than getting in to see an emergency worker at the DSS office. It hadn’t always been that way at our shop, but I had to agree, it was so nowadays. Anyway, Roberts’s fax was brought to me without going through ”intake screening,” lucky for him. I asked him how he got our fax number: “Simple, I asked at the police station next door to the welfare office.” Roberts explained that he would lose his job if he had to spend all day at the welfare office. It was already pretty late in the morning when he had arrived there, having to take a bus from the motel all the way to the district office of DSS.
He had called in to his job, but they told him he had already taken off too much time. He said he couldn’t tell them what was going on; he had to get to work by 1 p.m. or he would surely lose the job. He said he had to come down to welfare almost once a month for some damn thing and often had to spend the whole day, the usual story. He just couldn’t do so today. Yet, he had no place to sleep that night, and welfare was getting on his case for having gotten himself evicted from the motel. Apparently, they were letting motel and hotel evictees sit around until they finished with new applicants with emergency problems and newly homeless families that had just been evicted from “permanent” housing. A caseworker who did an initial intake on Roberts told him that she didn’t know but what he would be given low priority and placed out-of-county because he had gotten himself into trouble by violating the “no cooking” rule.
When I called the supervisor, Ms. Bonloch to stress my client’s need to stay in the area in order to retain his employment, her response was a curt refusal to interfere with the worker’s judgment call. Her view was that there were more deserving people for the limited slots available in-county. My only hope of getting him accommodations reasonably near his job was to act boldly and quickly. I sent a fax to the district director stating that out-of-county placement was not only arbitrary in the circumstances of this case, it would be contrary to the policy of the State DSS, which mandates emergency placements in or as near as possible to the homeless family's original residence. I then told Roberts to call me again in a half hour if he hadn’t been given a new placement within commuting distance to his job. I got no further call from him that day.
When Ben Roberts did call me back, three days later, he said the DSS worker had given him an “emergency apartment” in a town that is close enough for him to get to work by bus. Ben Roberts said he and the boys were very happy with their new place with its kitchen and two bedrooms. He thanked me for my intervention and said he was sure that if I hadn’t been involved, he would have been sent far away. He then told me that he had received a notice of reduction of his grant from DSS. I suggested where a fax could be sent to me at no cost, and a few hours later, I found Roberts’ reduction notice in my mailbox.
On its face, the reduction notice was routine and correct, simply adjusting the amount of public assistance to reflect Roberts’ recent pay increase, which he had duly reported. The facts stated in the notice were correct, the math was correct, and the regulations called for the result: Roberts was being asked to make a monthly payment for his apartment that exceeded his entire net take-home pay of 1143.32 a month. The absurdity of Roberts’ situation struck me as comical. I stared at the paper for some time before filling out a form request for a fair hearing to send to the State DSS. I faxed the request as it was the last day to do so to keep the grant unreduced pending a decision after a “fair hearing.”
In preparing for the hearing, I wanted to see this apartment for which my client was being billed $1239.58 a month. Ben Roberts’ broad smile didn’t square with what I viewed on entering his new place, but I understood full well that almost anything beats living in a single motel room with three children for over a year. The apartment turned out to have two small bedrooms; the refrigerator door was broken, two of four burners and the oven were inoperable, the paint was badly peeling from the walls and a huge colony of cockroaches crawled the walls even in daylight. The intercom didn’t work, there was no smoke alarm, the lock on the front door to the building hung down by one loose screw and the mailboxes were in bad shape. Those were the most obvious problems. This was supposed to be a model emergency apartment sponsored by DSS and one of the many do-good non-profit organizations set up supposedly to assist homeless families.
I asked Ben if he had been given any choice of where he would be staying, “No,” he was not asked or shown the apartment in advance. He was assigned to live there. While I was in the building, I asked Mr. Roberts to take me around to find out what some of the other tenants were paying for similar apartments. Our inquiries disclosed that comparable apartment were renting for $750 to $850 a month, some in better condition than his. I asked Roberts for the paper he signed when he took possession of the apartment; it turned out to be something called a “license,” a document which explicitly told Roberts that he had none of the rights of a tenant, but did have the duty to pay for his accommodations. When Roberts complained to the Building Inspector about the conditions in his apartment, he was told that the inspectors do not inspect premises leased under the DSS emergency assistance program - that DSS was responsible for ensuring compliance with the housing code.
At the hearing, to which Ben invited the press, we argued that the demand that Roberts pay over $1200 a month for an apartment such poor condition is unconscionable, that the license agreement is unconscionable and an attempt to evade the landlord’s responsibilities to provide a habitable apartment, that Roberts was being gouged for rent far above that which other tenants were paying and finally, we demonstrated the impossibility of what DSS was asking him to pay. There never was a decision after this hearing, for the matter became moot when a civic organization found an apartment which the Roberts family was able to afford - as a direct result of the publicity engendered by the hearing.
TRESPASSING AT HOME
While I was visiting the building with Ben that day, one of the other residents of the “emergency” apartments asked me for help to stop his summary eviction. It seems he received a paper under his door the day before telling him to be out of the building by 5 p.m. the same day. He had not done so, and a security guard had come the night before threatening him with arrest for trespassing if he didn’t get out immediately.
Another occupant of the building, a Ms. Thomas stopped me to complain about drug pushers in the hallways. She told me that one of the dealers, who does not live in her building had knocked her down and cut her with a knife because she made a remark to him that he should leave her kids alone. For this, she is to be evicted immediately, without benefit of legal notice and a proceeding in housing court. Building security had reported to Social Services that Ms. Thomas was seen “fighting with other residents” in the hallway. I called the main office of the non-profit organization which operated the apartment under contract with the owner and DSS. A “housing supervisor” informed me that since my client was not a tenant, but was living in the emergency apartment as though it were a hotel room, she could be evicted without going to court and would be arrested if she did not leave by 5 p.m. I sent a fax to the head of the organization stating that my client had a right to remain in the apartment pending judicial proceedings.
The following day, Ms. Thomas called to say she had received a ten-day notice to leave the apartment or judicial proceedings would be commenced to evict her. She was subsequently served with court papers claiming only that she had been given notice; no reason was stated, no allegation was made that she had performed any wrongful act. Such was the “New Public Housing,” where due process no longer protects one’s occupancy.