Out-of-town homeless families are flooding New York City shelters
It's not just tourists and wanna-be starlets flocking to New York these days.
The city has also become a popular new travel destination for the homeless — and taxpayers are now paying to send them back where they came from.
“People see New York as a land of opportunity, a place that’s welcoming,” said Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond, noting that the city’s unique “right to shelter” law affords housing to everyone.
The number of out-of-town families flooding city shelters has jumped by 48% over the past four years, from a total of 1,390 in 2008 to 2,053 in 2011, records show.
More than 40 new families arrive every week from Puerto Rico, Florida and elsewhere — and head straight to packed intake centers where they wait to be placed in shelters.
“It used to be very rare where we’d see people coming directly from the airport,” said Vida Chavez-Downes, who heads the city’s Bronx intake facility. “But now I see a consistent amount of those people. For some reason, people feel it’s the only way.”
That includes Naika Rolon, 27, who fled Puerto Rico last winter with three young children to get away from an abusive husband.
"My husband owed people money,” she said. “They were coming to our house after he left us. I was afraid.”
Rolon heard from a friend about the city’s guaranteed shelter policy — practically the only one of its kind in the country — and made her way to a shelter in the Bronx.
Housing a single homeless family costs about $3,000 a month on average — $36,000 annually — and out-of-towners have helped swell the shelter population to an all-time high of 43,040. The budget has grown to $870 million.
In an effort to reign in those costs, the Bloomberg administration has cranked up efforts to ship the carpetbaggers back to where they came from.
Numbers obtained through the Freedom of Information Law show that taxpayers have picked up the one-way fare to send 2,654 singles and families to 24 states and five continents since 2007 — at a cost of roughly $650,000 a year.
That’s a small part of the department’s overall budget, city officials say, but the numbers seem to be growing — from 268 people exported in 2010 to 459 people last year.
“It’s common-sense public policy,” said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. “Instead of keeping them at a huge expense in our shelter system, why not pay for their transportation to friends and relatives in another state who have someplace for them to stay and maybe a job?”
The city uses a Manhattan-based travel agency, Protravel, to buy the one-way tickets, which most often are for Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, records show.
“I’m excited about leaving,” said Vanessa Cruz, 24, who with her 4-year-old son, Izayah, is accepting a one-way ticket to Seattle after two years in a Brooklyn shelter. “I feel like I’ll have a better opportunity out there.”