Below is a guest blog post from 2012 Equal Justice Works Fellow, Kathryn Kliff. Her fellowship at The Legal Aid Society in New York is sponsored by KPMG and Sidley Austin LLP. Read how Kathryn has secured immediate shelter and defended rights for many homeless families and individuals throughout New York City.
Shortly before Christmas of last year, I met the Johnson family while conducting outreach at the New York City intake facility for homeless families (known as the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH)). The family included Ms. Johnson, her husband, and their three children (10-year-old Jessica, five-year-old Dwayne, and two-year-old James). I discovered that for the previous 10 nights, the family had been riding the New York City subway trains after being denied shelter by PATH. Tears streamed down Jessica’s face as her mother shared their story with me.
Right: 2012 Equal Justice Works Fellow Kathryn Kliff discusses access to shelter with a client at PATH, a New York City intake facility for homeless families.
Ms. Johnson said PATH denied her family shelter because the PATH staff determined that her family could live with Ms. Johnson’s sister. However, the family had never stayed at the sister’s address before, and it would have been extremely overcrowded for them to live in a two-bedroom apartment that was already occupied by four people. In addition, Ms. Johnson was worried for her children’s safety if they were to reside there. She was aware that her sister’s son was mentally ill and often behaved violently, and had brandished knives on multiple occasions.
I knew there was no time to file a court case or even to request an administrative hearing since the family needed shelter immediately. Instead, I advocated on behalf of the Johnsons, sending a letter and supporting documentation to PATH’s legal department that demonstrated why the Johnson family could not stay at the sister’s apartment. I received a response that night: the Johnsons were granted a shelter placement immediately while PATH reinvestigated their case. Over the next few weeks, I continued to provide additional documentation to support the family’s claim. Ultimately, the family was found eligible for their current shelter. The Johnsons are still in the shelter system, attempting to obtain employment so that they can afford to move out.
New York City requires homeless families to show proof that they have no place to sleep at night other than a shelter. Examples of proof can include doctors’ letters about previous unsafe homes, eviction papers, and city notices citing safety hazards. This standard is incredibly high for homeless families, as the application process is complex and exhausting to navigate. Shelter is necessary in order to protect families with children from the dangers of being forced to sleep on subway trains, in parks or in unsafe homes. It is not ideal for any family to stay in a shelter for a long period of time, but it is necessary when there is no other safe housing option. Obtaining shelter allows families to work toward financial stability so that they can move out of a shelter and obtain their own housing. Families without a safe place to sleep cannot focus on anything else besides the immediate crisis: children miss school, parents lose jobs, and medically-needy families are unable to get the care they desperately need.
My work is emotionally exhausting but also immensely rewarding. Before I began my project in 2012, no attorneys were regularly on site at PATH to help families applying for shelter. With the help of my host organization, The Legal Aid Society, I designed my Fellowship project to fill the gap of providing services directly to homeless families. Twice a week, I stand outside of PATH, providing families with “Know Your Rights” packets, explaining the PATH application process, and advising families on their particular cases. Since January 2013, I have met with more than 1,500 families entering PATH. Additionally, I have provided full representation to 75 families, all of whom were either found eligible for shelter after my intervention or found alternative housing.
I will not forget the look on the Johnsons’ faces when I told them they would no longer be forced to sleep on the subway. Such moments motivate me to continue fighting for the rights of homeless families. I am grateful for the opportunity that Equal Justice Works and my sponsors, KPMG and Sidley Austin LLP, have given me to make a difference in the lives of homeless families. There is still an incredible amount of work to be done, and I look forward to serving this community throughout my legal career.