Guilty until proven innocent

If you haven't had to apply for emergency shelter in New York City, or tried to buy a train ticket in Calcutta, the closest you've probably come to the EAU experience is a DMV office. Imagine a DMV from hell with no clues about how to get a license, where you are presumed unfit to drive unless you prove otherwise, where the slightest misstep will result in having to start the whole process over, and where you and your children will camp for days, waiting for help.

Two-thirds of the 905 families Dehavenon interviewed last year were "churned," or forced by the city to reapply, after being found ineligible for assistance for administrative reasons, unrelated to their actual need. Churning has taken place to some extent in welfare programs since the city's Human Resources Administration coined the term in 1973. But according to Dehavenon, when the Giuliani administration started implementing its welfare reform policies in 1996, the churning of homeless families' shelter applications began in earnest.

Dehavenon says that last year homeless families were found ineligible an average of four times before she interviewed them. One family was churned 41 times. "The Giuliani administration's procedures are based on the assumption that families who apply for shelter are guilty of fraud until they prove they are not," she says.

The city's operative principle is captured in Dehavenon's title for her most recent annual report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: if you stop providing welfare or emergency shelter, people will stop needing it. "In seeking . . . to terminate the city's welfare program by the end of 1999, it has erected unlawful barriers to obtaining shelter and other assistance for poor and needy families and has concentrated on creating new ways of finding them ineligible for help."

"I would like many more of us to contemplate what it is like to sleep three or more to a bedroom or on the floor and what it would be like to raise one's own children in these circumstances, in the world's wealthiest, most advanced nation"

EAU-6 p.m.

Walking into the EAU, complete with its guards and metal detectors, is an exercise in dehumanization. "The city's most brutal treatment of applicant families is its refusal to give them any guidance on how to prove they are homeless, " Dehavenon reported. No signs or pamphlets tell you how to proceed. The blank face behind the sign-in window simply tells you to go to the triage room.

The guards on duty make sure applicants don't bring in any food or water, a policy that shifted from irritating to dangerous during last summer's heat wave, part of the hottest New York July on record. For a time that month the building's two drinking fountains did not work, and families were afraid to leave the building lest they be "logged out" and forced to start the application process again. In a poignant scene when a family was forced to throw away their food, a toddler asked, "Mommy, why are you throwing away my milk?"

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