housing

From Shelter to Home to Street: One Man’s Homeless Struggle

Karim Walker said he lost his housing after getting a city-funded voucher and has since been living on the street.
Karim Walker said he lost his housing after getting a city-funded voucher and has since been living on the street. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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By official measure of the city Department of Homeless Services, Karim Walker is a success story because he landed a permanent apartment after living in a shelter.

Yet just two years later, he’s sleeping in subways and spending days in Manhattan libraries.

“I just can’t catch a break,” Walker said in a recent interview at the Pret a Manger in Penn Station, fighting back tears.

“I need people to know what happened to me,” said Walker, who described himself as a college graduate with longtime dreams of becoming a doctor. “Because it just isn’t right.”

Walker’s journey from having a home to living in a shelter to permanent housing to the street despite repeated support from city programs highlights the challenge Mayor Bill de Blasio is tackling with Outreach NYC — a new effort to coordinate multiple agencies’ efforts to help thousands of unsheltered homeless.

In Walker’s case, the Department of Social Services — which includes the Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration — took on his case. City personnel and contractors secured him shelter, a job, a housing voucher and an apartment.

But Walker barely gained a grip on the benefits before each slipped away.

“Karim’s story is unfortunately quite common,” said Caroline Gottlieb, an attorney with the Civil Justice Practice of Brooklyn Defender Services, who represented Walker. “Individuals living in shelters face enormous hurdles when trying to secure housing stability.”

Now, the tall 38-year-old takes refuge underground, where he feels safer than in notoriously dangerous shelters. Said Walker, “They’re another arm of the penitentiary.”

Temporary Home

Walker lived in men’s homeless shelters in Brooklyn, The Bronx and Manhattan after crossing the river from his native New Jersey in 2015. He’d lost a job at Newark Airport and hoped he’d have a better shot at assistance in New York.

Thanks to a Human Resources Administration work program, Walker got a contract job with Legends Hospitality serving food at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, earning minimum wage.

A caseworker at the Eddie Harris Men’s Shelter in Brooklyn connected him with an apartment in East New York, in the summer of 2017.

Karim Walker said he spends part of his time studying math and coding in public libraries since becoming homeless, Nov. 11, 2019.
Karim Walker said he spends part of his time studying math and coding in public libraries since becoming homeless. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When Walker toured the building, he thought it was “sketchy.” But he was desperate to leave the shelter, run by Bushwick Economic Development Corp. That fall, DHS ordered BEDCO to surrender its apartments and hotel shelters after two toddler sisters died when a radiator valve exploded at one of its Bronx facilities in 2016.

Walker relented. “Where in New York are there apartments left that cost $800 a month?” he asked.

He paid about $328 a month out of pocket, and the city paid the rest.

The system was working. Walker counted in the Mayor’s Management Report as one of 4,157 “single adults exiting to permanent housing” that year.

Walker also did not count as one of the roughly 17% of adult shelter residents “who exited to permanent housing and returned to the DHS shelter services system within one year,” because he remained in the apartment beyond his first anniversary of moving in.

Shoes in the Tub

But Walker’s days in the brick rowhouse on Vermont Street were numbered. Even though the building passed a Department of Homeless Services inspection, he said his apartment was plagued by vermin, leaks and exposed electrical outlets.

Mold and sewage backup covered his bathtub, he said — forcing him to wear shoes whenever he showered.

“Ensuring clients are connected to safe apartments as they get back on their feet is our number one priority and we provide staff with clear standards and guidance regarding the reviews they must complete for our rehousing programs,” said Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the Human Resources Administration.

The tub in Walker's East New York apartment.
The tub in Walker’s East New York apartment. Photo: Karim Walker

“All units that clients may seek to move into through our rental assistance programs must pass our required reviews, which include a walkthrough by trained staff, including DHS and provider staff, and our comprehensive Apartment Review Checklist,” McGinn added.

Just a year after he’d moved in, the owners informed Walker they did not intend to renew his lease.

Income Gained, Voucher Lost

Soon Walker’s means to pay for any apartment would evaporate.

A statewide minimum wage hike at the end of 2017 boosted his hourly pay to $13 an hour, up from $11. In June 2018, he received notification from HRA that he now earned too much at his job to keep his rent voucher.

Later that year, the Human Resources Administration increased the income limits for voucher renewals to 250% of the federal poverty level in an attempt to prevent a sudden loss of benefits.

Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, said that such measures to keep once-homeless people housed are essential.

“We want to ensure that when people are fortunate enough to leave homelessness behind, that they are not ever in the situation where they have to experience the trauma of homelessness a second time, or a third time, or a fourth time,” said Simone.

“When you have one person falling back into homelessness and ending up back on the street, that has to be prevented.”

House of Cards

From there, the house of cards case managers helped Walker build came crashing down.

With assistance from an attorney from Brooklyn Defender Services, Walker filed a complaint in Housing Court to force his landlord to make repairs, while exercising his right to withhold rent.

“I didn’t do that to be spiteful,” Walker said. “I just wanted a clean, safe place to live that was up to code.”

He won a court order in October 2018 demanding the landlords make his apartment habitable. Weeks later, just before Thanksgiving, Walker found himself on the receiving end of an eviction notice, for remaining without a lease.

In between, Legends Hospitality did not renew Walker’s contract. He was out of a job, and almost out of his home.

Earlier this year, he turned to HRA’s Homebase homelessness prevention program. He obtained what the agency calls a “shopping letter,” informing potential landlords that he was eligible for a voucher. But he didn’t find a place before the letter expired four months later.

Walker, meanwhile, held on at his East New York apartment until this past August, when the sheriff locked him out and the new landlord threw out his possessions — leaving him with a Social Security card and birth certificate as his only documents.

Walker turned again to Homebase. A worker at the office on Livonia Avenue, he said, told him the only way to get another voucher was to move into a shelter.

He opted instead for the subway. One recent weekend, when the mercury dipped into the 20s, his boots were stolen while he slept in a Brooklyn-bound 2 train, Walker said.

18,000 Eyes on the Street

In his announcement last week, de Blasio committed to train 18,000 existing city workers to help coax homeless people to accept shelter and services — “and get people off the streets once and for all.”

A new “war room” will coordinate response between multiple agencies, building on efforts the mayor said have already helped 2,200 people.

“We know we don’t have everything we wish we had, but we do have the power of all these agencies and all the good people who work for them,” he said.

“We believe that constantly engaging folks is the answer,” de Blasio added. “And I want everyone to understand, I’m not talking about a few times and not talking about a few dozen times. Sometimes we were talking about hundreds of times before it works.”

Walker, though, has one plea for the mayor: “Just build more housing.”

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