In one family’s story, a cautionary tale about NYC homeless program

Sandra Ellis and Defor Howard are in a tough spot, and their story serves as a cautionary tale about the problems that can arise under a controversial New York City program that has relocated 2,200 families to New Jersey.

The clock is ticking for the couple and their three children. New York’s Department of Homeless Services moved them from a shelter in Brooklyn to a ground-floor Newark apartment last December, under the Special One-Time Assistance program, or SOTA, which paid the landlord a year’s rent upfront. And now, that year is up.

“I’m trying to reach out to know what’s going to happen to me,” Ellis said. “New York said I can’t come back. New Jersey is not helping me. They said that I have SOTA program, they can’t help me with my rent, and I can’t even go to shelters out here. So my problem is that I’m basically homeless and I have nowhere to go.”

Since 2017, under the SOTA program, New York City has relocated nearly 1,200 families to Newark, something Newark officials said they didn’t know about until this year.

Newark lawyers went to federal court last week seeking an injunction. Officials said the SOTA program threatened to overburden a city already struggling with its own homeless population, and that many of the transplants were living in substandard housing because Newark inspectors didn’t know they were there. Local officials have also said the SOTA families often find themselves with no access to housing and necessary services after the year’s rent expires.

This week, lawyers for both sides negotiated a truce of sorts, with two cities agreeing to temporarily suspend the program in Newark and conduct joint inspections of all SOTA units in the city.

“They’ve had problems with heat, vermin — the apartments are uninhabitable,” said Gary Lifshutz, Newark’s assistant corporation counsel, of SOTA families. “The city of New York, in its good intentions perhaps, was giving landlords a year’s upfront rent, which effectively takes away any remedy that a tenant might have to get anything repaired.”

The two cities are due back in federal court Thursday to better coordinate their efforts.

Meanwhile, Ellis and Howard are planning for an uncertain future. The family has very little connection to New Jersey and no support system here to help tide them over.

“I feel very upset because I have three kids, it’s getting really, really cold out and I don’t know where my family is going to go,” she said.

The family never wanted to come to New Jersey in the first place when New York officials told them about it.

“We didn’t say that we actually wanted the apartment, we just said it was nice,” Howard said. “Basically, I was just feeling like they forcing us out here.”

Howard can get temporary warehouse work in New Jersey for a day or two, but the rent on the apartment is $1,500 a month, and that is weighing on them.

They say they have enough money to pay this month’s rent but won’t until some repairs are made. Among the problems: a hole in a laundry room wall, exposed nails where two floors aren’t flush and a kitchen cabinet that’s held up with a pole.

“This house is damaged and has been damaged for a whole year, and I haven’t spoken to the landlord yet,” Ellis said. “I never saw the landlord.”

Ellis likened the family’s situation to falling off a cliff.

“I don’t know what they expect for us to do,” she said. “They don’t supervise us, they don’t check in. They don’t do anything. So how would you know if we still have a job or not? How would you know what is going on if you don’t sit there and email or call?”