A New First Stop for Homeless Families

The city’s Department of Homeless Services on Tuesday opened a new intake center in the South Bronx, a $65.5 million building designed to greet families seeking shelter with much more of a smile than in the old days.

With light-filled floors, a place to check luggage and a medical clinic, the center, known as Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing, or PATH, was designed to move homeless families through the shelter application process in about six hours. It uses an electronic numbering system, not unlike the Department of Motor Vehicles, tracking families as they move from one station to the next, depending on their needs.

The seven-floor, 76,823-square-foot facility is three times the size of the building it replaced, the emergency assistance unit at the same location, 151 East 151st Street, which was closed and then demolished in 2006. As the city’s homeless population rose, the old building felt the strain; it was not unusual for families to spend the night sleeping on hard benches and filthy floors.

For homeless families, the journey to one of the city’s shelters begins with a visit to the intake center, where the city reviews the family’s application for shelter, trying to determine if there are other housing options, for example, relatives who can take them in.

The city provides conditional shelter for 10 days while the application is reviewed. Because of a long-standing court order, the city is required to provide shelter to all families that need it; it costs approximately $36,000 a year per family, the city says.

The new center opens just before for the peak season for homelessness among families, when school lets out. When children are out of school, families that may have been sleeping on a relative’s sofa can be crowded out.

An all-time high number of New Yorkers turned to homeless shelters last year and the homeless shelter population was larger than at any time since the city began keeping records, according to a report by the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, based on city data. A record 113,553 homeless people slept in shelters in the last fiscal year, including 28,977 families.

Ten months into the 2011 fiscal year, the number of families that have stayed in shelters is down substantially from the previous year, by about 6 percent, said Seth Diamond, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. He said the number of families in the system is declining monthly.

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