A Surprise Million-Dollar Donation Kept Sandy Evacuees Living in Hotels From Becoming Homeless
Last Wednesday, the situation was dire: Three hundred people made homeless by Hurricane Sandy had been living in hotels for nearly a year when the city stepped in and said the program needed to end. The evacuees would need to move into homeless shelters, although many of them were just weeks from getting back into permanent housing. They had no desire to start over in the city's cramped, chaotic shelter system. At a press conference on the steps of City Hall organized by New York Communities for Change, several dozen of the evacuees said they weren't going anywhere and pleaded with the city for a little more time.
Anna Merlan Cherell Manuel, one of the Sandy evacuees at last week's press conference. "They act like we asked to be here," she said of city officials. "We're victims of a devastation."
But there was no official response from the Bloomberg administration. Judith Goldiner, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, who have been working with the evacuees, felt despondent. Then, late Thursday, she got a surprising call. "I got word we had an anonymous donor of $1 million," she says. "It's crazy."
Earlier that day, Goldiner had been in touch with a group called New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), a group of faith-based nonprofits who provide disaster relief and social work assistance. They told her they might be able to pay for the hotel rooms of every Sandy evacuee who could prove they had a clear pathway out of the hotels and into permanent housing.
Instead, NYDIS did one better: On Thursday night, Goldiner got word that NYDIS had been given a $1 million donation from the Red Cross to help the Sandy evacuees, with the stipulation that the source of the funds remain anonymous. (By Friday, the Red Cross was no longer requesting anonymity.)
"I was almost crying," Goldiner says. "It was just unbelievable."
Legal Aid and NYDIS spent much of Friday racing to contact the hotels where the Sandy evacuees have been staying, informing them those bills would continue to be paid and negotiating for better rates. According to an AP story, some of the hotels wanted the Sandy evacuees to leave, or were demanding money upfront for damages and rent. But many of them, Goldiner says, were able to stay undisturbed.
"It was a completely crazy day," she explains. "We think that most people were covered. I can't say that everyone was for sure, because it was extremely chaotic on Friday. But I think most people have been able to stay."
In the coming weeks, the Red Cross funds will pay not just for the Sandy evacuees' hotels stays, but for things like broker fees, first month's rent, security deposits, and furniture for those who have already found someplace to live. "One of the many challenges for people have been they have an apartment, but they don't have a bed to sleep on," Goldiner says. "Remember, these are people who lost literally everything they had." The NYDIS will also be providing counseling and social work assistance to evacuees, she adds, "real social work assistance, as opposed to the mess that the city's been paying for."
Peter Gudaitis of NYDIS says the Red Cross money is helping about 94 families, a "significant" portion of the 300 people still in the hotels. But funding those families costs about $175,00 a week, Gudaitis adds, "so $1 million will not last long at that level of cost."
NYDIS, Legal Aid and Catholic Charities are working with the families on their "exit strategy," he says. And where is the city in helping these remaining evacuees?
Gudaitis chuckles. "Uh, no comment."
In fairness, he adds, before FEMA stopped footing the bill, "The city was spending $2 million a month on the remaining families. For reasons I'm not familiar with, FEMA was no longer willing to reimburse them, so the city terminated the program. What I think the concern was for the Legal Aid society and NYDIS was that there could've been a softer landing, rather than just a four-day notice."
The money also can't cover everyone still in the hotels, he says. "There are a significant number of clients in this pool that were chronically housing-challenged and in significant financial distress before Sandy. Sandy aid is not going to rectify the challenges for those households. And the public assistance sector and Section 8 homeless services are really the best viable option for those families, as painful as that certainly is going to be for them."
Although there's not a happy ending for every single evacuee, after clearly bracing herself for the very worst, Goldiner seems a little stunned.
"It's a crazy story," she says. "It's just one of those miracle things."
This story has been updated throughout with comments from NYDIS.