NEW YORK — At the end of a 16-hour double shift at a homeless shelter in Queens, Amber Drummond, a security guard, was desperate to relax. But Drummond said she shared a room with a woman who was messy and constantly on her phone.
The room is in a Radisson Hotel. The hotel, in Queens, is another homeless shelter, where Drummond lives.
She has lived in four shelters since 2019, often working two jobs, while spending her days off searching for an apartment she can afford. She has looked at some 30 places across the city but said landlords had rejected her applications.
“Why am I still failing?” said Drummond, who is paid $16.50 an hour.
Drummond’s story is not unique. Many workers who tend to New York City’s most vulnerable residents are themselves in precarious economic situations. Some take on multiple jobs, work staggering amounts of overtime and still struggle to find their own homes.
Their plight underscores twin crises that have grown increasingly acute in New York: the high cost of housing, and wages that often do not provide enough for the basics in one of the country’s most expensive cities.
When Chantal Daley, 29, started working as a security guard about four years ago at shelters run by Acacia Network, one of the city’s largest shelter providers, she lived in a homeless shelter.
She despaired of finding a home she could pay for on her hourly salary. Eventually a housing specialist at Acacia helped her land an apartment in a public housing project in Queens, where she moved in 2019 with her son, who is now 5.
“If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably be in the shelter still,” said Daley, who declined to say how much she earned.
There are no reliable figures on how many shelter workers are or have been homeless, because employers generally do not track such information.
But interviews with homeless advocacy groups, lawmakers, officials at different shelter providers as well as shelter employees show that housing is a major challenge for many workers.
Although they typically earn more than the city’s $15-an-hour minimum wage, finding housing is still a stretch when the median rent for an apartment in New York is roughly $2,500 a month, according to a recent analysis by StreetEasy, a real estate website that tracks housing data.
Christine Quinn, president and chief executive of Win, which operates 13 shelters in the city, said some of her organization’s residents worked in shelters.
“Being a security guard or a maintenance worker at a homeless shelter does not guarantee you won’t live in a homeless shelter,” Quinn said.
“I hear about it quite often, and just with complete transparency, that was my own situation,” said Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who began working in homeless services after several years of being homeless himself.
New York has the biggest shelter system in the country, mainly because it is under a long-standing legal obligation to provide housing to anyone who needs it.
A workforce of about 2,100 municipal employees and another 9,000 to 10,000 workers for nonprofit providers staff the city’s nearly 450 shelters, and the relatively low-paying jobs include those in security, maintenance and food service. About 50,000 people currently live in the city’s primary shelter system, according to the Department of Homeless Services.
Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the department, said the de Blasio administration had provided hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help shelter providers increase pay rates and standardize services, adding that housing problems extended beyond shelter employees.
“The fact is, for any New Yorker working a lower-wage or middle-income job, whether in shelter or not, whether experiencing homelessness or not, it can be challenging to afford housing,” McGinn said in a statement.
Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged in a recent news conference the challenges facing shelter workers and said, “We have worked over the years to provide more funding to the nonprofit community so they could increase pay for workers.”
He added, “I do want to make sure we are as fair as we can possibly be to working people with the resources we have.”
Shelter providers said that the pay can be low because many of the jobs are entry level and that the wages are largely dictated by the competition for city contracts.
Acacia, which operates roughly 50 shelters and programs and employs more than 1,000 people to staff shelters, and its affiliates have received more than $1.5 billion in city contracts in the past decade, according to the city comptroller’s office.
While lower-level employees earn little more than minimum wage, they are paid on a range, company officials said. Security guards, for example, can earn $16.50 to $25 an hour.
“Should those people get paid more?” said Raul Russi, Acacia’s chief executive. “Of course they should. Do I control that? No.” (Russi said his total compensation was $862,000 in 2019.)
The salaries that Acacia pays, including Russi’s own, are comparable to those paid by other providers, he said, and lower-level jobs can sometimes turn into rewarding careers.
“I got people that started out as a doorman, went back, got their master’s while working with us and ended up now being vice presidents in the organization,” he said.
But nonprofits should be able to do better by a workforce they rely on to help run their businesses and gain their city contracts, said Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, a union that represents security guards at city-run shelters and is trying to organize guards at nonprofit companies.
“When providers who receive millions of dollars in funding from the city cheat their employees out of good-paying jobs, our communities suffer collectively,” Bragg said in an email.
Many homeless people work and can qualify for various housing-aid programs but often have a hard time navigating the byzantine bureaucracy. Even those who manage to receive rental assistance find that some landlords are hesitant to rent to them.
Charmaine Lathan said that she and her three children had to leave a partially subsidized apartment in the Bronx after she got a job as a security guard that pushed her income above the threshold for the apartment.
She and her family ended up spending several years in a homeless shelter. Eventually, she got a job earning $16.50 an hour with Acacia, and they moved late last year into a public housing project in East Harlem, where she pays $900 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
“You have to keep a positive outlook on things for you and your family,” Lathan said. “That’s how I basically got through.”
Even that relative stability feels elusive for Drummond, who said she sometimes worked more than 100 hours a week at different jobs as she moved from shelter to shelter.
Drummond described the constant sense of dislocation of working in shelters while living in one.
“You have no control,” she said.
Drummond, who is single and in her thirties, said she had an abusive mother and entered the foster care system, by choice, when she was a teenager.
She studied at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and got an apartment in the Bronx with the help of a Section 8 housing voucher. But she was evicted in 2019 after a legal dispute with her landlord, she said, losing her voucher and entering the shelter system.
Drummond said that because of that eviction and low credit, many landlords were reluctant to show her apartments.
She said that she came close to renting a studio apartment in Queens last year for $1,200 a month but that the landlord tried to charge her an extra $700 fee, which she could not afford.
She has had to balance trying to find a home while working long hours in sometimes stressful situations. Drummond said she had been attacked several times at work, including once when a shelter resident lunged at her eye with a pen.
Still, she said she empathized with most shelter residents, given her own tribulations.
“I’m just here,” Drummond said, “just fighting for an equitable standard of life that all Americans should have.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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