Nov 1 1991

Open Letter to the New York Times

New York City’s shelter system for homeless families has become so livable that hundreds, if not thousands, of families who could stay elsewhere are flocking to shelters so they can move to the top of the list for permanent subsidized housing, city officials say.

Dorian and Renita Steeley and their three children, for example, were crowded into a two-bedroom apartment with relatives. But they wanted their own place. So they went to the city and said they were homeless. They now have a functional two-bedroom apartment in a Bronx shelter, at a cost to the city of $2,730 a month.

Mr. Steeley is certified to work with the mentally ill, and Mrs. Steeley has been employed as a dental assistant. But they are now receiving public assistance, and neither plans to work until they get a permanent place to live.

“I consider this a little vacation,” she said recently.

-from “Families Seek Out Shelters as Route to Better Homes” by Celia W.Dugger, New York Times front page, 9/4/91

My name is Renita Steeley; I am the “vacationing” homeless woman in the story, “Families Seek Out Shelters As Route to Better Homes”. I do not remember saying that I considered my stay at a city shelter a “little vacation.” If I did say it, it was probably a joke, and my words have been twisted to support Ms. Dugger’s preconceptions about homeless people.

My story is like many others. I have three children. My husband and I were employed in another state when my mother-in-law became too old to take care of herself. We left our jobs, school and home to take care of our own, and soon found ourselves homeless and unemployed in New York. Like most of the homeless families in the city shelter system, my family went to the Emergency Assistance Unit for housing after “doubling-up”; we tried to share a two-bedroom apartment with my sister-in-law and her children. No, we never slept in a cardboard box, but I doubt your reporter or any of your readers would find “doubling-up” any more livable than we did.

The shelter that I live in is no “vacation.” Yes, we are grateful to have a roof over our heads, but we would never have subjected ourselves to these conditions if we’d had the choice. We are not allowed such simple things as phones or visitors in our rooms; our rooms and our movements are checked. I wonder if your readers would “flock” to a place which required them to sign a ledger every time they wanted to step out to the store.

I have to wonder why I was chosen for this article. I know that Ms. Dugger spoke to many people, including my neighbor who slept in Penn Station for a week while pregnant with her child. Why didn’t she print that?

I know I told her many more things than were in the article — that my kids are doing very well in school; that I’ve worked hard to contribute to the quality of life here; that I set up a monitor system for the school bus; that I volunteer to distribute a newsletter for the homeless here. Why didn’t she print these things?

I also have to wonder what this story was doing on the front page. Your homeless stories usually run in the second section. Why did you give such prominent placement to a story that, even if it were true, would denigrate a small minority of the homeless population at the expense of the vast majority who are in the shelter system because they had no choice?

I want to set the record straight here and now because Ms. Dugger’s carelessness has cost me my credibility here at the shelter. Suddenly I am the enemy, not because of anything I did or said, but because a young reporter needed to twist my words to support inaccurate and unfair allegations.

I think Ms. Dugger came here to find things she thought to be true. Instead she found me, and she resented it. I am educated. I am drug-free. I am honest and hard-working. I am not crafty, and I am not lazy.

I had no home, and I went to the city asking for shelter. If that’s taking advantage of the system, then what’s the system for?