Photo of disgusting conditions at the EAU, taken by homeless folks who smuggled in disposable cameras we provided.

Soon after we moved into our first office space at Judson Memorial Church, and got a phone number and answering machine, we started getting calls from (mostly) moms stranded at the EAU, who had been determined ineligible for shelter, their belonging in garbage bags on the sidewalk, not knowing where to go.  What this means is that workers determined that families requesting shelter “weren’t really homeless” and really had somewhere else to go. The fear and outrage in their voices was palpable.  Some of the most critical issues were that families were continuously denied shelter and told to return to unsafe, overcrowded and even abusive conditions, including domestic violence survivors.  Children weren’t able to attend school, and conditions inside the EAU itself were filthy, dangerous, and excruciatingly uncomfortable, with the serving of spoiled food commonplace.   The building itself violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.  We held organizing meetings in the corner McDonalds and a nearby park, and one summer, over 200 families decided to walk out and march – saying that they would rather sleep in the street with their children than stay in the EAU.  Their demands included an EAU in every borough, and improved conditions for families seeking emergency shelter.

What was perhaps most shocking to members of the EAU committee was how homeless families were treated by the Department of Homeless Services, and the complicity of the media in both the application process and the physical conditions of the building.  Families risked expulsion from the EAU building itself themselves and their children, itself for taking photos inside of the EAU, and smuggling out spoiled food.  Families were consistently portrayed as abusing the system by the administration, and staff at the EAU and rarely did reporters verify these claims.  Picture the Homeless collected video and photographic documentation and produced our own participatory research report on conditions at the EAU:

“ABUSE AND NEGLECT: How NYC Violates the Human and Civil Rights of Families Inside the Emergency Assistance Unit”

We documented conditions inside the EAU, both physical conditions and the larger issue of access to shelter for families.  When we targeted Judge Helen Freeman, and went to her courtroom to present evidence to her, she established a special master panel to make recommendations towards building a better system.  Meeting with the special master panel 5 times over the course of a year, and presenting them with photographic and written evidence, including a participatory research project, resulted in Picture the Homeless being instrumental in closing the EAU facility, and establishing an improved intake office (the PATH).  Many of the recommendations of the families who participated in the EAU committee were reflected in their final report of the Special Master Panel to Judge Helen Freeman and have been implemented by the Department of Homeless Services.

Family at a mass walk-out protest of the EAU, May 2004.