New York City is a study in contradictions. It is a metropolis where the most extreme wealth exists alongside the most grinding poverty. The way the system works, it’s as if the city is determined to keep the poor in their place – and perpetuate the cycle, creating a permanent underclass.

The bitter irony is that the majority of homeless New Yorkers have full-time jobs. However, in a region where the median rents for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,800, the $8.75 an hour minimum wage doesn’t go far. Even at $15 an hour, it would take two adults working full-time to make such a payment – and that average rent would still eat up almost 80% of their gross income. Between 2000 and 2012, rents in the New York metropolitan region jumped a whopping 75% (compared to 44% in the rest of the county). At the same time, incomes in terms of real dollars plummeted.

So – how are they surviving? According to local law, the city of New York is required to provide shelter to all homeless persons and their children. The NYC Department of Homeless Services offers a program called Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH). According to those who have applied for housing through this program, just the application process alone is a nightmare. Applicants and their children wait for hours in typical institutional waiting rooms with virtually no amenities. They must submit to full body searches and pass through metal detectors. They are not allowed to bring food with them. Applicants must document every waking moment of their lives in order to prove they have no other housing options – including the possibility of living with family members (even if that might be an abusive situation).

And most of the time, after going through all of this, they are told they are ineligible.

Those who do qualify are subject to draconian restrictions. Families residing in shelters are not allowed visitors (not even relatives), and are subject to a strict curfew. They must sign in and out and report in once daily, or are told to leave. They are denied the smallest luxuries, including toaster overs (there are no kitchens available), and televisions over a certain size. Families are allowed only two pieces of luggage. Families’ rooms are subject to weekly searches.

It is as if the system is going out of its way to strip these families of their last shred of dignity. One homeless breadwinner, who is employed by a gourmet catering service for the rich and privileged, told a reporter for AlterNet: “It kind of breaks you down … because it’s like they want to break you down so you give up and not push to be housed if you’re homeless, even though you have no choice but to push.”

During his three terms as the city’s mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, after campaigning on promises to reduce homelessness by 65% over a five-year period, cut homeless families’ access to vouchers and federal housing programs administered by the city. Bloomberg did expand some subsidies for low-income apartments that compensated landlords for taking in homeless families. However, these housing units were in shockingly poor condition, and meant solely as factories to get the homeless off the streets.

Current NYC mayor William de Blasio has been working to address the problem by re-introducing rental subsidies and dedicating $100 million toward developing solutions. But he faces continued opposition from NY Governor Cuomo.  Furthermore, advocacy groups believe that de Blasio isn’t doing all he can to meet the challenges of homelessness.

Meanwhile, in addition to the stress it places on parents, dealing with homelessness and a system determined to provide as little grudging assistance as possible can have devastating effects on early childhood development. It almost guarantees that the cycle of poverty and homelessness will continue for another generation.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.