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Desperate for shelters, New York considers turning jail cells into homes

Published time: November 10, 2012 20:41
Edited time: November 11, 2012 11:31
People affected by Superstorm Sandy wait in the cold outside an aid distribution site (John Moore/Getty Images/AFP)

People affected by Superstorm Sandy wait in the cold outside an aid distribution site (John Moore/Getty Images/AFP)

With nowhere else to go, New Yorkers displaced by Hurricane Sandy may have no choice but to sleep in jails. As hundreds of thousands remain without power, a Staten Island prison may serve as a temporary home for storm victims.

­About 100,000 homes and businesses will remain without power for the next several months, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday in a news conference. About 434,140 homes are currently still without power in the region that was in Hurricane Sandy’s path – mostly in New York and New Jersey. The second storm, a nor’easter that hit the region last week, brought snow and frigid temperatures to a city already devastated by the effects of the first storm.

With the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) having only provided housing to two dozen of 5,200 applicants, thousands remain without a home as the winter months approach. As many as 40,000 New Yorkers are in need of shelter from extreme weather and rapidly decreasing temperatures, the city estimates.

The city is in desperate need for shelter – so desperate that even a desolate jail is being considered a possibility, the New York Post reports. The Arthur Kill Correction Facility on Staten Island may serve as a temporary home for up to 900 displaced victims of the storm. The medium-security prison was closed last December and with some fixing up, it could once again be fully functional.

“It’s empty. They might as well use it,” 39-year-old Rob Conigatti, who lost his home and is living with family, told the Post. The prison currently lacks boilers and a working wastewater system, but would be repaired, probably with generators installed, before serving as housing.

Arthur Kill Correction Facility (Image from www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com)
Arthur Kill Correction Facility (Image from www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com)

The problem with the emergency housing facility is the stigma associated with sleeping in a prison. Some people refuse to sleep in a jail cell because of what it once was. Some – especially senior citizens – are afraid of sleeping next to homeless people and substance abusers who are also likely to check into the free housing facilities.

“I lost everything, but I still have my pride,” said 44-year-old Wally Martinez. “We don’t have to stay in a prison. My brother was once in that very prison, and my mother used to visit him regularly. She used to tell me how miserable he looked and how filthy and disgusting that prison was.”

There are currently 2,700 evacuees living in emergency city shelters. While New York City officials have not made a decision on the use of the prison, and the Staten Island Borough President is strongly opposed to it, Councilman James Oddo supports the initiative.

“We have not got into the discussion of longer-term transitional housing,” he said. “If there is no other viable option, it shouldn’t be taken off the table because of a quote-unquote stigma. Between being cold and having people dry, in a warm, secure place, I know what my choice is.”

Staten Island Senator Andrew Lanza also said the prison was being considered as a possible transitional site, even though newly appointed press liaison Peter Spencer said Tuesday that the facility “is not on the table” as a temporary shelter.

As lawmakers and city officials weigh the need for housing against the situation and the options, the prison could very soon undergo repairs and be turned into a place to live.

100,000 homes, business face months without power

Long-term housing facilities like the Staten Island prison may be crucial in the months ahead: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said some properties are so damaged that it will be a long time before electrical service is restored. Although power has returned to 96 percent of the region, about 100,000 customers will likely go several months without power.

“You have people without power for a very long time,” he said. “It’s gotten cold. It’s uncomfortable.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Friday estimated that as many as 30,000 people in damaged homes will need temporary housing to survive the winter.

Most of the severely damaged homes are on Long Island’s South Shore, on Staten Island and the Rockaways district of New York City's Queens department.

“You have some people who have buildings and have homes that you cannot turn on the power until that building or home is repaired or replaced,” Cuomo said. “Those are going to be the most difficult situations."

FEMA will pay for expedited repairs in damaged homes starting November 13. The Empire State Relief Fund, put together by Cuomo, will also distribute cash for rebuilding homes. But until the thousands of displaced New Yorkers are able to return to heated homes, they will be forced to find alternate housing, and those with nowhere to go may choose to spend the night in jail.

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