NEW YORK – Kariana, aged three, has a lonely existence in the New York homeless shelter her parents moved into last year. Lonely, but not alone -- there are nearly 16,000 children just like her.
Homelessness in New York has soared as a result of the damaged US economy and children make up almost half of that growing population.
Shivering outside the forbidding gates to a Brooklyn shelter, Kariana's petite mother, Karen Diaz, said she'd been homeless since arriving three months ago from Puerto Rico with her husband Pedro, Kariana, and a second daughter, aged six.
"We thought we would be here just for 10 days and get some place better, but time flew by," said Diaz, 24.
Guards would not allow a reporter inside the building, a former hospital now named the Auburn Family Shelter.
Diaz described a rough life of tasteless food, "disgusting, dirty" communal toilets, bunk beds in their family room, and "scary" fellow residents.
"There are no friends for the girls. There are a lot of sick people," Diaz said, as Kariana fidgeted in the bitter cold. "We keep to ourselves."
With unemployment running over 10 percent in New York, sky high house prices, and icy winter temperatures, the family is lucky to have a roof while Diaz's husband searches for a security guard job.
New York's homelessness commissioner Robert Hess said record numbers are taking advantage of the city's guarantee to shelter.
"Given this terrible economic downturn we've seen -- the worst in our lifetimes, certainly here in New York -- we're seeing an unprecedented number of families with children coming into the shelter system," he told AFP in an interview.
Figures for January showed a total of 37,487 homeless people in the city, including 8,850 families with children. There were 15,853 children.
"We had 51 percent more applicants this year than two years ago of women with children," Hess said. "We've been adding capacity right and left in order to meet that demand."
The news isn't all bad.
Thanks to a policy of expanding shelters, the number of street dwellers has plummeted. Official headcounts indicate a 47 percent drop since 2005 and a 30 percent decrease since 2008.
Shelter populations are also changing, Hess said, with average length of stays shrinking.
"It used to be close to a year. Now it's about eight and a half months," he said. "We're trying to bring that down further and help people move back into the community."
But activists paint a less hopeful picture of a city awash in money and run by multi-billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, yet unable to care for its poor.
Maria Walles, who has been in and out of shelters with her husband and daughter since 2007, joined a handful of other homeless last week to protest outside the offices of Bruce Ratner, a major developer.
He is due to demolish a homeless shelter as part of a glitzy sports arena project in Brooklyn, one of the many works transforming formerly gritty areas of New York.
The shelter, which housed some 80 families, was shut on January 15.
"I think it's dead wrong. My heart says, 'wow,'" Walles said. "Why close a shelter now when it's winter? All we asked was for it to be kept open until spring."
The city responds that it is always increasing shelter space, even going as far as renting from landlords of upscale apartment buildings erected in the boom years and left empty by the recession.
But Walles and others said the rules have become tough to the point of unwelcoming.
"The system's got harder. They want to know your information, where you've been, if you've missed a night. If you don't have no documentation, you can't get a place," Walles said.
Dorian Muller, who works at a community-run shelter in Brooklyn, said shelters are pressured to limit residents to stays of six months, or face city funding cuts.
"We've had people stay for three years," he said. "That's because there's no housing. How are you going to penalize a shelter when someone doesn't move out because there's nowhere to move out to?"
Officially there is no time limit on stays. But Hess says the Bloomberg administration is changing a culture in which shelters sometimes housed people for years, even decades, at a time.
"We need to make shelter a short term emergency solution, not a home," Hess said. "We're not interested in forcing people out. We are interested in supporting families to move (into permanent housing) as fast as possible."
The authorities blame the dire economy for the alarming numbers. Some others believe the system is simply broken.
After all, an optimistic Bloomberg vowed in 2004 to cut the number of homeless by two thirds over five years.
"The overall strategy hasn't worked," the city's public advocate, Bill de Blasio, told The New York Times.
"I've never heard a full acknowledgement of the failure of the strategy and I don't know how you can make something better if you don't acknowledge that it hasn't worked."
© AFP 2013