Cornelius Parker lived a remarkable life a few decades back, travelling the globe as a D.J. performing with hip-hop pioneers such as D.J. Kool Herc. He slept on the ground in an apartment on the third floor of Harlem today.
He has experienced many hardships, Mr. Parker, who is 57 years old. He also attributes his current predicament to a New York City program. One worker made an error that put him in a difficult situation.
He said, "The same system that says, "Come to Us, We Prevent You from Being Homeless" -- they made me homeless."
The city's severe homelessness problem can be seen in record numbers of homeless people who live in shelters, now at 70,000, and in the shrinking number of affordable housing.
Mr. Parker's plight, housing advocates said, painfully illustrates a less obvious part of the problem: dysfunction in the systems that are meant to keep people from losing their homes in the first place.
The end of pandemic-era housing programs, including a moratorium on evictions, has resulted in more New Yorkers facing the prospect of losing their homes. That flood of people has strained a city network of government agencies and nonprofits meant to help people stay housed, as agencies simultaneously deal with staffing shortages.
City officials say breakdowns of the sort Mr. Parker has endured are not representative of their overall efforts, which in many cases successfully keep people out of shelters, off the streets or both.
Still, some New Yorkers have encountered difficult situations. Tenants have said they faced eviction after a city rental-assistance program failed to make payments. Homeless families have been moved into a building mired in a legal dispute that forced them out again.
Landlords and brokers routinely discriminate against people trying to pay for housing with government subsidies, housing advocates charge, and the city lacks a robust oversight system. Fewer than one-fifth of nearly 8,000 emergency federal housing vouchers that were recently issued to New York City had been used to get an apartment, the news organization City Limits reported in October.
Mr. Parker's path to squatting was, he said, hastened by staff members of a city program called Homebase, who in his view improperly suggested he leave an apartment where he was living so that he could get government help quickly.
The program, run jointly with nonprofit organizations, is meant to function as a hub where New Yorkers can find services to help them stay in their home or find a new one. Low-income people or those at risk of becoming homeless can visit offices in all five boroughs to obtain vouchers, find apartments and train for jobs. People are referred to Homebase through government agencies, politicians and even from 311 calls, and Homebase does outreach at community events.
City officials said demand has increased for the Homebase services, to more than 25,000 households in the most recent fiscal year.
But some New Yorkers who have sought help from Homebase have reported frustrating problems: Applications can take up to a year to process, caseworkers are sometimes unreachable for weeks at a time and clients get contradictory instructions on eligibility requirements, according to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, a nonprofit public defense firm that represents Mr. Parker and others.
The group said Mr. Parker's ordeal was an extreme example of how those flaws, along with landlords' resistance to accepting vouchers, exacerbate the city's homelessness problem.
Mr. Parker's predicament began when a friend he was staying with said he wanted to rent the room to some relatives instead, Mr. Parker said. According to court filings, the friend said Mr. Parker owed more than $9,000 in rent, which Mr. Parker disputes. At the time, Mr. Parker was recovering from surgery to remove a tumor and had been in a car accident that ripped the ligaments in his leg and left him unable to work.
When an eviction case was filed against him in January 2022, Mr. Parker dug in to fight it. That winter, he applied for help from Homebase, and in April, he received what felt like promising advice from a one of the program's housing specialists: If he agreed on a date when he would leave the apartment, he would get help finding and paying for a new place through a city voucher program.
Mr. Parker said in court that he would leave by July. A month later, however, a Services for the Underserved specialist said she had made a mistake and that Mr. Parker did not qualify for the aid she had in mind. She said other programs could take months to access.
Mr. Parker scrambled unsuccessfully to find a new place in the weeks he had left. Homebase workers also tried to find him help. In August, they got Mr. Parker a federal voucher that could help him pay for a new apartment.
But, despite numerous apartment viewings, daily searches online, visits to brokers offices, and multiple phone calls, Parker claimed that he was still unable to find an apartment. After he explained that he was using the coupon, which expires next year, landlords stopped responding.
Because Mr. Parker is unable to walk without a cane due to his leg injury, the search was even more challenging. He has limited his options to apartments that he can easily get into and out of. He stated that he had only heard from his Homebase caseworker a few times.
Officials from the city said that Mr. Parker's case was unusual. They stated that they are investigating the case and added that more than 97% of those who received Homebase services in the second half of 2022 were not homeless.
A spokesperson for Services for the Underserved said that the group provides Homebase services in Manhattan. She stated that the team is staffed by human services professionals who are compassionate and dedicated to helping people avoid homelessness.
A spokeswoman admitted that there was a gap in communication about Mr. Parker's eligibility to receive the city voucher. She said that the organization was'remains committed' to helping Mr. Parker find permanent housing, noting that it had helped his get the federal voucher.
After his search ended, Parker and his girlfriend moved into hotels until they could no longer afford them. The couple would sometimes sleep in their car and shower in empty parking lots. After his sister, his girlfriend, moved them into the apartment they now live in. Court filings reveal that the landlord wants to evict them.
Around the sleeping bags in the middle of the room where Mr. Parker and his girlfriend sleep lie boxes and bags, water bottles, shoes, a ketchup bottle and an assortment of other items. Because they have no electricity, they chill milk on a window sill outside in the cold winter air. They use flashlights and headlamps to see at night.
It is dark in the room even during the day, because the couple has draped sheets and covers over the windows to prevent people from looking inside.
Mr. Parker has fond memories of his music days. He lights up showing pictures on his cellphone of himself spinning turntables or posing with members of the Black Spades, a street gang linked to hip-hop history that is now focused on community development, and of a special City Council citation he received in 2017.
tries to raise money online. The one thing that he thinks would help more than anything is a permanent home.