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Wealthy Scarsdale, N.Y., Responds to County's Plea : $400,000 House Becomes Haven for Homeless Family

January 24, 1988|MARLENE AIG | Associated Press

SCARSDALE, N.Y. — Among its elegant neighbors in a village whose name is synonymous with suburban affluence, the clapboard house is small and in need of paint. But because it is in Scarsdale, it's worth $400,000.

And it's a godsend for a homeless family of five.

"I thought the social worker was crazy when she said she had a house in Scarsdale," said the 27-year-old woman who's lived in the house with her husband, who works full-time, and their three young children since their apartment burned last year.

Scarsdale, many of whose 18,500 residents commute to high-powered jobs in New York City, ranked 24th on a recent list of the 50 most expensive suburbs in the country. The average price of a house here is $600,000.

County Shelters Homeless

Scarsdale addresses were given by two people on Forbes magazine's latest list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, and several more live nearby in surrounding Westchester County.

In the midst of this plenty, however, and partly because of it, thousands of people are homeless. The county shelters more than 3,500 people nightly, of whom 860 are adult family members with almost 1,700 children.

Westchester is spending $32 million to house the homeless this year, and county officials predict that the bill will top $50 million next year. Much of the money goes toward renting hotel and motel rooms.

The county is also participating in a program to build up to 200 prefabricated housing units to be used for a decade by the homeless then given to towns as housing for the elderly.

Response for Help

The clapboard house in Scarsdale has three bedrooms, a living-dining room, a kitchen and 1 1/2 baths. Known as the Annex, the house was used for years as a meeting place and then as housing for village employees, such as custodians, as part of their salaries.

The house was Scarsdale's response when the county cried for help, but not everyone was enthusiastic about the plan to move a homeless family in there, across the street from the Village Hall.

A petition signed by 118 residents questioned the legality of the village leasing the property to the county. The Village Board lacked authority to use the property in a way that did not serve the community, the petition said.

Then, when the Westchester County Board of Legislators agreed to lease the house from the village, Majority Leader John Hand called the action "tokenism."

Not a Token for Family

"If every community provided a single house, I can't think what century it would be before the problem was solved," Hand complained.

Scarsdale legislator Audrey Hochberg replied, "It may be tokenism, but for the family who'll live there, it's not a token."

The family moved in despite the squabbling and has tried to blend in as well as limited resources allow.

"They don't point their noses in the air at us," said the woman, who spoke on condition that she not be identified. "I can't say they love us. But they realize we're not going to rob them or burn down their houses. We're human."

The eldest child, a 5-year-old girl, attends a local school and the 2-year-old has just begun nursery school.

Tried to Start Over

The woman's husband works at a deli, and she hopes to get a night clerical job with one of the county's Fortune 500 companies when her 10-month-old baby is older.

Then, she said, the family hopes to save enough for a down payment on a home.

For this family, once middle-class, everything had been fine until a fire in April, 1986, destroyed their apartment home of seven years.

The couple lived with relatives in Florida for six months and tried to start over. But they missed Westchester and returned--to a life of motels and moves and confusion.

"One day you're just another little family and then this. It's like something out of a movie, like that Eddie Murphy movie, 'Trading Places,' " said the woman.

'We Want a Future'

"The motels were a nightmare. You can't raise your kids in a motel. You just can't. There's no place to cook, no place for people to be."

Living in the hotels and motels made her "feel like a hypocrite. You see how some people (other residents) just don't care how far kids have to travel to school, don't care where the kids are, disappear for a few days when the checks come.

"Some of the people have no intention of having a future. We want a future."

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