EXCLUSIVE: NYC homeless rights advocate faces eviction after voucher payment vanishes

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Homeless rights advocate Shams DaBaron.
Photo by Dean Moses

Homeless rights advocate Shams DaBaron, who’s been on the front lines bringing awareness to the homelessness crisis in New York City, says he is facing potential eviction himself after his rental assistance voucher payments  were mysteriously halted — and he believes he is not the only victim.

Known publicly as “Da homeless hero,” DaBaron spent almost half of his life sleeping on the street, but has dedicated his years to fighting for the rights of those still unhoused. So, as traumatizing as it was when the advocate returned to his Harlem apartment to discover a notice of eviction, his mind turned to the countless others who could be experiencing the same issue.

DaBaron finally received an apartment after years of being funneled through the shelter system and sleeping on a bench by becoming a recipient of the CityFHEPS voucher program.

CityFHEPS is a rental assistance supplement that gives New Yorkers who are facing hardships an opportunity to find and maintain housing.

Administered by the Department of Social Services (DSS) — which includes Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and Human Resources Administration — this program is said to create a cohesive way for individuals to receive the help they need and for landlords to receive rent payments, all the while keeping a track record of cases.

For a few short-lived months, DaBaron finally felt a sense of housing security, only for the carpet to be ripped beneath his feet after receiving an eviction notice on Sept. 18.

“My voucher covers my full rent. I’m not obligated to add anything to it. I’m listed as unemployed, so I don’t have an income,” DaBaron said, explaining that he has an active Public Assistance case, “What they did, they paid all of the money for me to move into the apartment and I believe they paid about three months of advanced rent, and then the bills were never paid after that.”

DaBaron first learned about the lapse in payments when he received a phone call to discuss his public assistance recertification, but no rental payments were on file aside from his lease with the amount of rent due each month.

“I thought something was wrong,” DaBaron said. “The very next day I received a big envelope from my landlord indicating that they are owed nearly $4,000. So, I’m horrified because I thought something was wrong with the public assistance’s questioning. I’ve been receiving public assistance for years and I kind of know how this works. So it was unusual for them to ask for a statement, and now I understand why they were asking for a statement and that’s where I see there was a failure because how do you not know that you are obligated to pay this rent? When you moved me into this place, you gave me the voucher.”

The dedicated activist described the sickening feeling of years of trauma washing over him once more as he recalled a life unhoused and the sense of insecurity when he received notice of the unpaid rent. 

After learning of DaBaron’s predicament, DHS-DSS, which oversees the vouchers, told amNewYork Metro that they looked into the matter.

“Together with our service provider partner and this individual, we were able to identify viable permanent housing that worked for them and assist them in moving out of shelter and getting back on their feet. While we cannot discuss confidential client cases, we can confirm that DSS-HRA disbursements have not ‘stopped’ and we have continued to fund the vouchers that pay for this individual’s apartment. After looking into the matter and after reaching out to the landlord to ensure this individual can remain in their home and is not needlessly, unlawfully evicted, the LL has confirmed the communications issue will be resolved and they are not seeking (and have not sought) to evict this individual,” a representative said. 

In response to this, DaBaron affirms that he is not attempting to demonize the city agency and is open to the possibility of it being a simple mistake.

He states that he wishes to serve as a liaison to point out what could be a breakdown of communication, which he worries could lead to others, without the public platform like himself, to be unnecessarily evicted. DaBaron told amNewYork Metro that he knows others are experiencing the same, if not a very similar, issue and are living in fear of having to go to housing court and unaware of what to do to stop this eviction process.

“A gentleman indicated to me yesterday that he is going through basically the same thing in his apartment. He is being evicted because the City hasn’t paid the voucher. Now I’m starting to hear other stories from people,” DaBaron said.

Whether it is a glitch in the system, a mailing error, or another issue, the mystery remains because the landlord still has not received payment. As of Sept. 29, DaBaron says, the total amount owed is now $5,072.92.

So the question remains: Where is the money?