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Worker at Controversial Chelsea Men's Shelter Was Groped and Harassed: Suit

  Irene Spear is trying to sue the city after she was harrased by residents at the shelter, lawsuit says.
Irene Spear
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CHELSEA — A staffer at a controversial Chelsea homeless shelter was forced to look after dozens of men at a time with little to no backup or oversight, and was ignored by supervisors after reporting that she was harassed by clients until one of them finally groped her, she claims in a lawsuit. 

Irene Spear, 42, started working as a "community tech" at the 328-bed BRC shelter on West 25th Street — which neighbors complain has turned the block into a dangerous and unsanitary "war zone" — shortly after the facility opened in 2011, according to the lawsuit.

Her job was to keep track of about 50 male shelter residents at a time, escorting them to receive their medication or go to the cafeteria for lunch. She also generally kept the peace.

"Sometimes there was only me or one other woman working with me and 50 men," said Spear, who is currently on leave from the shelter. "It was scary."

Spear said she was always concerned about the lack of security in the building since she was often left alone with clients, especially after she was harassed by one of the men.

On Jan. 2, 2012, a male resident forcibly kissed her on the cheek in an elevator while she was escorting him back to his dorm from the cafeteria, she wrote in her lawsuit. She reported the incident to her supervisor who chose not to notify police, she wrote in the suit.

Spear said she asked for the video from the security camera in the elevator, but she was told the camera wasn't working at the time.

On April 26, 2013, she was attacked at the shelter again, according to the lawsuit.

On that day, Spear was putting away a chair in the TV lounge on the eighth floor when 26-year-old shelter resident Jeorge Smith groped her butt and leg at about 11 a.m., according to the lawsuit.

Frightened, Spear went back to her office to call the police, while Smith laughed and followed her, Spear said. There were no security guards anywhere on the floor at the time, she said.

“I felt very violated,” said Spear, who sees a psychiatrist twice a week as a result of the attack and takes medication so she can sleep at night. “I couldn’t even run to security. I had to walk back to my office with him following me the whole way.”

Smith was arrested a few hours later and was charged with forcible touching and harassment, according to a criminal complaint from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. He was subsequently indicted on charges of persistent sexual abuse, a felony, and is currently being held without bail, online court records show.

Smith’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Since the incident, Spear has been receiving workers' compensation for therapy to cope with panic attacks, according to court documents. She has been unable to hold a job. fallen into financial difficulties and has become homeless herself, she said.

Spear tried to sue BRC and the city in July 2013 over what happened to her, but the city comptroller's office objected that she was one day past the 90-day deadline for filing a notice of claim in a personal injury case.

"We regret to inform you that your claim has been disallowed," the comptroller's office wrote to Spear and James Ingoglia, her attorney, court documents show.

Ingoglia shot back that Spear was well within the extension period — one year and 90 days — for serving a late notice of claim and there are plenty of precedents for courts providing an extension. He sued the city in New York Supreme Court last December, arguing that the case should be allowed to move forward.

The comptroller's office declined to comment, noting that the lawsuit was ongoing.

The city also claims that in addition to missing the lawsuit deadline, Spear also shouldn't be allowed to sue the city because the Department of Homeless Services does not run the shelter, documents show.

But Ingoglia replied that the city is closely connected to the shelter's operations.

The city awarded BRC a five-year contract worth more than $20 million to provide shelter at that site to homeless adults, including those with substance abuse problems and mental illness, records show.

The Department of Homeless Services also recently spent $1 million to increase security at the shelter, at 127 W. 25th St., including assigning two-dozen peace officers there and installing a metal detector and an X-ray machine at the entrance.

"The city is claiming it has no connection to or responsibility for how the BRC is run, but that is clearly not accurate,” Ingoglia said.

“Not only is the city the primary funding source for BRC, but the evidence in this litigation will show that the city has detailed authority and rights to demand both how BRC is run and what level of security is acceptable there."

BRC, the Department of Homeless Services and the New York City Law Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The next Supreme Court hearing in the case will be held on Oct. 28.

"It would be simply unjust for the court to give the city a free pass from liability here," Ingoglia said.