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City Turns 'Blind Eye' to Lethal Dangers in Homeless Shelters, Report Says

By Rosa Goldensohn | March 12, 2015 10:43am | Updated on March 12, 2015 3:40pm
 Residents said they caught rodents and cleared out insect eggs.
City Shelters In 'Terrible' Shape, Report Finds
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NEW YORK CITY — Crumbling homeless shelters endanger the lives of thousands of families in their care, and the city's Department of Homeless Services is to blame, according to a report released by the city's Department of Investigation on Thursday.

The shelters are filled with disgusting sights like dead rats and pools of urine in common areas, along with numerous safety issues, the report found.

“At its worst, DHS is turning a blind eye to violations that threaten the lives of shelter residents,” the DOI said in the report.

DHS failed to monitor and fix “terrible” shelter conditions over the decades, including rodent infestations, fire safety violations, lack of security and disrepair, the report said. The department is overpaying private landlords and nonprofits by as much as three times market rent for the substandard housing, the report says.

DOI investigators inspected 25 of the city’s 156 family shelters in Brooklyn and Queens, consulting with Department of Buildings and fire inspectors.

 In the wake of the report, DHS said that they had closed two of the shelters, Mike's House and Mike's House Annex, and were "looking at the viability" of the others cited.

City shelters house more than 50,000 New Yorkers, including almost 25,000 children, according to the report.

Three types of family housing were included in the report: cluster buildings, which are apartments interspersed throughout buildings that also contain non-shelter apartments, shelters converted from old hotels, and “Tier II” shelters, which are more comprehensive shelter facilities. 

DHS' monitoring system failed to make sure its buildings meet "basic" health and safety standards, the report found.

“DHS has put in place numerous checks and balances that are designed to ensure that its homeless facilities meet these standards,” the report said. “Yet, for the 25 sites reviewed, those checks and balances are failing.”

The cluster sites need “the most immediate action," according to the report. 

Investigators found a total of 621 building violations across the 25 shelters, and conditions including "a dead rat in a cluster apartment where four children lived, the decaying smell of which permeated the hallways; roaches scattering as inspectors knocked on doors; garbage in the stairways and hallways; and in one location, a puddle of urine in the building’s only functional elevator.”

At one point during four months of inspections, DOI inspectors told DHS they would shut down a shelter because of a broken stairwell, according to Commissioner Mark Peters.

DHS got them to agree to keep the shelter open if they hired 24-hour-a-day “fire guards — people hired to physically block the stairway,” as the report said. It took three months, from June 5, 2014 to September 28, 2014, to fix the stairway, costing the city $637,258.34 for the fire guards.

DHS said they accepted DOI's recommendations. 

“As part of DHS’ commitment to strengthen and improve our shelter system, we worked closely with DOI during their examination of 25 shelters for families with children throughout the city. We will use the report’s recommendations to further inform our system-wide reform work that is currently underway," said DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor.  "We have already begun implementing corrective actions in the areas referenced in the report, and pressing problems have either been addressed, or are in the process of being corrected."

Commissioner Peters said investigations into criminal malfeasance were ongoing.

Marcus Charles, 21, lives with his mother in a cluster site in East Flatbush that was mentioned in the report, in a building with no visible security. He said there were rodents, but that the superintendent “does what he can” shuttling between the three cluster buildings on the block.

“For the most part, we don’t really complain,” he said. “We get heat.”

The city paid shelter operator Brooklyn Acacia $95.59 per person per night for accommodations in Brooklyn — $50 per day for rent and $45.59 per day for social services, the report said.

Market rents in the same neighborhoods were half to one-third the cost the city pays and the extent of social services was described as “minimal.”

At the Flatlands Family Residence, which was also mentioned in the report, Lakisha Wells shares a room with her 19-year-old daughter and her 15- and 7-year-old sons. The family has moved between shelters for four years. Zajahnique, 19, works a late shift at McDonald’s, and Wells gets 7-year-old Elijah to and from school in Canarsie.

Of rats, mice and cockroaches, Wells says: “We caught them."

When she moved in, Wells said, she cleaned out a dresser that was “infested with mouse feces.”

“We don’t use two of the dressers because they had roach eggs in it,” she said. At first, Wells’ family shared their single room with four strangers, she said.

“Sometimes they feel the tenants are too comfortable and don’t want to move,” Wells, 39, told DNAinfo New York. “I think I need to be comfortable to move on.”

“I’ve been sick since I’ve been in the shelter system,” she added.

DHS performed regular site inspections at 19 of the 25 shelters, but never gave a failing grade to any facility, the report said. Instead, inspectors gave passing marks to facilities even when they had numerous outstanding building code and fire code violations, according to the report.

Normally, DOB and the FDNY inspect the buildings, but not individual apartments for the clustered apartments.

Shelters also prepare for the inspections in advance and “mask” problems, the report said.

Some buildings are not inspected at all. A Bronx cluster building where a 4-year-old boy died last April, was not inspected in 2013, the report said. 

The city Administration for Children's Services had received warnings that the building was inadequate for families before they placed the boy and his family there, according to the report. 

When inspections do happen, action to remedy problems is often never taken, the report said. DHS uses many cluster sites and hotels without any bidding process or contracts, a practice DOI recommended they end.

“With no contracts, providers and landlords are not subject to competition, and are not held to enforceable contract terms that could, in theory, require them to maintain their buildings or make needed repairs, or else be subject to penalties such as rent reductions or fines,” DOI wrote.

Additionally, city-owned shelters do not pay fines for violations, according to DOI.

“Currently there is no incentive for the City to fix violations on City-owned property,” the report said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters at an unrelated press conference Thursday that he had only read a summary of the report.

"We absolutely appreciate the report for pointing out some areas that we have to do better in and we are going to move very aggressively to resolve violations in some of the places where we have people in shelter," said de Blasio, who requested the DOI to look into homeless shelters at the start of his term, according to Peters.

"From my point of view what the report has given us is a clear road map of some of the issues we have to address," de Blasio added.

Wells said she had seen improvements at the Flatlands shelter recently, and that it was better than a previous DHS dwelling in Queens. Exterminators have been in regularly and she believes the fire and carbon monoxide alarms are functional. Flatlands is a Tier II shelter, the type the report said was in least urgent need of repair.

Wells hopes to get out of the one room her family shares.

“It’s a shelter,” Wells said. “I don’t think anyone feels good being in shelter.”

ACS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.