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Convert Homeless Shelters Back to Apartments, Advocates Say

 Advocates said the city should convert cluster housing, like these units on Nostrand Avenue in East Flatbush, into permanent housing.
Advocates said the city should convert cluster housing, like these units on Nostrand Avenue in East Flatbush, into permanent housing.
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DNAinfo/Rosa Goldensohn

NEW YORK CITY — Homeless shelters in crumbling apartment buildings should be turned into permanent housing because local nonprofits can't be trusted to run them, advocates said.

“We have long said that the city should phase out the program and revert those buildings to permanent housing — obviously with aggressive code enforcement,” said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Cluster shelters, essentially apartments the city rents from landlords and nonprofits to temporarily house homeless families, are rife with dangers like broken stairwells, rats, insects, fire hazards and bodily fluids, according to a new report from the Department of Investigation

Promised services are “minimal,” and the city vastly overpays for the substandard, temporary housing, the investigation found. The DOI recommended more inspections, tougher contracts and a working group to look at the problem.

But shelter residents and advocates for homeless people say DOI recommendations did not go far enough. They have called the cluster-site program “disastrous” for years. The model doesn’t work, they argue, and rather than try to increase inspection, the city should convert cluster sites into permanent housing for the families living there, they say.

“If you just gave them a lease and a rent subsidy you could reduce homelessness by 3,000 families,” Markee said.

“Nobody thinks it’s going to happen overnight, but it could happen. They could make it happen,” he added.

Cluster site residents said they currently had no power to demand improved conditions at their dilapidated apartments, which are overseen from Department of Homeless Services.

“Considering the fact that we’re the DHS clients, they look at us like we don’t deserve any better,” said Bronx cluster shelter resident and Picture the Homeless member Robinette Osborne, 26.

Homeless Services officials said that they were reducing their reliance on cluster sites, adding 225 cluster units in 2014 and 2015, compared to more than 1,150 in the last two years of the Bloomberg administration.

The cluster program is a cash cow for a few landlords and nonprofits, who kicked out rent-stabilized tenants in favor of cluster units the city overpays for, New York magazine and The New York Times reported. 

The city comptroller's office said they were currently auditing the DHS and their vendors. 

"The Comptroller’s office has issued a number of audits of the Department of Homeless Services that have identified significant deficiencies in their provision of services, the conditions of their facilities, and excessive payments made by the City without adequate financial controls in place," spokesman Eric Sumberg said.

The city’s two previous comptrollers investigated cluster programs and found missing services and missing money. Both John Liu and Bill Thompson castigated nonprofits that still operate several buildings: Acacia, aka Basic Housing, and Aguila, aka Housing Solutions USA.

In 2009, Thompson found that Basic — now Acacia — misspent $1.19 million of $3.86 million the city had paid the corporation and did not consistently provide social services to clients.

Acacia officials told DNAinfo in a statement that they had addressed the findings identified in the report released by the NYC Comptroller's Office six years ago. "We have successfully implemented all the recommendations," they said.

The organization also said that some of the buildings in the report had only recently come under their care.

"We are very proud of the committed and talented staff that work at our network and at our Transitional Housing Division," spokeswoman Lymaris Albors said in a statement.

In 2011, John Liu said Aguila had failed to account for millions of dollars and found that Aguila housing failed inspections and was hazardous. In a 2013 follow-up, Liu found that Aguila had implemented only one of the city’s 19 recommendations meant to improve conditions.

Aguila did not respond to requests for comment.

Osborne, who lives with her family in a Bronx cluster shelter run by Aguila, said she and her husband and three kids were sitting on crates she brought in from outside because there were no chairs in the temporary housing. She described the provider as “extremely lazy.”

“They look at us like, ‘They want to live for free,’” she said.