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Homeless Dept. Bought $429 Chairs and $3K TVs While Shelters Crumbled

By Katie Honan | April 13, 2015 7:42am
 Residents said they caught rodents and cleared out insect eggs at city shelters, as the Department of Homeless Services renovated their lower Manhattan offices. 
City Shelters In 'Terrible' Shape, Report Finds
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NEW YORK CITY — The Department of Homeless Services has revamped its lower Manhattan headquarters and purchased dozens of iPads, $429 chairs and pricey 3-D televisions for its employees, records show.

The purchases, part of a $600,000 upgrade, come amidst a scathing report that found city-run shelters have "serious deficiencies."

The city agency began renovations to its 33 Beaver St. center last summer, which included creating larger conference rooms, according to documents filed by DHS.

The renovations came as the number of people living in city shelters reached an all-time high, 54,841 people, including more than 23,000 children, as of Aug. 12, 2014, according to DHS. 

The number surged by more than 20,000 people over the past five years — with a marked spike last summer, records show.

Construction permits for the revamp were first filed in June 2014 and work has continued into 2015, according to documents obtained by DNAinfo New York through a Freedom of Information Law request.

The upgrades for the headquarters stand in stark contrast to the conditions at a number of shelters in the city's system, which put nearly 2,000 families living in them at serious health risks, according to a Department of Investigation report released in March. 

The 25 shelters that were inspected out of the 156 in the system "exposed residents to serious health and safety violations such as extensive vermin infestations, blocked or obstructed means of egress, non-working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and improper and/or missing Certificates of Occupancy," the report states.

Department of Investigation Report on Homeless Shelters

Some 621 violations were issued by inspectors including one for a dead rat in a family's apartment and roaches "scattering as inspectors knocked on doors."

The agency is "turning a blind eye" to the dangers that living in these shelters poses to residents, the DOI said. Criminal charges were being considered.

In February 2015, DHS picked up pricey electronics, including two Samsung 75-inch Smart LED 3-D televisions from B&H at a cost of $3,297.99 each after a $500 factory rebate, according to the receipt.

They also ordered 12 19-inch Samsung LED televisions worth $174.14 each, and 11 Samsung 28-inch LED TVs worth $308 each, records show.

In June 2014 and February 2015, DHS ordered 16 AirGrid back chairs with headrests that set them back $429 each, part of the $70,000 spent on office furniture.

And in December 2014, DHS purchased 30 iPad Airs with 16 GB of memory and 13 additional 32-gigabyte iPads in January, records show. 

The renovation work was done by DHS maintenance staff and is part of an $11 million budget intended to curb the number of people living in city shelters, which is currently more than 57,000, the agency said. 

The majority of that money went to hiring 154 new administrative workers, who will help to find homeless residents permanent places to live, according to DHS.

But a maintenance worker with DHS who spoke with DNAinfo New York on the condition of anonymity said the renovations seemed unnecessary, considering the conditions homeless shelter residents endure.

“I don’t know what their reality is, it just doesn't sit right that their priority is changing offices all around,” he said.

“Right now they should be focusing on policy more than anything else.”

Hank Sheinkopf, spokesman for Local 237, which represents DHS’ maintenance workers, said employees only complete work they are assigned and “can be moved around where the supervisors decide.”

“We work where we’re told,” he said. “We’re not policy makers.”

Some $150,000 was spent on painting rooms and hallways on the 12th-17th and 20th floors — which hasn't been done in seven years, a DHS official said.

Officials with DHS said the renovations help them better serve the city's homeless population.

The 3-D TVs, they said, were installed in the main conference room in DHS headquarters and are used for teleconferences with staff at facilities around the city.

The renovations have increased space for the 135-person in-house staff, according to the agency. No work was done on Commissioner Gilbert Taylor's offices, they said. 

"We created additional space at our main office to accommodate new staff and installed monitors in our conference room to meet with senior teams at sites across the city, without taking them away from their critical work," a spokeswoman said.

Mary Brosnahan from advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless said she’s seen the renovations at DHS’ offices and found that they helped better facilitate meetings with city groups working to combat homelessness.

“I know there was some work being done,” she said. “It’s a basic build-out so they could have stakeholders come.”

The spokeswoman for DHS said they started to see "results of our efforts" in hiring and making room for new staffers.

"After years of increases, we are beginning to see a decrease in the number of people living in shelters," she wrote.