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City Won't Let Homeless Group With Poor Record Out of Contract

By James Fanelli | November 24, 2015 7:44am
 A supporter of Mayor Bill de Blasio's $2.6 billon plan to build 15,000 units of supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers over the next 15 years.
A supporter of Mayor Bill de Blasio's $2.6 billon plan to build 15,000 units of supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers over the next 15 years.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

SUNSET PARK — A Brooklyn nonprofit that works with the city to provide supportive housing to the homeless has repeatedly received bad reviews from the Health Department — but when it tried to get out of its contracts, the agency refused.

Turning Point Brooklyn, one of several organizations the city uses to provide permanent housing, social services and money management to homeless men and women with severe mental illness, was criticized earlier this year in a Health Department audit for understaffing its program, ignoring requirements to inspect tenants’ housing units and poor case management.

Records also show that Brooklyn landlords have brought scores of eviction proceedings against Turning Point because the nonprofit’s clients fall behind on rent.

But Tata Traore-Rogers, Turning Point’s executive director, said her organization can’t handle its two contracts with the Health Department because the agency doesn’t provide enough funding.

She said she tried to return the contracts in the spring, but the agency wouldn’t allow her to.

“We have been running them for years and that was a mistake,” Traore-Rogers said of her group’s supportive-housing programs.

“The way that the Health Department is funding right now is not working.”

Health Department audits show that the agency has flagged at least a half-dozen supportive housing providers like Turning Point Brooklyn in the past few years for major deficiencies  — from poor social services to blowing off housing inspections — but continues to renew their funding and contracts.

The Health Department, which conducts annual audits of each provider, has hit Turning Point with bad evaluations over the past seven years.

In 2008, the group received an overall evaluation of “unsatisfactory” on one contract. In 2009, they received a “poor" evaluation. Since then, the group has received “fair” ratings, but even these show serious deficiencies.

Turning Point currently has two contracts to provide supportive housing to 75 homeless adults with mental illness who are actively using drugs or in recovery.

The nonprofit leases units in privately owned apartment buildings around Brooklyn and places clients in them. The nonprofit’s social workers are expected to visit the clients and set up treatment plans. Turning Point must also provide counseling and support groups.

In an April 17, 2015, audit, a Health Department auditor reviewed 10 client case records from Turning Point. The auditor wrote that all 10 were unacceptable, noting that the records lacked progress reports on clients, service plans outlining drug abuse treatment or vocational goals.

The audit also noted that this had been a repeat deficiency.

Turning Point had also not maintained required staffing levels, the audit said, adding that a substance abuse counselor position went unfilled for nearly 11 months while an assistant program director had been vacant for nearly 10 months.

The auditor also looked at a sample of its housing units. The review found that four of the 11 units had not been inspected at least once every six months, which the contract requires. Three of the unacceptable units hadn’t been inspected in the previous 12 months, the audit report says.

Traore-Rogers blamed the deficiencies on a supervisor in the supportive-housing program who wasn’t meeting requirements. She said the supervisor was let go and that corrective steps have been taken.

Brooklyn Housing Court records also show scores of eviction proceedings brought against Turning Point — which is also known as Discipleship Ministries — for being in rent arrears on apartments it leases for its clients.

Traore-Rogers said that the Health Department’s funding doesn’t match the cost of rent in Brooklyn. She said that most one-bedroom or studio apartments in Brooklyn cost $1,400 on average, but the Health Department funding falls short of that.

Under one contract, the city pays her group $400,000 to provide supportive housing to 25 adults in recovery from drugs, she said. That amount ends up being about $1,333 per person per month, she said.

She added that Turning Point has limited real estate choices because it’s difficult to find landlords who will accept mentally ill adults as tenants.

Traore-Rogers said that her cash-strapped nonprofit tried to return the two supportive housing contracts to the Health Department in the spring because of inadequate funding. She said the agency told her to find another provider to take them.

After other providers declined, the Health Department told Turning Point it was stuck with the contracts until they end in June 2016, Traore-Rogers said.

“We approached [the Health Department] and told them that we couldn’t run this program anymore at the rate they are telling us to run this program,” Traore-Rogers said. “They understood our plight and saw the logic, but they couldn’t do anything.”

The city Health Department said that it is currently working to transfer Turning Point’s supportive-housing programs to another provider.

The Health Department provides 7,500 supportive housing units through contracts with nonprofits — but more are on the way. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to add 15,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years at the cost of $2.6 billion.

The Health Department said that only a fraction of its contractors receive poor marks. When providers do receive bad reviews, they must submit corrective action plans to address the problems, the agency said.

“We maintain robust oversight of our supportive housing programs as these programs provide critical housing to some of NYC’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations,” spokesman Jeremy House said in a statement.

A DNAinfo review of Health Department audits of other city-funded supportive-housing providers found:

► Corner House, a 34-unit residence in West Harlem run by nonprofit Goddard-Riverside Community Center, was flagged earlier this year after an inspector found it hadn’t conducted housing inspections in the past 17 months, even though the contract requires each unit be inspected at least once every six months.

The auditor also reviewed 10 case records from Corner House and found only one was acceptable. The audit noted that seven records were missing information.

Goddard-Riverside said it submitted a corrective action plan to the city and has corrected the record-keeping mistakes. The city Health Department also said it was working with Corner House so the program can better meet standards.

► The Brooklyn nonprofit Providence House, which in 2013 opened the D’Addario Residence, a supportive housing building in Bedford-Stuyvesant for women, received bad marks in case management and housing inspections.

In a Dec. 17, 2014, audit, the auditor found that none of the 10 case records reviewed were acceptable in providing initial assessments of clients and setting up service plans for them.

The auditor also found that all of the 10 case records examined lacked progress notes on clients. Two of the records lacked information about dosages and dosing intervals of psychotropic drugs taken by clients, the audit shows.

The Health Department said that because Providence House was a new program, it was not fully prepared for the agency’s extensive evaluation. It added that it’s working with the program to bring it into compliance with the contract’s requirements.

► The nonprofit Bowery Residents’ Committee was flagged for not serving the number of clients specified in its contract. In an Aug. 13, 2014, audit, the auditor found that six apartments went unused for extended periods of time.

One unit was offline for at least four months because it required bio-hazardous waste cleaning and repairs. Another went unused for more than four months because of a drug-activity investigation.

The audit also knocked BRC for not maintaining the staffing levels required in the contract. The auditor noted that this had been a repeated deficiency.

BRC did not respond to a request for comment.

Corner House, Providence House and BRC all received an overall rating of “fair” in their audits.

Michael Skrak dealt with the Health Department when he was a supervisor in the city comptroller’s office of contract administration for 15 years. He said that “fair” ratings may mask a provider's true problems.

“They’re giving them a passing grade, which happens to be fair,” said Skrak, who is now retired but continues to monitor city agencies providing social and mental health services.

“But if you look at these providers even superficially, they’re not meeting important parts of the contract.”

He said the fact that Turning Point can't get out of its contracts illustrates the problems.

"At least be honest enough to say we would get rid of you, but we don’t have anybody to replace you,” he said. "That’s a terrible dynamic going on out there. Vendors should be knocking each other down to get the contracts."

Father John Felice, a Franciscan priest who co-founded the nonprofit St. Francis Friends of the Poor, said that part of the problem with the audits is that the Health Department has unrealistic expectations.

His group has three supportive-housing residences in Chelsea and serves homeless adults with chronic mental illness. The Health Department flagged it for a number of deficiencies in an Aug. 15, 2014, audit.

Felice said his group recently received a rating of “excellent” in a new audit. But he and the Health Department have had an ongoing conversation about what recovery means.

He said the Health Department wants to see clients getting better and progressing toward jobs and finding housing. But he said with the population his group serves, those goals are too high.

"If we get a tenant to take a shower once a week, that’s part of recovery for us," he said.