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City Facilities For Homeless Children are Dangerous, Unregulated: Stringer

By Jeff Mays | October 26, 2016 6:46pm
 A quarter of the child care centers in the city's homeless shelters operate without the permits required of private day care facilities and 80 percent of those workers have not undergone criminal background checks, according to an audit from Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Many City Homeless Kids in Unregulated, Dangerous Day Care, Stringer Says
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CIVIC CENTER — It's a tale of two cities when it comes to care for homeless children.

A quarter of child care centers in the city's homeless shelters operate without the permits the city requires of private day care facilities, and 80 percent of people who work at the centers have not had a criminal background check, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer.

"The truth is, the city has two systems of child care services, one for children who are homeless, and one for those who are not," Stringer said. "Citywide, most children who participate in group day care are in facilities that are rigorously regulated by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene."

►READ MORE: Homeless Population Nears 60,000 People Despite City Efforts on Crisis

The number of people sleeping in city shelters recently passed a record 60,000, including close to 24,000 children. The number of families with children in shelters has increased 68 percent since 2007 and children 3 years old or younger make up 13 percent of the shelter population.

Even though state rules and city contracts generally require child care to be offered, 99 of the 167 shelters that house families with children do not provide child care on-site and do not have agreements with nearby child care providers, Stringer's audit found.

Those 99 shelters house 52 percent of children under age 3 in city shelters.

And of the 43 shelters that do have on-site child care, many are operating with workers that do not have the training and screening that is required of private day care.

The audit found that 82 percent of workers at on-site homeless shelter day cares without those permits, which the shelters are not required to have, were not screened for a criminal background or a history of child abuse. Nearly half of the workers did not have proper training to identify child abuse or how to report it.

►READ MORE: City's Homeless Agency Failing Children and Families, Audit Finds

"What we are exposing today is a dirty secret about how we treat our children in homeless shelters," said Stringer.

Among the audit's findings:

• 41 percent of the 21 on-site child care centers inspected by the Comptroller's office had no sprinklers

• 18 percent had no fire extinguishers

• 9 percent had emergency doors that were locked from the inside without emergency exit push bars.

Stringer said part of the problem with day care for homeless children is that shelters required to provide child care are exempted from the same city health and safety code requirements that their private counterparts face. City shelter contracts that require the site to contract with off site daycare are weak and poorly enforced.

►READ MORE: City Needs Better Return on 46 Percent Homeless Spending Increase: Stringer

The city has also begun housing families with children in commercial hotels that do not have child care facilities. In May 2015, the city housed no families with children in commercial hotels.

By April 2016, the city housed 1,379 people from 533 families in commercial hotels. By August 2016 that jumped to 3,735 people from 1,351 families, a 224 percent increase.

Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the city was making strides in providing child care for homeless families.

The city has spent $30 million to add attendance teachers at shelters and social workers at schools with large shelter populations. The Department of Education has also added 117 aides to help families in temporary housing and launched a yellow bus program to provide transportation for children in grades K-6 living in shelters and commercial hotels.

The Department of Homeless Services "is working with several city agencies to develop a system to effectively provide childcare across shelters. We expect those protocols will be in place in the next few months," Worthy-Davis said.

Among the changes Stringer recommends is not housing families in commercial shelters, the most expensive form of housing, and requiring on-site child care at homeless shelters to abide by all city health and safety laws.

The city should also do an immediate census of homeless families to find out what kind of conditions they are living in.

The agencies that deal with homeless families and child care need to integrate their records better to help provide homeless families with child care vouchers. Currently, only 17 of the 116 family shelters without on-site childcare have agreements with nearby day care centers.

"We have an alphabet soup of agencies that no one quite knows what they are doing," Stringer said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has faced strong criticism on his handling of the homelessness crisis, with the mayor himself saying the city had not acted swiftly enough.

Worthy-Davis accused Stringer of playing politics with homelessness. Stringer is scheduled to speak to a group Thursday that opposed the conversion of a hotel into a shelter in Maspeth.

►READ MORE: Maspeth Shelter Opponents Vow to Return to Commissioner's House Every Night

“The Comptroller’s right that commercial hotels aren’t ideal for homeless New Yorkers. That’s why he should support the construction of shelters rather than continuing to court fringe neighborhood groups that oppose shelters," she said.

Stringer spokesman Tyrone Stevens said the comptroller's speech to the Juniper Park Civic Association is about "engaging communities" and building a consensus to deal with the homelessness crisis.

"That means having conversations with those we agree with – and especially with those we disagree with. When it comes to the mounting challenge of homelessness, the comptroller is not afraid to meet with New Yorkers who deserve to be heard," said Stevens.

But Stringer, often mentioned as a mayoral candidate, said the report is not political. He praised Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and said de Blasio cares about homelessness and has committed resources to the issue.

"This has nothing to do with the politics of some day," said Stringer. "This is about solving a crisis in this city."