City’s Homeless Sleep in ‘Nightmare Conditions’ at Shelters: Comptroller Stringer

NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer deplored conditions at the city's homeless shelters Monday after a Department of Investigations audit found homeless families living in shelters plagued by rodents, mold, peeling paint and broken windows.

The audit also found that the Department of Homeless Services failed to act on reports of unsafe conditions and relocate families who had been in shelters for long periods of time. On top of this, some shelters had inadequate security or were operating without contracts, auditors found.

The news comes days after City Hall beefed up its efforts to help the city's homeless get a roof over their heads.

Stringer, a frequent critic of Mayor de Blasio, said that the DHS must work toward securing the appropriate funding to fix the widespread problems, which he said were caused by a lack of oversight.

“Over 23,000 homeless children in our City slept in nightmare conditions last night, many of them surrounded by peeling paint, some feeling the chill from broken windows, and others sharing space with vermin,” Stringer said. "There's absolutely no excuse for any of this." 

De Blasio said that "a lot of changes" have been made since the DOI report and that those changes have been documented. Among those changes are a shelter repair squad and hundreds of new security personnel. The mayor said he doesn't know how Stringer reached his conclusions.

The DOI audit sampled 101 randomly selected housing units out of the city's 155 shelters that serve families and children. Auditors found that 53 percent of inspected apartments had evidence of rodents, roaches and other vermin. Auditors also found that 87 percent of inspected units had unhealthy or unsafe conditions, including malfunctioning smoke detectors, blocked fire escapes, mold, mildew, peeling paint and walls with holes.

The audit also found that just 14 program analysts had been assigned to oversee services at 155 shelters housing 12,500 families. That's one analyst for every 11 shelters, or 900 families. It's the job of program analysts to visit shelters to oversee social services.

Because of the large caseloads that program analysts faced, they relied on shelter providers to flag issues and "self-report" compliance and repairs.

Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks responded to the DOI's audit, saying that the problems are being fixed.

"Unhealthy and unsafe conditions in shelters are unacceptable and will not be tolerated," Banks said.

Banks said that the Shelter Repair Square, which was created by the city in May, has already cleared more than 12,000 violations and that 83 percent of the violations at shelters that auditors inspected had been taken care of. Echoing de Blasio, he said that many issues raised in the audit have since been resolved and that the others are in the process of being resolved.

The DOI audit also found that the DHS had often failed to create Corrective Action Plan reports — which are used to correct insufficient services and unsafe conditions — within a mandated 30-day period. The DHS was also bad about following up on reports after they were submitted, the audit found.

In addition to this, auditors discovered that the DHS was failing to transition shelter residents out of emergency housing within 270 days. The audit focused on 12 "long-term" shelter families, housed in eight different facilities. It found that DHS failed to submit Independent Living Plans (ILP) for the families within 10 days of them being found eligible for the shelter. The DHS also failed to ensure that the 12 families in the auditors' sample attended all of their ILP sessions, and families' reasons for failing to attend the sessions were not well-documented.

Homeless shelters were lacking in security too, the audit found. One site that houses 300 families in 16 buildings had only one security guard. Security cameras were broken at one shelter and there were no sign-in or sign-out logs at another.

Lastly, the audit found that numerous shelters were operating without a written contract, among them 51 hotels and 10 cluster shelters.

Responding to the findings, Banks said that 22,000 people have been transitioned out of the shelter and that 7 of 12 families discussed in the audit had since moved out permanently. He also said that additional staff will be hired within six to eight weeks to help alleviate the burden on program analysts and that 260 additional peace officers have been hired to improve security.

New York City has been dealing with a persistent street homelessness problem, which appeared to flare up over the warm summer months.

In November, de Blasio announced a $2.6 billion investment to fight homelessness, declaring that the city would not wait for New York state's help in combating a growing crisis that has dominated headlines and damaged the mayor's poll numbers.

Earlier this month, the Homeless Services commissioner stepped down as the city moved forward with its plan to overhaul of the beleaguered agency.

Just last week, de Blasio announced that he is launching a sweeping initiative to combat the persistent problem of homelessness in the city. Teams will do a daily canvass of every block of an 8-mile stretch in Manhattan to reach out to those living on the street, the mayor said.

The new program, announced at a high-profile speech to a major New York business group, is the latest in a series of moves by City Hall meant to show that it is urgently combatting the homelessness crisis after taking months of criticism that it was slow to address the problem.

Nearly 58,000 people are living in New York's homeless shelters, according to statistics released by the city this month. More than 23,000 of them are children. An additional 3,000 or so people are estimated to be living on the city's streets. The numbers are down slightly from a peak last winter but still up from when de Blasio took office. His critics have seized upon the rise as evidence that the mayor's liberal policies are failing those who need the most help.

"My number one goal is to get off the streets and under a roof where I can start thinking and functioning like a normal person," William Hartnett, who is homeless, said.

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