Bad Housekeeping

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Four shelters. Three audits. And a lot of rats and roaches.

Hilda Garcia, then a 30-year-old mother of two, was living in Queens when firemen kicked everyone out of her building, which didn’t have fire escapes. “We went to a hotel for a week. It was fine, but there wasn’t any money for food and nowhere for us to cook. The Red Cross found this for us,” she says in Spanish.

“This” was 186 Amboy Street, one of 13 buildings in Brownsville, Brooklyn, run by Amboy Neighborhood Center, under contract as an emergency shelter. The Garcias lived there for the next four years.

Garcia had mixed feelings about conditions at the shelter. “They’re not so bad, they’re not so great. They don’t make us pay rent–that’s the best part for me.” The not so great: “There are many rats; there are many cockroaches. There are drug problems and people spend time in the hallways, with other people, making noise.”

Fetid slums are not what the city is supposed to be paying for. When people lose their homes in a fire or get ordered to vacate a dangerous building, those who have nowhere else to go can turn to the American Red Cross, which directs them to hotels or to one of four city-sponsored shelters. There, residents wait for social workers to help find them permanent housing.

But a series of audits of three of these shelters, run under contracts issued by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), make clear that Garcia’s experience was typical. A June audit from City Comptroller Bill Thompson describes Amboy as a facility with “deplorable conditions.” The audit also points a finger at HPD for allowing conditions in the buildings to deteriorate: It concludes that HPD’s monitoring of the facilities has been “inadequate.”

Amboy Neighborhood Center had provided shelter under city contract for nearly three decades. Last June, following the audit’s release, HPD did not renew its contract for the Amboy Street facility.

“It was mutually agreeable that they would step out,” HPD spokesperson Barbara Flynn told City Limits. “Partly financial issues, and partly because they didn’t do a particularly good job.” Amboy president Diana White did not return calls from City Limits.

Clogged sinks and roach and rat infestations were just the beginning. Other conditions reported in the audit included missing smoke detectors or batteries; damaged floor tiles, walls and ceilings; holes in walls, floors and ceilings; clogged bathtubs; leaking pipes and faucets; peeling paint; kitchen cabinets missing doors or otherwise damaged; and nonfunctional or broken windows.

Such findings were not unique to Amboy. Two other audits found comparable, though less severe, problems at HPD shelters under a different contractor. Two groups, 456 West 129th Street Housing Corporation and 138 West 143rd Street HFDC, receive a combined total of $3.9 million a year to operate Convent Family Living Center, a strip of four buildings on West 129th Street in Harlem, and Harriet Tubman Family Living Center, consisting of four more buildings on West 143rd Street. Both groups are subsidiaries of West Harlem Group Assistance, a three-decade-old community development corporation.

The audit on Convent found that its facilities were not maintained in “safe and sanitary condition,” reporting roach infestations, peeling paint, and a hole in the floor of one apartment, among other conditions. Additionally, the review found that many repairs were delayed for an “inordinate amount of time” and that the same problems were often noted in more than one inspection visit before repairs were completed. Many repairs took three to six months to be completed.

The audit on the Harriet Tubman center likewise found detrimental conditions, including roach infestations, peeling paint and leaks from bathroom ceilings. Of nearly 600 work orders that should have been prepared for conditions requiring correction, 163 were not available; 200 of the work orders didn’t even indicate that actions had been taken to correct the problems noted.

The organization running these two shelters disagreed with the findings of both audits. Donald Notice, executive director of West Harlem Group Assistance, says that high tenant turnover is an important factor contributing to the conditions in apartments, one he feels the audits overlooked. He also says that inspectors noted only the apartments in poor condition, ignoring those that were well kept. The comptroller’s audit, covering fiscal year 2001, “wasn’t a fair assessment,” he concludes.

In its written response to the Convent audit, the shelter operator reported that it immediately fixed all physical problems in the buildings, doubled the frequency of extermination and moved to have its staff educate residents about keeping their apartments clean.

HPD also disputed to the comptroller the audits’ findings that the shelters were “unsafe and unsanitary.”

Deputy Comptroller Greg Brooks calls this disagreement “a little surprising.” But he also says that in spite of HPD’s objection to the audits’ conclusions, the agency seems to be trying to mitigate conditions. “You get a sense that HPD wants to improve,” he says.

Last April, nearly a year after the comptroller’s office first notified HPD of its critical findings, HPD informed the comptroller that it was committing $3 million to repair and rehabilitate West Harlem’s buildings, including a gut rehab of each of the Convent properties. Notice says HPD had earmarked the repair funds before the comptroller’s audits. Construction, however, did not begin until September. “What the city’s doing now is great,” Notice says of the overhaul.

At 26 Convent Avenue, a huge room was recently split into two smaller spaces: one will soon become a privately funded technology center and the other is a reading room. New bright blue paint covers the walls, and books fill shelves around the room. Ruben Rankin, director of maintenance services at Convent, proudly declares that his staff did the work. “That’s love,” he says.

In a first floor apartment where a woman has just moved in with her girl and baby boy, a new shower curtain hangs in the bathroom, and the mattress is still wrapped in plastic. The apartment appears freshly cleaned, and from his white crib the baby watches visitors walk through the room.

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If their former landlords don’t fix their uninhabitable places, the families that end up in these shelters often get stuck, sometimes for years at a time, waiting for permanent housing to open up. HPD can’t move particularly quickly to get people into new apartments, says Sandra James, a social worker at Amboy. She notes that the city’s homeless agency pays landlords thousands of dollars a month to take in its clients, as opposed to the maybe $800 Section 8 brings. “If a landlord knows that, he’s not going to take an HPD, Section 8 client,” she concludes.

Garcia’s family recently found an apartment in East New York, where Section 8 subsidies will pay part of their rent and they will have to cover the rest, using her husband’s earnings from his part-time job at a clothing factory. “We’ve been looking for an apartment for six months,” she says. “Why? Many times, the owners–the landlords–didn’t accept us since there are so many people looking.”

But while Garcia had a happy ending, Amboy’s workers are still left in the lurch. Amboy’s last contract with the city expired in July 2001, and the workers haven’t had a contract with their agency since March 1999. Of the 66 staff employed at the Amboy shelters, 32 are still working under a provisional arrangement between Amboy and the city. At the time of the audit, five of Amboy’s 13 buildings had already been closed for renovations.

HPD has put Amboy’s long-term contract out to bid, and there are no guarantees workers will be able to hold onto their jobs. The city is soliciting bids from organizations with reputations for providing high-quality services to homeless families, including HELP USA. Undeterred, in an October letter to her workers Amboy’s Diana White informed them that her agency intends to respond to HPD’s request for proposals. (Five-year contracts for Convent and Tubman are also up for grabs starting next year.)

Staff say they did not find out about Amboy’s troubles until their union found a City Limits Weekly article reporting the city would not be renewing Amboy’s contract. “We were kept in the dark,” says Russell Thomas, who has been working for Amboy’s maintenance staff for 13 years. Now Thomas says he and his coworkers are waiting to learn of the fate of their jobs: “We’re caught in the middle of the struggle.”