Suit Over Homeless Shelters in East New York

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East New York, which occupies community board 5, doesn't lead the borough in shelters, but claims those facilities add to an existing burden of three-quarter houses and other social services.

Photo by: NYC comptroller

East New York, which occupies community board 5, doesn't lead the borough in shelters, but claims those facilities add to an existing burden of three-quarter houses and other social services.

A group of East New York residents planning to sue the Department of Homeless Services claims the agency has violated the “fair share” clause of the city charter, which requires that homeless shelters and other city facilities be distributed fairly throughout the boroughs.

The East New York Coalition says the proliferation of shelters in their district degrades quality of life, creates security problems and lengthens the area’s emergency-response times.

It’s true that the city’s shelters are distributed unevenly throughout the city, with most in low-income, high-unemployment neighborhoods of the Bronx and Brooklyn, a May report by the city comptroller’s office found.

East New York had nine shelters in 2011, but six of Brooklyn’s 18 community districts had even more: Bedford-Stuyvesant had 25 shelters and Brownsville had 19, the report said.

“We’re not making the argument that East New York is the only community that’s saturated with shelters. We’re just saying that if you look across the entire city, communities like ours are being oversaturated,” says Christopher Banks, a leader of the coalition and a candidate for City Council.

The coalition also argues that the total number of residential facilities for the homeless in their district, including three-quarter houses and apartments rented by DHS without city-approved contracts, would well exceed nine.

Not the first fight

With approximately 20 members, the Coalition includes East New York Nehemiah homeowners and participants in local block associations. In addition to addressing the oversaturation of shelters in the district, they hope to advocate for permanent housing for the homeless and to ensure shelters are offering the services they are contracted to provide.

The East New York Coalition is not the first group to challenge DHS for allegedly violating the fair share clause. In a battle currently embroiling Mayor Bloomberg and Comptroller Liu, Upper West Side residents are suing the city, arguing their neighborhood is oversaturated with shelters.

In 2011, residents of Ocean Hill in Brooklyn sued using the fair share clause and the courts required the city to produce documents showing it had considered alternative shelter sites. The case was dropped after the Ocean Hill residents ran out of funds, says the coalition’s Eleanor Pinckney, but East New York residents hope to work with the Ocean Hill residents to win their case.

DHS, which did not respond to City Limits’ requests for comment. The agency often says it tries to place the homeless in their borough of origin so as to minimize their clients’ displacement from their own communities, according to the comptroller’s report. A DHS spokesperson told the Daily News in 2011 that “While there may be a significant number of shelters in Jamaica…Jamaica’s facilities are proportionate to the number of clients served from the area.”

On its website, however, the agency says it plays no role in choosing the site of shelters: “We do not target any specific area or neighborhood when we are looking to bring more units on-line. Instead we simply explore the sites that have been made available to us by our nonprofit social services providers.”

Stewart Wurtzel, an attorney who has represented several clients in fair-share cases, believes high-poverty communities have cheap spaces that are “financially enticing” to social-service providers.

Fair-share loopholes

Critics say the fair-share clause, added to the city charter over 20 years ago to prevent low-income communities from disproportionately bearing the burden of waste transfer sites, homeless shelters and other city facilities, has lost some of its effectiveness as agencies have altered their ways of doing business.

According to the city charter, when agencies propose to open a city facility and go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), they must produce a fair-share analysis that considers the distribution of facilities. ULURP requires the community board and city planning commission to host public hearings, and the borough president and city council may also hold hearings. This process gives opportunities for the public and elected officials to weigh in on the facility siting.

In addition, proposals for city facilities must be documented in the city’s annual Statement of Needs, a report that creates more opportunities for public hearings and community-board input.

In recent years, DHS has contracted its shelter services to outside agencies, and not included those out-sourced shelters in the ULURP or the Statement of Needs. (The comptroller’s report notes that it is “not clear which contracted facilities are subject to ULURP and should be listed in the Statement.”)

When facilities don’t go through ULURP, DHS can use a simpler procedure: the social service provider must notify the local Community Board of its intent to build a shelter, and DHS must release a statement showing consideration of shelter distribution and community feedback.

“The process has been reduced to mere disclosure and, oftentimes, the fair-share statements that describe why a facility is located in a particular neighborhood in many cases are not even available to the public at the time that the decision is being made about siting,” says Michael Freedman-Schnapp, a spokesperson for Councilman Brad Lander, adding that DHS’s fair-share statements do not give real attention to alternative sites.

“The result is a pattern of facilities that every neighborhood considers locally undesirable to be heavily concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods,” he says.

According to the comptroller’s report, DHS has also acquired shelters through two other methods that have allowed the agency to completely bypass fair share considerations. According to city law, if an agency declares a state of emergency and the Comptroller’s office approves of the declaration, the agency no longer needs to notify the community or prepare a fair share statement during a specified time period. Following rapid increases in homelessness, such as after the recession and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, DHS declared a state of emergency and received approval by the Comptroller’s office.

Second, DHS has rented apartments to shelter homeless people without going through the contracting procedure mandated by the city charter, a practice ruled illegal by the Bronx county State Supreme Court on May 31.

Push to block facilities

The East New York Coalition grew out of protests against the opening of a Samaritan Villages shelter at 645 Van Siclen Avenue, adjacent to St. Martin’s day care, in the spring of 2011.

The protestors expressed their concerns to DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond at a meeting hosted by Councilman Charles Barron and also gave the commissioner a tour of the facility’s grounds. DHS said they had heard the neighborhood’s concerns but had conducted their own fair-share analysis and were proceeding with plans to open the shelter, said coalition leader Banks.

Banks added that for as long as he’s served on the community board, the board never received fair-share statements for any shelters, as required by city law.

Barron says he is introducing a bill that will require DHS to get the approval of the community board and City Council before opening a homeless shelter.

“The two expanding places for us to live are shelters and prisons. That’s the new housing for us. And we’ve got to say no, that’s unacceptable,” says Barron. “Let’s get them out of the shelters and into affordable housing.”

Shelter residents speak

On a rainy Monday evening, five women took a breath of fresh air outside the entrance of the Van Siclen shelter. A hurricane victim from Staten Island held an umbrella above her wheelchair; the others, from Brooklyn and Queens, gathered under the shelter’s marquee.

If you want to know what it’s like to live here, watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest, joked Hilda Tejada of Corona. But she then added that the facility was decent enough: they had air conditioning, three meals a day, security, and clean linen.

For Tejada, the issue was not where the city should place its shelters, but what the city was doing to get the homeless back on their feet.

“The city could do much, much better. You know how many abandoned apartments are in Brooklyn?” she said. “Why doesn’t the city take those apartments and turn those into low-income [housing] for us?”

Several of the women knew their neighbors were unhappy with the abundance of shelters in the area.

“It’s a nice neighborhood,” Tejada said, pointing at the two-story homes across the street. “I know that they don’t like [a shelter] in front of the house.”