Stringer Deplores Conditions in City Homeless Shelters

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Comptroller Stringer, with Deputy Comptroller for Audit Marjorie Landa on his right, discusses the audit.

Jarrett Murphy

Comptroller Stringer, with Deputy Comptroller for Audit Marjorie Landa on his right, discusses the audit.

Conditions like mold, rodents and fire hazards exist in nearly nine in 10 apartments inspected by the city comptroller in an audit of the program that houses homeless families with children, according to an audit released on Monday.

Inspectors working for Comptroller Scott Stringer reviewed 101 apartments at eight shelters—a small portion of the sprawling system the city employs to keep up with rising numbers of homeless people, but a sample that Stringer said reflected problems with the whole system.

Among those apartments, 87 percent displayed some improper condition and 53 percent had a problem with roaches, rates or other vermin.

In one case, according to the comptroller, a family was assigned an apartment where there’d recently been a fire. “The family had to live with the overwhelming stench of smoke for nearly a month,” he said, adding that the mom had to be hospitalized with breathing problems and the children reported nosebleeds.

Beyond the maintenance problems, the audit found flaws in the mechanisms the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) uses to try to move families out of shelters. A survey of 12 families in the system found that none “consistently complied with the provisions” in the Independent Living Plan that is supposed to get them back on their feet. “So you wonder why people are languishing,” Stringer said.

The report comes just days after the mayor announced a reshuffling of his homelessness policy and staff. While de Blasio’s management of the crisis has been faulted, the fact is the shelter system is now dealing with unprecedented numbers. In fiscal year 2006, the system served an average of 7,933 families and 7,928 adults. As of last Thursday, DHS was housing 2,192 families without children, 12,185 families with children and 12,849 single adults.

Over that time, DHS’s funding has grown—from $749 million to $1.17 billion—but the headcount that is supposed to manage the swelling census and budget has not. In fiscal 2005, DHS claimed a staff of 2,299, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. In fiscal 2016, the budget headcount is 2,316.

“A key part of the problem is DHS is horribly understaffed,” Stringer said. The agency has only 14 program analysts to keep tabs on a system housing nearly 60,000 people. He also called on Mayor de Blasio to appoint a deputy mayor to oversee homeless services, replacing Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who left the administration this summer. “We need to take a sledgehammer to this bureaucracy.”

Stringer says the city now has a “cushion of funds” to pay for staffing and other changes to address the issues he highlighted.

Stringer’s findings echo those of a probe by the Department of Investigation last spring. Asked at a Monday morning press conference if there had been any improvements since then, Stringer said there hadn’t. The audit does note “procedural changes” by DHS that began during the comptroller’s investigation, but adds that it’s unclear whether those moves would address any of the problems in apartment conditions.

Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks, who is leading the mayor’s homeless policy review, tells City Limits in a statement that the de Blasio administration in May created the Shelter Repair Squad, “which has already cleared more than 12,000 violations and will continue until all are cleared.”

“Unhealthy and unsafe conditions in shelters are unacceptable and will not be tolerated,”
Banks said. “As part of the comprehensive operational review just announced by Mayor de Blasio, we will carefully consider the issues raised in the audit and other reviews of the Department’s operations so that we can continue to improve shelter conditions and safety and help more individuals exit shelter as quickly as possible.”

The administration says new staff will be hired in six to eight weeks. And it notes that 22,000 people have exited the shelter system, including 15,000 who used the rental subsidy programs. In fact, according to the administration, seven of the 12 families Stringer’s office interviewed have since moved on.

The audit continues Stringer’s aggressive approach to the investigative side of the comptroller’s role. Since he took office—a period of 718 days—Stringer has been mentioned in the Daily News along with the terms “audit” and “de Blasio” 38 times according to LexisNexis, compared to 25 times for John Liu (with Mayor Bloomberg in 2010 and 2011), 18 times for William Thompson (also with Bloomberg, in 2002 and 2003) and seven for Alan Hevesi (with Mayor Giuliani in 1994 and 1995). Differences over time in how news agencies archive their coverage could explain some of that skew but Stringer, who also has made other efforts to put daylight between him and the mayor, has clearly been prolific.

Meanwhile, the New York Civil Liberties Union announced a lawsuit against the city over police actions against homeless people.