Clean mattresses, sheets and pillows. Towels, soap and toilet paper. These are among the shelter requirements New York State has agreed to waive in instances where no alternative is available—specifically for adults in NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters—according to a letter obtained by City Limits.
Clean mattresses, sheets and pillows. Towels, soap and toilet paper. Safe storage for preventative medications. Transportation between shelters and intake sites. Access to a telephone.
These are among the shelter requirements New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) has agreed to waive for single adults and adult families in NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters, according to a letter obtained by City Limits.
The waivers may only be used when there are no compliant shelter beds available, OTDA said, adding that DHS currently has “sufficient space” to preclude their use, despite a large number of recently-arrived immigrants staying across the city’s shelter systems.
“Waivers… are approved to the extent that existing shelter space becomes insufficient to shelter new arrivals, and should be invoked only when necessary and for so long as an emergency need for additional space continues to exist,” the letter states.
An OTDA spokesperson subsequently clarified that a waiver could be invoked for any adult DHS shelter needing extra capacity, and would not necessarily impact the migrant population exclusively.*
The letter, dated Wednesday, is signed by Cheryl A. Contento, deputy commissioner of the Division of Shelter Oversight and Compliance at OTDA, and responds to an Aug. 9 request from Mayor Eric Adams’ administration—part of ongoing negotiations over a longstanding right to access shelter in the city.
The Adams administration had sought to waive numerous OTDA shelter regulations, to allow for “greater flexibility to accommodate new arrivals.” More than 100,000 migrants have arrived in the city since last spring, 59,300 of whom remain in shelters run by various city agencies, including DHS.
According to OTDA, any time DHS invokes a waiver, it must send a report to the state within 48 hours, identifying the specific regulations waived, and where. OTDA would then have the authority to “limit” the waiver periods. OTDA does not have control over emergency shelters run by other city agencies, according to the letter.
Joshua Goldfein of the Legal Aid Society, who is currently representing the Coalition for the Homeless in negotiations over the city’s unique right to shelter, described the waivers as “appropriately cautious.”
“Our primary concern is to ensure the health and safety of our clients,” he said. “We appreciate that the state is taking an appropriately cautious and limited approach to the city’s requests, and we will continue to monitor to see how the city implements these measures.”
But Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, said the waiver list is concerning, even if OTDA says current shelter vacancy rates preclude their use. Her organization represents 50 nonprofits that contract with the city.
Trapani predicted that the lack of storage for preventative medicine could lead to an emergency, while clean bedding and toiletries are basic necessities.
“I think that the residents of shelter, regardless of what shelter system they are in, deserve to have a minimum standard of care,” she said. “And so when we’re talking about the right to have clean sheets, that really shouldn’t be something we should be looking to negotiate away.”
Additional emergency waivers preclude the need for storage lockers, three feet of space between beds and a 30-bed cap per sleeping area—standards already lacking at certain non-DHS facilities.
The Adams administration also sought certain waivers that OTDA declined to grant, Wednesday’s letter shows.
One requires shelters to transfer a resident with a “generalized systemic communicable disease, or a readily communicable local infection” who cannot be quarantined on site. A spokesperson for Gov. Kathy Hochul deferred to OTDA on all waiver-related questions. OTDA’s letter does not include reasoning for declining this request.
“We lived through COVID,” Trapani said. “We know why this matters.”
Though not enumerated in the letter, a spokesperson for OTDA also confirmed that the state has declined a request to issue 60-day notices limiting shelter stays for adult migrants without children in DHS facilities. The city cannot impose time limits on DHS shelter stays, OTDA found.
In her Wednesday letter, Contento said she is awaiting clarity on further waiver requests regarding staffing levels at DHS shelters serving adults, following an Aug. 15 conference call with New York City Department of Social Services staff.
The city has sought relief from a “sufficient staffing” requirement, as well as a rule that one staff member per shift have completed basic first aid training.
“As to the shelter staffing requirements… you agreed during our teleconference to clarify the city’s waiver request and propose staffing ratios that are workable but would not unreasonably impact the safety and security of shelter residents and staff,” Contento wrote.
In a statement to City Limits, City Hall said it is reviewing OTDA’s letter, and reiterated the large number of asylum seekers currently in the city’s care.
“New York City’s shelter system has more than doubled since the spring of 2022,” a City Hall spokesperson wrote. “The city requested specific waivers from the state to identify potential ways to maximize existing shelter capacity and avoid having people sleeping on the street.”
“The state responded to the waiver requests this afternoon,” the spokesperson continued. “We are reviewing the state’s response and look forward to continuing to work with them on maximizing capacity.”
At a separate press briefing Wednesday, city officials said they are continuing to seek more funding and resources from both the state and federal governments, positioning the crisis as beyond the scope of what can be handled locally.
“Who should be running this immigration issue right now—should it be the homelessness system in New York City? I don’t think that makes sense,” Deputy Commissioner for Health and Human Services Anne-Williams Isom told reporters.
*Editor’s note: This story has been updated since original publication to reflect additional clarification from OTDA on the waivers, which can be invoked for any DHS adult shelter with qualifying capacity needs, not only those that exclusively house migrants.