By Caitlin Kasunich
Last July, a 25-year-old victim of domestic abuse packed up her belongings, left her apartment with her two children and arrived at the Auburn Family Shelter in Fort Greene in hopes of starting a new life. She had just lost her job as a result of the abuse and thought that she could quickly get the help that she needed to find adequate work and move her family out of the shelter.
Now, three months later, the woman and her kids, ages 4 and 6, are still living in Auburn, a housing development in the midst of the Walt Whitman Houses at 39 Auburn Place that is run by New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
According to the woman, her family shares a filthy bathroom with other residents in the building. The room that she shares with her children is also mice-infested. She even eats spoiled sandwiches for lunch every now and then since “some people don’t get to eat.”
“I feel like I’m in a jail,” said the woman, who did not wish to give her name for fear of getting into trouble with the shelter. “I’ve never been in a situation like this.”
Beginning about six years ago, officials from the Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership (SNAP) at 324 Myrtle Ave. began to take steps to improve conditions for Auburn residents. As residents started to come into SNAP to do work in the organization’s open-access computer lab, they began to talk about the poor conditions in the shelter, and SNAP officials immediately took notice.
Besides addressing the issues of cleanliness, rodent infestation and low-quality food, Fort Greene SNAP has also dealt with a range of other problems in the shelter over the years, including the lack of housing specialists and local daycare opportunities near the shelter, inefficient heating in the building and several citations of asbestos and lead paint hazards, said Georgianna Glose, executive director of SNAP.
“For families, it was a terrible situation,” said Glose, 63. “So, we began to organize the residents.”
Within the last year, residents have even complained to SNAP officials about a case manager who allegedly reeked of alcohol while he was working, and the shelter has since launched an investigation to find out more, said Glose. To make matters worse, DHS also recently decided to move more residents into the shelter since the building was currently half full, said an official from DHS.
As of Oct. 5, the shelter, which can house up to 180 families, was only housing 79 families, so DHS converted the seventh and eighth floors of the 10-story brick building into beds for singles. According to the official, DHS brought in 24 additional single women between these floors at that time.
Although the DHS official stated that this is not a permanent arrangement, the shelter will not be hiring any additional staff members for the new residents, which means that the existing caseworkers will have more tasks to juggle.
To further research residents’ experiences at the shelter, SNAP officials also began to obtain both city and state inspection reports through the Freedom of Information Law. Reports filed by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) and DHS’s Routine Site Review Inspection (RSRI) indeed confirmed what residents were saying.
OTDA’s most recent inspection that was completed in June and July 2009, for example, cited the shelter for 14 violations, including the facility’s failure to provide at least two housing specialists to “ensure that adequate and appropriate housing services are provided to families.” Additionally, DHS’s most recent inspection that was conducted in December 2009 documented seven lead paint hazards, including chipped paint on dining room walls, as well as peeling paint on kitchen walls.
Neither Deborah Harper, the director of the shelter, nor DHS returned calls to comment on these issues.
Since then, however, the shelter has taken action to correct some of the violations that the reports cited last year, said Craig Hughes, community organizer at SNAP. For example, Hughes said that the city has reportedly reserved about 100 spots in four local daycares for residents to take their children while they go to their appointments.
Additionally, in the most recent Auburn Assessment Recreation Center Corrective Action plan dated on Feb. 16, 2010, the shelter stated that it would correct all patching and painting defects by Feb. 27.
Still, many residents at Auburn maintained that the poor conditions in the shelter are far from being solved. Even children who came to live in the shelter with their parents have noticed the problems that still persist.
“The place is nasty,” said a 9-year-old female. “The most disgusting thing about it is that the rats die on the sixth floor where we live. It always stinks like rats.”
To maintain strong communication between SNAP officials and Auburn residents, SNAP workers also hold weekly outreach sessions in front of the shelter to talk directly with people, said Hughes. Since 2008, Hughes said that SNAP staff members visit the shelter every day or a few times a week for a couple of hours throughout the year.
And to keep people in the community informed about the shelter’s conditions, Hughes also initiated the Auburn Independent Monitoring Committee at SNAP, which involves a longer-term effort with local elected officials, community activists and other people in the neighborhood who provide additional direction. Carmen Hernandez, a resident of Fort Greene for 19 years, became a member of this committee two years ago and participates in the outreach sessions with Hughes each week.
“I wanted to do more,” said Hernandez, 54. “There are a lot of things that we take for granted every day in our homes that people are lacking. The residents are so angry. They’ll tell you what’s happening. The shelter officials are not pleased that we are there at all.”
Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, added that while shelters that are run directly by DHS tend to have much worse conditions than shelters that are operated by non-profit service providers for unknown reasons, the poor conditions in the Auburn Family Shelter ultimately stem from the failure of the city’s homeless policy as a whole.
“The Bloomberg administration tends to view the homeless problem not as it really is,” said Markee, 45. “It’s a housing affordability problem. Rents are high in New York City, and low-income people, even though they’re lucky enough to have jobs in this kind of economy, just don’t earn enough to afford market rents. Instead of viewing homelessness as that problem, they continue to view it as a behavioral modification problem. They keep touting this ridiculous mantra that if people just go and get jobs, then that’s going to end the problem of homelessness.”
On June 23, 2004, Mayor Bloomberg released a press release announcing his citywide campaign to end homelessness. The campaign included expanding community-based homelessness prevention programs, forming strategies to redirect funds that were locked into shelters into prevention and other housing solutions and re-designing the family intake and eligibility review process with an expansion of prevention and housing-related resources for at-risk and homeless families.
Over the past six years, though, the administration has been widely criticized for some of the programs that it implemented to solve the homeless problem, including one that paid for over 550 families to leave the city as a way of keeping them out of the pricey shelter system, according to a report by the New York Times.
As of Oct. 1, 2010, there were 35,241 total homeless individuals in New York City, including 7,974 families with children, according to the most recent data on DHS’s website. While the lives of some New Yorkers may be beginning to look up due to the weakening recession, the 25-year-old Auburn resident is not feeling too optimistic about her current situation.
“I don’t think much is going to happen,” she said. “Right now, I’m trying to roll with the punches, but nobody is really helping.”