Henry Butler talks like a man who’s at the end of his rope: Neighborhoods like his in central Brooklyn, which historically have struggled with poverty, are oversaturated with homeless shelters while more affluent parts of the city are spared the burden.
“That’s it for me,” said Butler, chairman of Community Board 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which claims to have one of the highest concentrations of homeless shelters in the city and where 45 percent of residents are on some kind of public assistance.
“The [facilities] that are there existing, fine. But as far as new ones, I’m not approving any,” said Butler. His problem, however, is that he can’t stop the city from opening more shelters; the most Butler can do is speak out against them.
The lasting effects of the recession and record numbers of homeless people in New York City have heightened tension between the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and neighborhoods that feel overburdened by shelters and excluded from conversations about development in their own communities.
When residents call Butler to complain that homeless men just moved in across the street, all he can do is listen: typically he doesn’t know any more about DHS’s plans than his neighbors do.
The large, long-established shelters that sleep hundreds of homeless adults are a separate matter. Butler’s problem is with the smaller transitional houses—facilities that can spring up overnight when the need for shelter outpaces DHS’s supply.
DHS insists those rapid-response shelters—“per diem” arrangements designed to quickly house a family or individuals in need—are essential to its mission: When a family of four shows up at 3 a.m. asking for a place to stay, there isn’t time to notify the public.
“This is one of the hottest topics for the community,” said Butler. “The community of Bedford-Stuyvesant makes no apologies because we’ve done and are doing our fair share when it comes to assisting those who need help.”
“We don’t want to become a community of transitional housing,” he said. “Every program does not have to be in Bedford-Stuyvesant or Crown Heights.”
The financial downturn, which dashed so many people’s livelihoods, forced thousands from their homes and into city shelters in recent years.
Between 2009 and 2010, there was a 17 percent increase in the number of families with children seeking shelter, according to Seth Diamond, commissioner of DHS.
On one night in December, 8,523 families with children stayed in a variety of DHS facilities, including transitional houses run by contracted businesses and non-profits, as well as those that operate under the per diem arrangement, in which the city pays landlords for the temporary use of apartments and hotel rooms.
“I don’t think any of us could have predicted the severity of the economic recession that first gripped the nation, including New York City, in fiscal years 2009 and 2010,” Diamond said at a City Council hearing last year, according to a transcript.
Separate from DHS’s stock of transitional houses are independent facilities—gutted one- and two-family residences known as “three-quarter houses” that can sleep up to 40 adults and often violate city health and building codes. Increasing numbers of three-quarter houses exacerbate the tension between the public and DHS.
From the outside DHS facilities and three-quarter houses can be indistinguishable from one another, a fact that one City Council aid blamed for most of the local pushback against DHS.
The majority of three-quarter houses are located in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant—historically low-income and predominately black and Latino, according to a 2008 report by Coalition for the Homeless.
That report charged the Bloomberg administration with “fueling” the market for three-quarter houses by ignoring documented health and safety hazards in shelters the city worked with until at least 2008. Diamond said DHS now inspects all facilities where its clients are housed.
On Putnam Avenue, Sumpter Street, and Marcy Place in Brooklyn in 2008, Coalition for the Homeless found three-quarter houses where the floors had collapsed, the walls were crumbling, and where there wasn’t any heat.
“We have our share of illegal operations,” said Butler. “We get calls constantly. Somebody’s got a bunch of homeless men living up here, and they’re out there fussing and cursing and fighting and drinking and drugs, and I can’t go to my backyard.”
Edna Johnson, head of Bed-Stuy’s health and social services committee, said landlords “get the rent, they throw [the homeless] in there and then they spill out into the community and they cause a lot of problems.”
“People are scared for their property. People are scared for their children. People are afraid for themselves,” Johnson said.
“This is a constant battle day in and day out,” said Butler. “So even when a [legitimate] program comes along, there’s apprehension about it because people are like, ‘Oh god, another one.’”
Transitional housing—be it a contracted facility, per diem shelter, or three-quarter house—is a weight around Bed-Stuy’s neck, according to Butler.
“You have people who are homeowners; we want our property values to go up just like any other community,” he said. “And my property value can’t go up if I’ve got a bunch of transitional housing on my block.”
“What [leaders] are referring to are quality of life issues,” said Michael Corley, of Corley Realty Group in Brooklyn.
He said transitional housing doesn’t necessarily “sway [property] valuation.”
DHS tries to house families near their home community. In April 2010, the agency reported placing 88 percent of families in the same borough as the youngest child’s school.
Nina Kaminsky, a director at Housing Plus Solutions, a not-for-profit that operates supportive housing facilities in Brooklyn, said transitional housing tends to take root in lower-income neighborhoods where the rent’s cheaper.
Almost 39 percent of DHS’s transitional houses were located in the Bronx in 2010, according to the agency. Nearly 30 percent were in Brooklyn; about 21 percent were in Manhattan; 15 percent were in Queens, and less than one percent was on Staten Island.
Most of the facilities go through a review process before opening, which includes notifying affected communities and evaluating shelter saturation in the area.
Roughly 1,600 shelters, though—about a quarter of the City’s inventory of family housing in 2010—operated under the per diem arrangement, which doesn’t require a contract, public notification, or consideration of the number of shelters already in the neighborhood.
A City Council report states, “The lack of a contract raises questions about how DHS controls payments to providers, and therefore whether such arrangements are fiscally sound…”
An audit released in November found that DHS made “significant improper and questionable expenditures” totaling $913,949 to an agency, Aguila Incorporated, for per diem shelters it operates. The audit’s accusations are two-fold: DHS failed to inspect the company’s monthly invoices, and it failed to ensure clients were housed in safe and sanitary conditions.
DHS “generally disagreed” with the audit’s findings, but Diamond said last year that his agency is moving the bulk of per diem facilities into contracts.
“There are times,” however, “when, for largely emergency reasons, we do have to open sites without going through the formal [contracting] process,” said Diamond. “We have to be somewhat nimble in being able to move when we have unanticipated demands.”
Diamond added that notifying communities before a contract proposal is submitted, “may [give] an incomplete or inaccurate picture to the public.”
Last year the City Council’s Committee on General Welfare took up a bill requiring DHS to notify communities before it opens shelters—including those that spring up under the per diem arrangement. The legislation died amid opposition from DHS.
The bill’s sponsors adjusted their approach and returned this year with legislation requiring DHS to catalogue the locations of its various facilities. DHS and some City Council aids note concerns about the safety and confidentiality of the homeless who reside in them.
“Notification, be it an emergency or not, is a basic process issue,” Councilman Al Vann said last year. “Every city agency has the obligation to be transparent. And I want it to be known that I do not accept a declaration of emergency as a way to get around [the] process.”
“Whatever the circumstances, what’s the problem with notifying?” he asked Diamond. “Even when we, community boards are notified, they don’t have the power to make it not happen, but at least they can plan, they can arrange, they can do something.”
In written testimony submitted last year, Theresa Scavo, a local leader in southern Brooklyn, stated, “The Community at large is best known by those who reside there. The locations of specific places unsuitable for homeless housing must be identified by the Community Board. The Community Board could then work with Homeless Services to find a better fit for the needed housing.”
Diamond maintained throughout the hearing that his agency has a “good” process for notifying the public before shelters open: “The proof is not really so much the process before,” he said, “although again I think we do have to have a transparent process. But the real proof of whether we’re making good siting decisions comes after, when we open the facilities.”
Councilman James Vacca accused DHS of wanting “to do what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, and where it wants to do it.”
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