A long-awaited forum on Wednesday about a controversial 400-person homeless shelter on 95th street got very heated, with Borough President Scott Stringer and other politicians saying that the city Department of Homeless Services had lied to them and had used misleading tactics to keep a massive contract from getting a full review.
DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond made it clear that the department is moving forward with plans to make a shelter that was first billed as a “temporary” space into a permanent fixture.
“The shelter is here to stay,” said Diamond near the start of the meeting.
In fact, the department is seeking to give the shelter operators a $47 million contract to operate the shelter for the next five years, after first installing it without community review in August on a six-month contract.
Dozens of community members and politicians stood up to say that the city had ignored their complaints in order to give a sweetheart contract to a politically connected insider and a landlord with a spotted history. Robert Hess, a former homeless commissioner who is now the CEO of the corporation running the shelters, didn’t show up to the meeting despite expectations that he would: “He had another commitment,” Diamond told us after the meeting.
The facts are stark for shelter opponents: the shelter could get final approval for the five-year deal as soon as next week. The DHS held a “hearing” on the contract in December that local officials said they never knew about, although Diamond said the department had sent Stringer’s staff an email about it. Gale Brewer’s staff said they had no idea about the meeting.
At this point, the one person who may have the power to stop the shelter from getting the contract is Comptroller John Liu, who is asked to approve these types of contracts.
“The fact that you can come here and tell these folks that we were meeting like one big happy family is one big non-truth,” Stringer said to the people at DHS and Aguila/Housing Solutions USA, the merged company that manages the shelter. Stringer was visibly angry and said he would call Liu in the morning. “This community and the elected officials are getting played.”
Gale Brewer likewise called the process “highly misleading.”
“You’re rewarding a scum landlord by paying him thousands of dollars,” said state Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.
“I think we have lived up to our word when we went in that we would work with you, that we would be responsive to you, that that we would address issues that arose, that we would participate in community meetings, not just this but other community forums, that we would try to address any issues and provide quality services to the people who live in 95th Street and to the neighbors around the building. I think we have done that” Diamond said.
In fact, DHS hasn’t attended a single public hearing or meeting on the shelter that we have heard about. The lack of a meeting with community members allowed all sorts of confusion and possible misinformation to spread — residents have expressed concern that pedophiles reside at the shelter, for instance.
Most of the 200 or so people who showed up at the meeting were outraged at that assertion. It was probably the nastiest, most contentious meeting in the neighborhood in many years, with all sorts of interruptions and name-calling. At one point, Diamond threatened to walkout because people were shouting while he was talking.
Many expressed fear about the shelter: “I don’t come home late at night anymore,” said one woman.
“My whole neighborhood has felt so unsafe,” said another, who said she has seen an increase in car windows getting smashed among other incidences. “It’s worse than it was when I moved in in the 80’s.”
Others said the Upper West Side has clearly taken on more than its “fair share” of homeless shelters; Aaron Biller of Neighborhood in the Nineties says the area has 21% of Manhattan’s social service population. Some expressed concern about the lack of transparency behind the contracting process.
“It’s $47 million of public money,” said Community Board chairman Mark Diller. “The community needs to have some input.”
Some of the homeless residents of the shelter also stood up to speak, with a few criticizing the community for not being more embracing and a few criticizing the DHS.
“It’s very obnoxious to hear all of this” talk about people being afraid of crime around the shelter and demonizing residents, said one homeless woman. “Crime was here, drugs were here. It’s not the homeless people you all fear for.”
“They want us there because of the money,” said Angel Rivera (at left), who said he and his wife have been in the shelter system for more than two years. “Why can’t the mayor build houses with that kind of taxpayer money?”
Although DHS has said they have been transparent, we have had considerable trouble getting even basic information from the department. We attempted multiple times to get the DHS communications office to respond to questions about the shelter, but have never gotten a response. The shelter operators themselves have forwarded questions to DHS. Other reporters have been denied access after the department learned they had interviewed shelter residents unaccompanied. Community members say they’ve been similarly shut out.
We’ll have more coverage of this issue in the coming days (as well as video of some of the biggest confrontations at the meeting). Please let us know what you think in the comments.