“THE SHELTER IS HERE TO STAY” VOWS HOMELESS COMMISSIONER; LOCALS POLS GIRD FOR BIG FIGHT

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.

Diamond (pictured at left) said that the DHS had done lots of community outreach.

“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.”

But another shelter resident said the city was spending taxpayer money irresponsibly and doing little to get the homeless out of the system.

“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.

NEWS | 15 comments | permalink
    1. Drew says:

      I was at the meeting and it was a compete outrage!

      Diamond was flat smug and gave the whole room including Scott Stringer and the local Pols a big F U.

      This whole situation seems to wreek of a croneism, curruption and a serious lawsuit.

      The last hope is that John Lui has a brain, realizes what has happened here and listens to Scott Stringer

    2. Robert Josman says:

      As the Republican District Leader for this area and a concerned neighborhood resident for 47
      years, I attended this meeting.
      I spoke briefly about my concerns for our neighborhood as a whole on this important issue. Just one thing you may want to double check. In your article you mention a figure of “It’s $476 million of public money,” based on the documentation given out at the meeting by our elected’s, I believe the number should be $46,813,663, or approximately 47 million, for the five year contract.
      Its still an unreal amount of money, money that could be better spent being transferred to an account that would allow the city to build permanent affordable housing.
      If I knew you were going to use my picture, that’s me in the white shirt at the top of your article,
      I would have worn a suit. Ha Ha

    3. Luma says:

      This is horrible joke that has been played on this hard-working and over-burdened community. How dare our elected representatives allow this to happen, they need to fix this. This is outright corruption that goes all the way to the top. If Liu signs off, he is complicit.

    4. Silvio says:

      Hess, Diamond et al are a bunch of crooks, greedy and dishonest crooks. They are pocketing public money without any concern for the homeless or the community. Stringer, Brewer, Rosenthal, Liu, should hit them with all they have.

      • Luma says:

        If the city won’t do the right thing, time to go to the state of federal level and have the whole crew (Diamond, Hess, Aguila, and Liu)investigated. And that Illegal Hotels Law is the root of all of this mess, it needs to be amended NOW.

    5. Mary says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful & informative coverage on this. I only heard about it recently and went online to do some research. I found an article from the AP that referred to those who live on the upper west side (such as myself and all of you) as nothing but a bunch of rich snobs who look down on those less fortunate. I wasn’t aware I was rich and I thank the source for letting me know (especially since my bank account doesn’t indicate such a thing). My experiences in the neighborhood have no shown that – I see hard working individuals and families doing what they can to make the area a better place to live.

      I fully understand the concerns of nearby residents; no, not all homeless are pedophiles and thieves, but the sheer number of transient residents in such a concentrated area alone is worthy of review.

      Thank you again for bringing coverage to this very important neighborhood issue.

    6. Mary says:

      Could you put together a list of relevant e-mails and phone numbers that concerned citizens could call? Or are we passed that point?

    7. M. Foster says:

      Thank you for covering this important issue. But where are your other media brethren? How is it possible that our elected officials can get so steamrolled? Corruption is alive and well.

    8. mr liberal says:

      cant we all just get along…these people in the shelters are human beings,,,get to know them …invite them to your homes …let their children play with your children

    9. Doing business in the dark is dirty business, no matter the issue.

    10. Ken says:

      A cautionary tale – I live on the UWS and work on West 25th Street. A year ago a ‘non profit’ organization purchased an large building on the W25 St block and converted it into a homeless shelter over the organized protests of many the businesses and residents in the neighborhood. Despite City and shelter owner assurances that the shelter would have no impact on the neighborhood, the sidewalks are now populated with shelter residents day and night who just hang out. There is hardly a day that goes by without the presence of both police and ambulances in front of the shelter property – and it has become downright scary to walk down the block – day or night. In the last year, two street level retail businesses have closed citing the presence of the shelter residents on the sidewalk a reason for leaving. These homeless shelter efforts, while socially necessary must be tightly regulated if they are to exist in residential and business districts. So far – not seeing that happen. Apparently there is too much money to be made.

    11. jan says:

      As a former member of CB7, I well remember the surge of social service facilities that swamped the UWS. Fair is fair – while the housing being built in CB7 is high-end luxury, certain areas are overly burdened with poorly run facilities that are basically unfit for human habitation. Mothers and children should not be housed in one room with no kitchen . It is no wonder that criminal elements prey on the residents of these terrible places while the well-connected get rich at their expense. DHS should be ashamed and should realize what harm they are doing to those with no other housing choice.

    12. Richard Sachs says:

      Facts would help: How many homeless people iss the shelter intended to house? For how long? What alternative sites has the DHS studied? What is the total number of shelters operating on the UWS?

      • West Sider says:

        The first sentence says it’s a 400-person shelter. DHS has not responded to our questions, but there is no indication that they studied other sites for this shelter. The contract they are seeking is for five years, with an option for an additional 4. Please read all of our voluminous coverage: https://www.westsiderag.com/tag/homeless-shelters