NEW PLAYERS IN SHELTER BATTLE, BUT FIGHT CONTINUES

shelter courtyard
Photo by Gayton Gomez of garbage piled up in the courtyard behind her building last month.

Gayton Gomez, who lives next door to the homeless shelter on West 95th street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, has been watching the courtyard under her window fill with trash virtually every night since the shelter opened, she says.

She’s called the security desk at the shelter and 311 several times, and says they almost never do anything. We checked in about a week and half ago with Aguila and the Department of Homeless Services, asking them if they were doing anything about the garbage. And a couple of days later, Gomez said she saw workers in the courtyard cleaning. In fact, they’ve been back just about every weekday since.

It’s one sign that the city and Aguila Inc., which runs the shelter, may be paying more attention to the complaints of neighbors.

And yet, the larger question about the shelter — whether it will remain open in the long term — remains unresolved. The city apparently isn’t budging on its intention to keep the shelter open in the longer term, despite the protests of neighbors and elected officials. After opening as an “emergency” shelter in the summer of 2012, the shelter continues to operate without a certified contract. Council member Helen Rosenthal says her goal is to shut the shelter down.

The city pays Aguila more than $3,600 per bathroom-less kitchen-less unit, and Aguila splits that money with the landlord. The building owner, as revealed by New York magazine, is a company run by two brothers who have 37 felonies and a long history of troubling violations in their buildings.

Some neighbors say the shelter is a nuisance, while others say they haven’t seen much of a change. Gomez, whose window looks out on the shelter, says she’s constantly woken up in the night by yelling and the sound of objects hitting the ground: “For what it’s worth, I was woken up twice this week in the wee hours by stuff being thrown out the windows into the courtyard. Once it was certainly glass. Once it was a thunk like something plastic and fairly substantial hitting the ground from a high floor.”

While the Department of Homeless Services argued that Upper West Side residents who opposed the shelters were simply being NIMBYs, one top DHS official privately told council member Rosenthal that opening the 95th street shelter was her biggest regret, Rosenthal said.

(Legal action surrounding the shelter remains unresolved. Here’s the background: the comptroller’s office rejected the Bloomberg administration’s contract, which would have given Aguila $47 million over five years. Then Bloomberg sued to overturn the rejection. Local advocacy group Neighborhood in the Nineties has also sued the city to overturn the contract. The status of that suit remains in limbo — DHS won’t comment and there haven’t been any court hearings since de Blasio took office. We posted a copy of the lawsuit here.)

Neighborhood in the Nineties sent out a newsletter about a recent meeting the group had with DHS, Aguila and elected officials. Here’s an excerpt:

“City Council Member Helen Rosenthal attended the meeting with representatives of the Department of Homeless Services and shelter operator Housing Solutions/Aguila, as did representatives of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Adriano Espaillat and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.

Rosenthal challenged representatives of the City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) for pleading ignorance or giving defensive and dismissive answers when confronted with such shelter-related problems as:

  • Drug dealing by shelter residents that has fanned out to surrounding blocks
  • Aggressive panhandling rise in Riverside Park, Broadway and West End
  • Residents acting out – a TV set hurled out the window just missed a dog walker
  • Fighting in the building that disturbs SRO tenants and neighboring buildings
  • Crime reports including a stabbing last fall on West 94th Street
  • Garbage hurled out windows, which is then left to feed rats and mice
  • Residents sleeping in Riverside Park and Joan of Arc island overnight

DHS officials insisted that the shelter would remain open. They claimed that they have taken responsibility for the building, yet when presented with numerous complaints of quality of life problems since the shelter opened, they repeatedly insisted that they could not do anything about drug dealing, sleeping in the park, or public disorderly behavior. They urged neighbors to call 911 or 311, while claiming that there were few complaints.

They acted flustered when N90s produced a letter documenting complaints about noise, fighting and garbage hurling were not only posted with the City, which issued a complaint number, but the shelter itself was called many times and was unresponsive.

N90s reminded DHS that similar complaints were made at the one public meeting held on January 30, 2013, so it was difficult to believe that they or Aguila could feign ignorance or claim that it had acted responsibly.

Shelter officials said that 106 of the original, permanent residents remain in the building, almost the same as when the shelter opened in August 2012 except for one resident who died. Since October, they said, 44 couples have moved to other housing arrangements, some permanent. The average stay is 352 days.

They said they’d get back to us with information on how many people had found employment while living in the shelter, referred to HRA employment services, and how many clients are currently employed.

Shelter officials balked when the delegation requested information on the percentage or total number of residents who are mentally ill.”

We sent the full newsletter to DHS and Aguila but did not hear back from either. Rosenthal sounded underwhelmed by DHS’ response when we asked about the meeting:

“DHS has a lot of work to do to restore the faith of the community. After one and a half years, I had hoped that DHS could move from an “emergency” contract which throws money at the problem of homelessness to a well-thought out plan to move people into permanent affordable housing. This meeting was a first step towards DHS and Freedom House taking responsibility for their residents.”

It’s fair to say there’s some good news in the account: in particular that the number of SRO tenants remains about the same as when the shelter opened in 2012. We’d have to do more investigating to figure out if 352 days is a long stay for a shelter resident, as compared to other shelters. Otherwise, though, it sounds like DHS has quite a bit more explaining to do.

One piece of hopeful news: the state budget included money for housing assistance, which could help homeless people get apartments — and probably for much less than the $3,600 taxpayers are paying now.

NEWS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. KG says:

      Either the DHS is completely incompetent, or getting a piece of the action along with the shady shelter operator here. What a sad waste of taxpayer dollars and nuisance for responsible taxpaying residents like Gayton and others in the neighborhood. Most of these shelter residents should get decent affordable housing and access to mental health care if needed so that they can get back on their feet, but not like this.

      • webot says:

        Lets address the obvious from that photo. Wow.

        What kind of people would literally use their window to throw out garbage? And we are supposed to feel sympathy for them?
        What is needed is adult behavior, personal accountability with consequences (like getting tossed out).
        How about some respect for your neighbors or yourself.

        My lord!

        • G Gomez says:

          This is something I don’t understand. If I threw garbage out my window (or regularly disrupted my neighbors with fighting, loud music, etc.), I’m sure I’d be evicted. So why are there no consequences for the residents of the shelter? If they’re going to plunk a 400 bed shelter in the middle of a neighborhood, why isn’t there a “live by some reasonable rules or you’ll leave” rule?

      • KG says:

        Don’t disagree webot, this lawless behavior by shelter residents in this instance is unacceptable. I’d be curious to know if this is generally the case with most homeless shelters in the city or just this one. And how much of a contributing factor is the poor management of the shelter operator/landlord in this case despite charging the city $3600 per unit.

    2. Chris says:

      I recognize people have different views on all of this, but it does seem obvious that the shelter has really hurt the neighborhood, the residents themselves would probably be better suited elsewhere, in more appropriate housing with access to better services, and the politicians are, not surprisingly, of limited help.

      Glad I don’t live near it. I walk through the West 90s almost daily and I would never, ever live between 86th and 96th near Broadway given how it has deteriorated over the last 5-7 years, in my opinion.

      • PRL says:

        Chris, it’s gotten ridiculously bad. I moved here in 1995 and the neighborhood had been on a pretty consistent upswing until a few years ago. Now it’s probably the only area in the city that has gone backwards. Store owners are suffering and people feel unsafe. I think most developers have turned away from investing here, and although that would undoubtedly make some people happy, in my opinion it’s indicative of the neighborhood’s undesirability. Our politicians have murdered us and are continuing do so.

        • KG says:

          Even if new investment didn’t happen, it will depress property prices for existing homes in the neighborhood (if it hasn’t already) and hurt small business owners as you suggest, if badly run programs like this are allowed to continue unchecked. You would think this would be a better use of the public advocate’s time than fighting for gym memberships.

        • mg says:

          I think the demographics in the 90s and low 100s are very different from those below 86th Street and then again, the lower Columbia area. I suspect average income is a lot less and standard deviation would also be much smaller. Therefore this area cannot wield power in the same way. Of course demographics shouldn’t play a part but….

          Does anyone know how to find these statistics – or, does anyone have them?

    3. Pedestrian says:

      The operators of these shelters get as much per aroom as rent would be on a full apartment. It is time for the City to say keep you facilities clean or the contract is over. If Mr. deBlassio is serious about improving the lot of the poor he will insist on competent operators that keep their building clean and safe.

    4. G Gomez says:

      Thanks to the pressure applied by Neighborhood in the 90s and the West Side Rag recently, the shelter has swept the courtyard almost every workday for the last week. (And it needs it — garbage gets thrown out the windows every day.)

      The garbage stuck on the wall, wires, windowsills, etc. remains and increases, which gives the courtyard a festive air. And of course, I still hear the crashes of garbage hitting the ground throughout the night. Still, some progress is certainly better than nothing. I’m hoping the cleaner courtyard will make some dent in the mouse problems that have plagued my building. I’ve already seen a difference in the pigeon population.

      Thanks N in the 90s and Westside Rag for your work keeping the pressure on Aguila, DHS, and our elected representatives! Unfortunately, if this shelter stays, I suspect we’ll never be able to let up on the pressure to keep them living up to their responsibilities.

    5. George says:

      Well well well. Seems the residents and political hanger’s on that want nothing more than to be re-elected want to have their cake and eat it too. Mayor de Blasio needs to get involved here and make certain this human shelter stays open and vibrant – and open more on the UWS, as well as all over the city. Are we (the caring “neighborhood”) saying through this action to shut this down, that we will pay for, feed, cloth, educate and turn the other way when there’s abuse (that is rampant) in the Public Housing Units already overbuilt and enabling generation after generation after generation to “normalize” this existence, but want to throw-out all of the downtrodden that find themselves homeless? Let’s get rid of all of the freeloading families that occupy public housing and turn that into what it was intended for, TEMPORARY help with housing for those that have fallen on hard times, and their families that depend on them. Knowing personally of third and fourth generation families that take-up space at the housing units, that have both the father AND mothers working, and their kids being educated, clothed, fed, baby-sat by the city while the “parents” ignore their responsibility is absurd, but happening day-in and day-out right under the politician’s noses. However when pointed-out or spoken about, we are called a racist. Get real “neighbors”, this is a huge issue, and to toss-out the homeless and protect all of the cheaters (generations of them) is ridiculous. And then they (squatters in the Housing Units) have the nerve to DEMAND market-valued units in beautiful, private buildings that the government pays their rent for, and how DARE anyone tell them that they cannot use the sauna, pool, game room, gym, garage etc. that other hard working people pay for. Re-frikin-diculous!

    6. Jeremy says:

      I wish N90s would disengage from their new besties at Transportation Alternatives – would be great if we could feel comfortable donating, and knowing it would go only to the shelter issue.

      • G Gomez says:

        I can’t speak for N in the 90s, obviously. But they might take designated contributions — e.g., to be used only for the group’s lawsuit against the shelter. A lot of organizations will take donations under those conditions.

        • Jeremy says:

          Thanks Gayton, and good luck in your fight to have a peaceable home. It’s a shame that you need to deal with this on a daily basis.

        • webot says:

          Gayton – Good luck ! What about surveillance cameras to record the garbage throwing and uncover the perpetrators?

          Or would that be a violation of their civil rights? (yes, snark)

          • G Gomez says:

            I’ve thought of suggesting the camera! In fact, however, I can actually point to a couple of windows where I’ve caught people in the act of tossing garbage out into the courtyard. Unfortunately, of course, I don’t know their names, and though I can tell where their window is in the courtyard, I don’t know what their room numbers are. (I have the same problem with a couple of the chronic screamers.)

            I’ve tried to describe the location of a couple of the culprits to the front desk staff at the shelter. Most seem pretty indifferent — they say “OK” and hang up. I must note that there is one big exception. One of the women who sometimes works the desk is very nice and sympathetic. When I’m lucky enough to catch her at the desk, whatever noise I’m complaining about usually stops for a while. She actually seems to give a crap! And she gave me another number to call, which she said belongs to “Adam, the program director”. She begged me to call him — she said that she knew a few people were chronic problems for the shelter and the neighbors, and that if I brought it to his attention, perhaps something more lasting could be done about it.

            I did call, and left a detailed message, but guess what — he hasn’t called me back.

    7. M says:

      there is no doubt that there is considerably more garbage & certainly walking west on 95th at night can be challenging.

      • webot says:

        where is Bruce to defend the garbage , drug dealing and aggressive panhandling?

        oh right, the real Upper West Siders like back in glorious 70s.

        • G Gomez says:

          I’m kind of hoping he’s busy packing for our upcoming apartment switch.

          • PRL says:

            I just hope he’s packing up, period! Good luck to you, Gayton.

            I urge everyone concerned to write the elected officials named in the article above, as well as City Comptroller Scott Stringer and the Mayor himself. While it’s nice that DHS & Aguila are cleaning up their act for the moment, it is simply not enough. Even before Freedom House, the “Fair Share” legislation designed to protect us was being disregarded, and we were already over-saturated with shelters and other social services. My opinion as a long-time resident here is that enough is enough. Freedom House should not be allowed to operate – period.

            • G Gomez says:

              After all the baiting Bruce has done, accusing me of inventing the garbage and other problems I’ve seen at the shelter, he really should be commenting on this picture. If he fails to do so, he’s in for some serious ribbing from me the next time he says a word about the shelter on any other article!

    8. Phanatic1 says:

      Bring back Guiliani. Bustin’ chops and keeping the city safe. I lived in Philly when Frank Rizzo was mayor. When local parents were complaining about the gangs & street violence (see the school board meeting scene from the movie “Stand & Deliver”, he said you should be out there on the street with a baseball bat in your hand looking for your kid and dragging him home. God bless!

    9. JACQUELIne says:

      I love at a Sro on the upper Westside never been on drugs: live in the same place in Brooklyn for 40 years my apartment has caught on fire nhtg sent me to the Upper West Side to a Sro I’ve been living there for 2 years and they have been so racist my grandmother had that on a Friday and I move there on a Monday and the first day I came here race is you nigga go back where you came from go back to your baby daddies and I don’t even have children skipping on May 27 2012 I had to call the police on a 80 year old woman calling me nigger any other lady that lived did they both verbally ganged up on Mr. for no reason we have to share a bathroom they are you at me for what a BS built on the floor I am a black woman 49 years old I have no drug problems I have no issues with anyone I go to church choir director and I want to report this racism you say the people that live in the shelters are this and that I’m not and I want to let everyone know when Upper West Side in this building that I live in also races and I am going to strike out against it because I am tired every now and then they start and I want to report it you walk around and you down these people that live in a shelter is full of black people that Spanish people are not the same and I want to end this day to try to do this yesterday this is it may 2014 and two and we have to share a bathroom and I argue about what is still on the floor I videotaped had a pool table all over the floor I’m disabled and that’s a health has it for me I am NOT on any welfare and I don’t have any kids I don’t have min running out of my room none of the stuff that they argue about me if any or make any sense I’m recently searching for an apartment I am of section 8 voucher holder and I can I get any houses on any where but I live here when is Upper West Side STO and I am NOT going to take this