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.