By Carol Tannenhauser
Freedom House, the homeless shelter at 316 West 95th Street, is getting a new operator, according to council member Helen Rosenthal and other sources. A change at the shelter, which has drawn criticism since it opened over community objections in 2012, is a potentially positive sign, according to community officials, activists, and other residents.
Charlie Valdez, 50, who lives next door, in permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless veterans, said the shelter does not seem to be well-run.
“Over there, there’s a lot of dope dealing, crack dealing, smoking, crime, stealing,” Valdez said. “I have friends who live there and that’s all they complain to me about every day. ‘The security guards don’t do their jobs.’”
In a message to neighbors, Aaron Biller, president of local group Neighborhood in the Nineties, wrote that there has been “open drug dealing, crime, mayhem, aggressive panhandling and noise in the West 90s neighborhood,” since the shelter opened. Rosenthal had arranged a meeting with city officials, police officers, community board leaders and others to hash out the concerns earlier this month.
The current operator, Aguila, Inc. has been running the facility since it opened in 2012. After the shelter was initially opened on an “emergency basis” for six months, Aguila won a five-year, $47 million contract – a whopping $3,600 per unit per month. The company has been criticized for several problems in the past, including “unsubstantiated bills.” Aguila did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Service wrote in an email that it was the landlord of 316 West 95th Street, RB ESTATES LLC, who decided to select a new provider. “We cannot speak to what motivated that decision, but as landlords and nonprofit service providers must work together at shelter sites to best serve our clients and the community, we will review any provider the landlord selects with the main goal of improving services for all,” the spokesperson wrote. Attempts to contact the owner were unsuccessful.
The decision comes after substantial community pressure from Rosenthal and others.
“Even before I was elected, I was aware that residents at Freedom House were not receiving the services that they needed to move on to permanent housing, and that the surrounding community had great concerns about the effectiveness of existing services,” Rosenthal wrote in an email to WSR. “Working together with the administration, we’ve made real progress on this issue and I will be closely monitoring Freedom House’s transition to a new social service provider until the process is complete.”
Rosenthal did not say when that would be, indicating it could take “months.” Biller wrote that while “Rosenthal has kept her word to push the City to fix Freedom House, the heavy lifting is ahead of us. Even with a new social services provider, it will take time to establish rules and an appropriate culture in the building.”
Any new provider must be reviewed and approved by the Department of Homeless Services, a DHS spokesperson said. According to Biller, the city is also “giving the community input in selecting a new provider, a major concession given the opacity of city homeless shelter operations.”