Judge reprimands city for homeless policy

Following a ruling by a State Supreme Court judge in June, the City Comptroller’s office can now audit shelter deals before the Department of Homeless Services allows landlords to convert their residential buildings into shelters.

A State Supreme Court judge sided with Bronx tenants and city controller John Liu in June, agreeing that the city’s policy of paying landlords who convert their buildings into homeless shelters is a process that demands far more scrutiny than it receives.

The residents sued in 2009, and Liu later joined them, contending the city’s deal to pay a landlord through a per diem arrangement to convert an East Tremont apartment building into a shelter, lacked transparency.  

State Supreme Court Judge Geoffrey D. Wright’s ruled that the city “circumvented established rules for the funding of its activities without an acceptable excuse” and must more carefully adhere to more closely to the City Charter.

“The practice of cutting backroom deals with shelter operators cannot and should not be tolerated,” Liu said in a June 6 press release, following the ruling.

Liu argued that Mayor Bloomberg’s policies do little to help the homeless land jobs or permanent housing, and that residents of communities in which shelters are placed should have more say in whether residential buildings should be converted into shelters. Brooklyn and the Bronx are home to 275 of the city’s 370 homeless shelters, many in low-income neighborhoods, the study found.

“The mayor’s disastrous homeless policies exclude communities from having a real voice in the shelter-siting process” while gouging taxpayers, Liu wrote.

As of May 3, the city’s homeless services department reported that nearly 12,000 families lived in city shelters, a 60 percent increase since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002.

The Controller’s office has issued “Down and Out: How New York City Places its Homeless Shelters,” a report that concludes the city is not living up to its end of the Fair Share shelter-siting process. The report recommends the creation of a voucher program for up to 10,000 families living in the city’s shelters, that it says would help improve conditions for the homeless while saving money.

“Our report found that homeless shelters tend to be clustered in the poorest neighborhoods. The siting of the shelters in these neighborhoods may permanently condemn these areas to poverty,” Liu said, adding there is a need for “complete transparency and significant community involvement in this process.”

The voucher proposal would cost about $11,000 a year per family, compared with $35,000 to keep a family in a shelter for a year.

Forksana Badrujjoa of The Partnership for the Homeless, echoed Liu, saying “Planning and transparency are critical for effective solutions to homelessness,” but that “equitable access to resources is not being taken into consideration when distributing homeless shelters.”

In early July, Liu rejected contracts submitted by the Department of Homeless Services that would have paid Bronx-based non-profit Aguila Inc. to operate a shelter in East Tremont that would have cost taxpayers almost $21 million, and another on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The city had failed to clarify both the number of homeless people it would house and the duration of the services it planned to provide, Liu said.

The story was updated on July 25.

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