Photo: Jose Israel Lopez Transitional Housing on Park Avenue.

Residents call Melrose transitional housing shelter “inhumane”

“Homeless Bill of Rights” before City Council aims to hold shelters accountable.

The congregate room at the Melrose shelter where Jimmy Livingston has been living for over a year consistently smells like urine or feces, he says — thanks to a man who soils himself in bed every night.

There’s no stench shortage in the actual bathrooms, which are often too dirty to use, according to Livingston’s former roommate, Eric Davidson.

Livingston and Davidson said the lack of hygiene is just one problem contributing to “inhumane” living conditions at the Jose Israel Lopez Transitional Housing Program, which operates under the umbrella of a city-funded nonprofit called the Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs.

Both men say that several residents have died there in the past year amid the pandemic. The city’s Department of Homeless Services refused to respond to repeated requests for information. The Coalition for the Homeless, which unofficially tracks shelter deaths, said its information indicates the Melrose facility was the site of some resident fatalities in 2021.

“I have evidence that several people died over a span of several months in that facility at the height of the latest, really high COVID wave, which may well be why — although you can’t tell until after an autopsy,” said Shelly Nortz, executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless.

Livingston believes a lack of consistent rules contributes to an unhealthy living environment at 3339 Park Ave., where up to 241 homeless adults live.

“There really aren’t any set rules: They [shelter staff] make them up as they go along,” Livingston said. “The rules should be posted. You need your bill of rights for residents.”

City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Councilmember Rafael Salamanca are trying to ensure just that with a proposal for a “homeless bill of rights” introduced in the City Council in April.

Unhoused New Yorkers are already entitled to the rights listed in the bill through other laws. But the proposed legislation would require all of those rights to be compiled into a single document and posted in shelters.

“By establishing this bill of rights, we are empowering individuals, elected leaders, and organizations to hold the city accountable to those rights being protected as we continue to push for the true solution to the homelessness crisis: housing,” Williams said in a press release.

Under the bill, rights specific to people staying at city shelters include: the right to exit and enter shelters outside of curfew hours; the right to a secure locker for single adults and a private, locked room, for families. The rights also include access to bathrooms, washing machines and bathing space; and availability of meals and accommodations for dietary restrictions.  Rights that would apply to the homeless in general include the access to legal services and interpreters, housing and financial assistance, information on how to file a complaint, and protections from retaliation by shelters.

Livingston said the bill of rights would make a big difference at the Israel Lopez shelter. But he noted that many of his concerns, including sanitation failures and lack of privacy, would not be covered.

City shelters have regularly drawn complaints from unsheltered persons due to safety concerns and concerns about rules and procedures, according to a report from THE CITY. As Mayor Eric Adams continues his controversial effort to remove unsheltered people from public spaces, most of those living in encampments and on the subway did not take a bed at a city shelter. The New York Post reported that only 39 people accepted shelter as a result of encampment sweeps during March.

The Israel Lopez shelter is one of five “transitional housing programs” that the Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs launched in 2014. 

The nonprofit’s website says the shelter is a “next-level initiative that helps homeless men and women achieve permanent employment, safe and appropriate permanent housing, as well as family reunification, and prepares eligible individuals with the skills, knowledge to secure vocational/employment opportunity for ultimate self-sufficiency.”

Livingston said he is not aware of efforts at the shelter to promote “self-sufficiency.” Instead, he believes some of the shelter’s rules –– like evening curfew, the daytime cleaning hours where residents need to leave their rooms and the ban on outside food –– make it difficult for residents to live freely at the facility.

The bill of rights would provide citywide standards residents can point to and use to hold the shelter accountable

“We generally support the idea of informing people about what their rights are,” Nortz of Coalition for the Homeless said. “That empowers people to be able to seek means of enforcing their own rights and assistance with enforcing those rights if they’re being violated.”

The Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs did not respond to several requests for comment about the facility’s hygiene, drug use, food, security protocol or the report of recent deaths. Neither did Julia Savel, spokesperson for the city Department of Homeless Services, which refers residents to the shelter.

The Mott Haven Herald was denied entry to the Jose Israel Lopez Transitional Housing Program, but staff accepted a list of questions and the reporter’s contact information, saying they would pass the message on to their boss. No response was ever received.

Davidson, who said he was transferred out of the room after objecting to the smell of urine and feces, complained that the staff look down on residents and treat them poorly.  He left the shelter for several weeks this spring to stay with his sister but recently returned.

“It’s not like we’re here for committing a crime or anything,” Davidson said. “But you’re looking at us like we are criminals because we are homeless. And that’s not right.”

  When he was interviewed earlier this year, Davidson had been at the Israel Lopez shelter for six months and was trying to find permanent housing as soon as possible.  The nonprofit’s website said its objective is to provide transitional housing for “no more than six months.”

When the Mott Haven Herald spoke with Israel Lopez resident Marvel Johnson in February, he’d been trying to find permanent housing while staying at the shelter for three and one-half years.

“It takes all the fight out of you to the point where you almost want to give up, but you can’t,” Johnson said. “Don’t stop fighting, because if you stop fighting, you’re going to lose. We are in a losing battle anyway, but you still got to fight. Just pray something good happens out of this.”