Private homeless shelters are exactly as awful as you’d think

New York City’s most vulnerable are a cash cow for some.
New York City’s most vulnerable are a cash cow for some.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Under state law, New York City is obligated to provide shelter to anyone who asks for it. A July 2015 report (pdf) released by the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) puts the total count of New York’s sheltered individuals at more than 55,000—not a number city-owned and operated shelters are equipped to meet.

The city has subsequently contracted private property owners to take in a number of homeless families on a temporary basis while DHS assesses their eligibility for housing assistance. Landlords can rake in more than $3,000 per unit in city funds; an amount that is theoretically intended to cover the costs of unit maintenance and security. Predictably, it’s not an arrangement that has enjoyed much success.

According to a 2013 exposé published by The New York Times, residents of one such contracted shelter said “buildings are often characterized by violence, drug-use, mice, broken elevators, periods without heat and hot water, and violations of fire safety laws.”

Things have not improved in the two years since. A recent report published by Gothamist details the saga of 60 Clarkson Avenue, a contract shelter in the Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood of Brooklyn, “for which the city pays landlord Isaac Hersko, better known as Barry Hers, $3,000 a month per apartment to house homeless families—and millions more a year to a nonprofit thought to be operated by Hersko.”

60 Clarkson Avenue is reportedly infested with mice and cockroaches. The old, neglected ceilings are buckling. The hallways, stairwells, and elevators are filthy. The lobby doors don’t lock, and residents have been subsequently victim to a string of robberies and violent crimes. The list of indignities residents have suffered is as long as it is depressing:

“Photos which she said were taken inside the building show rodent feces, roaches, cracked and rotting walls and floors, and a door with broken hinges. A man who regularly visits his children at the shelter said there are ‘mice constantly’ and the landlord’s repair jobs often create more problems.”

These contract shelters are also known as “cluster sites,” for-profit operations whose utility was drastically expanded under the administration of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Many link the explosion of New York’s homeless population with the rising cost of living that accelerated under his tenure. In addition to cluster sites, the Bloomberg administration also introduced a concept known as “three-quarter housing.” These differ from traditional halfway houses in that they are not regulated by any government agency, religious institution, or other non-profit organization. Like cluster sites, they are privately operated, though funded by tax dollars.

The problem with three-quarter houses is that, because they are driven by profit motive, they are often overcrowded and under-maintained. What’s more, some actively target the individuals they are being paid to help. Current mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, has launched an investigation into Bloomberg’s three-quarter houses for “potentially exploiting addicts and homeless people by taking kickbacks on Medicaid fees for drug treatment while forcing them to live in squalid, illegal conditions,” The New York Times reports.

“It really began around 2005, 2006, when the city began really dumping people,” Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless (CFH) told Al Jazeera America. “We started to see groups that had been running one or two houses now have five houses. Why were they doing that? The city government was essentially giving them new customers. It was creating a market for this type of housing.”

Fortunately, de Blasio’s investigation into three-quarter housing a shift in tides. A spokesperson for DHS has said the city is aiming to move away from the cluster site model, and is in the process of phasing out some facilities. Of course, this raises the question of where spillover individuals and families—for which there is no room in the city’s already bloated shelter system—will go. At least, for the time being, we can hope New York City’s experimentation with private-sector homeless shelters is nearing its end. And though the program’s demise would hardly be a cure-all for the city’s observable homelessness problems, it certainly appears to be a step in the right direction.