Back to the Bad Old Days

The Bloomberg administration has plans to crowd hundreds of homeless men on an armory drill floor in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, a dangerous step backwards to the bad old days of unsafe, overcrowded shelters.

Yesterday the New York Times reported about the City’s plan to add 200 beds to the drill floor of the Pamoja House shelter, a facility that already has 200 beds and which is located in the Sumner Avenue armory in Brooklyn.

For decades, Test’s Barber Shop in Brooklyn has faced the Sumner Avenue Armory, a hulking castlelike building that towers over the modest four-story brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Through the storefront window, barbers watched the armory change from a bustling community center into a shelter for homeless men.

The barbers have been there long enough to see that shelter change, too, from a dangerous place that warehoused hundreds of men in the 1980s to a quieter place, known as Pamoja House, with room for just 200 men….

But the city is now considering doubling the capacity of the shelter, on Marcus Garvey Boulevard near Jefferson Avenue, making room for 400 men, a move that worries some neighbors and advocates for the homeless, and one that could face legal hurdles.

“Crowding hundreds of men onto an armory drill floor is a dangerous, unnecessary step backwards to the bad old days of the 1980s,” Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst with Coalition for the Homeless, said in a written statement. “New York can get through the winter without going back to the dark ages of dangerous and unsanitary megashelters.”

Back in the 1980s, the Sumner Avenue armory, like other armories citywide, used to shelter hundreds of homeless men on drill floors. The overcrowded, unsafe conditions led to contagious diseases spreading and incidents of violence.

This is one of the reasons State courts, in the early 1990s, ordered the downsizing of the Sumner Avenue armory (then with 550 beds) and other armory shelters in Washington Heights, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. It is also why in 1999 the New York City Council passed, and former Mayor Giuliani signed, a local statute limiting shelters for homeless adults to 200 beds.

Now, sadly, the Bloomberg administration proposes going back to the “bad old days” of overcrowded, unlawful shelters. The administration has also proposed a new shelter with 328 beds in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, which has resulted in a legal challenge by community groups.

Last November, Coalition for the Homeless wrote to NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond about the City’s dangerous, unlawful plans. The text of that letter is copied below.

November 22, 2010

Seth Diamond, Commissioner
New York City Department of Homeless Services
33 Beaver Street
New York, NY 10004

Re: City’s plans to create shelters with more than 200 beds

Dear Commissioner Diamond:

We write to express our serious concerns about the City’s plans to create shelters for homeless adults with more than 200 beds in violation of local law. These plans represent a huge step backwards from three decades of efforts to reform and improve conditions in municipal homeless shelters, and would pose serious threats to the health and safety of vulnerable homeless New Yorkers and nearby communities. While we are aware of the need to ensure sufficient shelter capacity for the coming winter, we urge you to halt efforts to create such warehouse-style shelters and instead to use the City’s existing permanent housing resources to free up needed shelter capacity.

Earlier this year we learned of the New York City Department of Homeless Services’ plan to create a new shelter for homeless adults with more than 300 beds in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. As you know, we have communicated our concerns about this plan to DHS officials, and our counsel has also written to City attorneys to express concerns about this planned facility.

Now we have learned that DHS also intends to add 200 beds to the drill floor of the Sumner Avenue armory, located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn; last week Coalition staff saw that DHS has already moved beds and lockers onto the drill floor. The Sumner Avenue armory currently contains Pamoja House, a men’s shelter which already has 200 beds. Thus, DHS intends to create a 400-bed shelter at the armory, which would make it one of the largest homeless shelters in New York City.

These plans fly in the face of everything shelter providers, advocates and government officials have learned about how to help homeless people, including the importance of smaller shelters. Shelter capacity limits serve an absolutely vital purpose: to protect the health and safety of shelter residents, many of whom are individuals living with disabilities, and of surrounding communities. Back in the early days of modern homelessness in the 1980s, when the City relied on armory drill floors to shelter thousands of homeless men, the spread of contagious diseases and incidents of violence at such warehouse-style facilities were all too common. And often street-bound homeless men and women – the majority of whom were living with mental illness and other severe health problems – would avoid municipal shelters altogether and remain on the streets fearing for their health and safety in the armories.

That is the reason that government officials, homeless service providers, local communities, and advocates have all advanced reforms to reduce shelter capacity and eliminate large, barracks-style facilities. As Barbara Blum, a former New York State Social Services Commissioner, wrote back in 1984, “[M]assive institutions, particularly for impoverished and disabled populations such as the homeless, are simply impossible to operate in a humane fashion” (emphasis added). And when Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo chaired the New York City Commission on the Homeless in the early 1990s, the “Cuomo Commission” recommended the following (emphasis added):

• “The goal must be to remove families from congregate shelters and welfare hotels and end the use of large, barracks style shelters for homeless single adults.”

• “The Commission agrees with the Mayor’s philosophy…that smaller, service-based facilities are preferable.”

Two decades ago, responding to the unsafe conditions at armory shelters and pursuant to State regulations, legal challenges resulted in court orders to reduce capacity at the Sumner Avenue Armory (which then had 550 beds) and several other armory shelters. Even when the Giuliani administration tried to add hundreds of beds to the Sumner Avenue Armory in the winter of 1992-1993, in violation of the capacity limits and previous court orders, a State court once again ruled against the City.

Finally, as you know, in 1998 the New York City Council passed and former Mayor Giuliani signed a local law (NYC Administrative Code § 21-312, § 21-315) that limits the capacity of shelters for homeless adults to 200 beds, except for certain “grandfathered” facilities and their replacements – and the Pamoja House shelter does not meet this criteria. This local law was enacted after former Governor Pataki’s administration eliminated – over the strong objections of shelter providers and advocates – a longstanding State regulation limiting shelter capacity to 200 beds. And it is this local statute that the City’s current plans would violate.

New York City has made significant strides forward, since the 1980s, in how it addresses the problem of homelessness. And the shelter system reforms of the last three decades, including the near elimination of warehouse-style facilities with more than 200 beds, are something we should all be proud of. The City’s current plans fly in the face of everything we’ve learned about how to assist homeless people. Put simply, they would be a huge step backwards.

Thus, we urge you to halt all efforts to create shelters with more than 200 beds, and instead to utilize the City’s existing permanent housing resources – including public housing and other subsidized housing – to free up needed shelter capacity. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

Mary Brosnahan
Executive Director
Coalition for the Homeless

Patrick Markee
Senior Policy Analyst
Coalition for the Homeless