Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration have taken swift action to begin relocating more than 400 homeless children from two notorious City-run shelters long neglected by previous administrations.
In a front page follow-up on a landmark five-part series about 12-year old Dasani Coates and her family, The New York Times’ Andrea Elliott and Rebecca R. Ruiz report that Mayor de Blasio has ordered that homeless families with children be relocated from the Auburn Family Residence (where Dasani and her family lived for three years) and Catherine Street Family Shelter. These two facilities are directly operated by the NYC Department of Homeless Services and had been cited with hundreds of violations of health and safety standards.
The city has begun transferring over 400 children and their families out of the Auburn Family Residence in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and from the Catherine Street shelter in Lower Manhattan, while vowing to improve services for the swelling population of 22,000 homeless children, Mr. de Blasio and other officials said in interviews this week.
The administration is trying to find either subsidized permanent housing or suitable temporary shelter for the families and will be converting the Auburn and Catherine Street facilities into adult family shelters, the officials said.
For nearly three decades, thousands of children passed through Auburn and Catherine Street, living with cockroaches, spoiled food, violence and insufficient heat, even as inspectors warned that the shelters were unfit for children.
State and city inspectors have cited Auburn for over 400 violations — many of them repeated — for a range of hazards, including vermin, mold, lead exposure, an inoperable fire safety system, insufficient child care and the presence of sexual predators, among them, a caseworker.
“We just weren’t going to allow this to happen on our watch,” the mayor said.
The de Blasio administration’s forceful action is a significant step in the right direction, and one that could have been taken long ago by previous mayoral administrations. Both shelters were repeatedly cited by State and City inspectors for hundreds of violations over many years, including fire safety hazards, mold infestation, vermin infestation, and problems with heat and cleanliness. In Auburn, one worker accused of sexual misconduct was permitted to work at the shelter for a year after he was charged:
The conditions at Auburn, which were detailed in a recent series in The New York Times, prompted the City Council to schedule hearings next week on family shelters. Records and interviews show that similar lapses have dogged Catherine Street, which, like Auburn, is an aging residence with communal bathrooms that children share with strangers. Families live in rooms without kitchens or running water, preventing them from cooking their own meals or washing baby bottles.
Since 2006, the state agency responsible for overseeing homeless shelters has routinely ordered the city to remove all infants and toddlers from Catherine Street, citing at least 150 violations in that time.
“Until today, no mayor was willing to say no children should be treated this way, and that’s a historic breakthrough,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief at The Legal Aid Society, which has battled the city in court over shelter conditions.
The Coalition for the Homeless applauds Mayor de Blasio, Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, and Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor for taking swift action to protect homeless children. We also remain hopeful that the administration will build on today's announcement by restoring housing-based solutions to reduce record homelessness in New York City.
"Moving vulnerable children out of New York's two worst shelters is a significant piece of the swift, smart reform we hoped to see in the first 100 days of Mayor de Blasio's administration,” said CFH President and CEO, Mary Brosnahan. “Countless thousands of girls and boys have endured the decrepit and dangerous conditions in the Auburn and LIFE shelters since the Koch-era. Rescuing children is an essential first step as we work to fully stabilize their families in permanent housing."
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Advocates for the homeless have pressed Mr. de Blasio to reinstate several policies that ended under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. From 1990 until 2005, the city placed more than 53,000 homeless families in permanent housing by giving them priority referrals to federal subsidy programs, according to an analysis of city data by Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.
The Bloomberg administration canceled that policy and in its place created a short-term rent subsidy program that ended in 2011 when the state withdrew its portion of the funding. By the time Mr. Bloomberg left office at the end of last year, the homeless population had peaked at more than 52,000 — the highest number on record since the Great Depression.
That tally reflects only the shelter population, which fluctuates daily and does not include families that live doubled up with friends or relatives. According to data compiled by the State Education Department, more than 80,000 school-age children in the city were identified as homeless during the last academic year.
“There are major American cities that have the same population as we have people in shelter,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We have to look this in the face. This is literally an unacceptable dynamic, and we have to reverse it.”
In interviews, Mr. de Blasio, his deputy mayor for health and human services, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, and the newly appointed homeless services commissioner, Gilbert Taylor, laid out the broad outlines of a still-evolving plan to address homelessness.
They will focus on prevention efforts, and said the administration was committed to renewing a version of the former rent subsidy program, which will require money from the state. A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the proposal was under discussion.
The de Blasio administration is also exploring a plan to enhance anti-eviction legal services for families, and an “aftercare” support program intended to prevent newly housed families from becoming homeless again.
The city is less likely to depend on federal housing programs as a solution because of the dwindling supply, Mr. de Blasio said. “It will be a tool we use as needed, but I think the central thrust has to be getting at the root causes,” he said. “Greater supply of affordable housing. Pushing up wages and benefits. More preventative efforts.”