By Lindsey Davis, Director of Crisis Services, Coalition for the Homeless
Originally published on the Huffington Post
I've seen 25, 40, even 50 men, crammed into a small two- or three-family home filled with illegally converted rooms. Eight to 12 men to a room, each filled with bunk beds blocking windows and doors, creating an intricate, labyrinthine fire trap. A leaking roof, ceilings and floors filled with holes, walls covered with mold, no heat or hot water, broken windows and a stove which repeatedly caught on fire only feet from beds.
For months, Elliot, a homeless single man living with mental illness, lived in conditions like these -- not by choice, but instead as the result of a placement made by the New York's Department of Homeless Services. He was told by staff in his shelter that that there were no other options for permanent housing and had to accept this placement, sight unseen, or risk being thrown out of the shelter, to the street.
For nearly five years, it was the policy of the Bloomberg administration to actively seek out and place hundreds of homeless of individuals, many living with mental and physical disabilities, into numerous illegally converted one or two-family homes with hazardous conditions already documented by the City's own inspectors. Despite fire safety and health related risks, evidence of welfare fraud by the landlords, hundreds of documented housing and buildings code violations, as well as repeated warnings, the trend of referrals to these buildings was not only allowed to continue, but also encouraged by City officials -- until now.
Last week, as a result of the leadership of the City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, the City's Department of Homeless Services stood with Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society to announce new regulations prohibiting the placement of single adults into illegally converted and occupied homes. It will also take the critical steps to track referrals from nine City shelters to these illegal dwellings in the coming year, in consideration of even stricter standards.
These restrictions are key to curbing a now well established cottage industry, fueled by Bloomberg Administration policies and tax payer dollars. Operators typically charged residents $250 per month in rent for a bed in an illegally converted, overcrowded one- or two-family home. Usually located in low-income neighborhoods where foreclosure was rampant and neglect of the properties in which illegal residences were housed, these placements contributed to the devaluation of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Owners routinely refused to provide leases and instead offered informal "resident agreements" outlining house rules, many of which violate basic tenancy rights established under New York State law. Although the operators of illegal boarding houses often described their buildings as "recovery residences," they offered no support services or treatment programs, despite the fact that many individuals living with mental and physical disabilities were placed in these homes. Under these conditions, Elliot's mental health remained undiagnosed and untreated, and began to deteriorate resulting in numerous suicide attempts.
Elliot, like so many illegal boarding house residents, ultimately returned to the shelter system. However, unlike so many others, the Coalition was able to connect him with the appropriate much-needed mental health services, as well as an apartment with on-site support services, where he has grown to live independently.
This victory was hard won. It is our hope that many of New York's most vulnerable residents will have the same opportunity for safety and stability in appropriate permanent housing. The Coalition first uncovered these appalling conditions years ago, and we will continue to monitor this new regulation as well as the pilot. For our homeless neighbors like Elliot, we hope it marks a significant shift in City policy resulting in permanent housing options that are lawful, safe and appropriate for the individuals we serve.
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