Coalition Testifies on Shelter Conditions

On Monday, Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society presented testimony before the New York City Council’s Committee on General Welfare regarding shelter conditions and several bills related to homeless services.

New York City has a legal right to shelter thanks to the Coalition’s impact litigation, which means tens of thousands of New Yorkers who would otherwise be on the streets are offered a safe place to sleep indoors. But as the citywide affordable housing crisis has pushed record numbers of New Yorkers into homelessness, the City has struggled to maintain consistent conditions and services across the shelter system. While the Coalition continues to advocate for long-term solutions to address the root causes of homelessness, we also monitor conditions in shelters and urge for the system to better meet the needs of our homeless neighbors.

As we testified:

The record number of individuals and families in shelters necessitates a comprehensive examination into shelter conditions and upkeep. As the court-appointed independent monitors of the single adult shelter system and the City-appointed independent monitors of the family shelter system, we gather a steady stream of information about shelter conditions through in-person visits, joint inspections, and resident complaints. The most common issues we encounter fall into three broad categories: large-scale capital needs, cleanliness and regular maintenance, and disability accommodations.

Large-scale capital needs are most prevalent at older, larger, City-owned shelters and most commonly involve heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) issues; leaks and plumbing issues; bathroom fixture degradation; electrical capacity; and broken elevators, among other issues. The City’s Fiscal Year 2019 Capital Commitment Plan lists capital projects at shelters that have been ongoing for years. The State also inspects shelters to determine whether they are in compliance with its rules and issues reports of those inspections, which require shelters to correct any deficiencies. We urge the City to speed up progress on addressing outstanding physical plan issues, particularly those targeting critical daily needs of residents, including boiler updates, roof repairs, bathroom repairs, and elevator repairs.

In addition to capital repairs, routine cleaning and maintenance of facilities is an ever-present problem. It is a common occurrence for a late-night visit by one of our shelter monitors to uncover filthy bathroom conditions. This situation is particularly prevalent on overnight and weekend shifts. In more than one instance, we have met residents who have attempted to take charge of cleaning themselves, despite lacking proper supplies. This situation can and should be rectified by adding or redirecting maintenance staff to shifts where they are most needed.

Although we spoke at length on this issue at the last General Welfare Committee hearing, disability accommodations in shelters are an important component when considering physical conditions. Pursuant to the settlement in Butler v. City of New York, a class-action lawsuit The Legal Aid Society filed on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless, the Center for Independence of the Disabled-New York (CIDNY), and disabled homeless New Yorkers, the City has hired a consultant to assess barriers to shelter system accessibility, including intake offices and the shelters themselves. With the information it gathers from the surveys, the City will propose a remediation plan to bring the shelter system into compliance with its legal obligation to accommodate the disabilities of homeless New Yorkers. Presumably, in order to fulfill this task, the City will be required to open new sites that are accessible to more clients, which is consistent with the City’s goals in the Turning the Tide plan of closing older, deficient shelters and ceasing the use of cluster sites and commercial hotels. We will closely monitor this effort to ensure that the City is able to meet the needs of our clients.

Lastly, we routinely witness and hear well-founded concerns about the lack of dignity many people in shelters feel as a result of the environments they are living in. We know that shelters are not homes, but some of the daily conditions and practices serve to make the experience of homelessness even more traumatic and dehumanizing for individuals and families. Some examples of such practices include: requiring individuals to request toilet paper every time they need to use the restroom; being provided with low-quality food, not enough food, or being denied second portions of food; and not being provided adequate laundry services.

Intros: 883, 884, 915, 1110, 1232, 1233

Of the bills introduced at today’s hearing, we offer the following comments:

  • Intro 915 would require reporting on permanent supportive housing and shelters, disaggregated by community board and council district. Although we understand the importance of open data, we are concerned that these numbers would be used solely to prevent the opening of much-needed emergency shelters and supportive housing and additionally stigmatize homeless individuals and families, including those living with disabilities. The focus on data production should remain on the needs of homeless individuals and families themselves, including for example: the number of people found eligible for supportive housing and the number actually receiving it; the number of supportive housing tenants who have retained their housing for more than one, two, and three years; the number of supportive housing units gained (and lost) each year; and similar metrics. We would also recommend regular reporting on the number of City-financed affordable housing units (separate from supportive housing) that have been built and preserved for homeless households, as well as the number of homeless households that have actually moved into such units.
  • Intro 1110 would require the designation and training of housing specialists in domestic violence shelters, HASA shelters, and DHS shelters, as well as reporting on such shelters. While housing specialists are needed across the system, in addition to more affordable housing, the reporting requirements that all shelters be disaggregated by community district and type of shelter pose serious privacy concerns for individuals living with HIV/AIDS and survivors of domestic violence. These vulnerable New Yorkers are entitled to a considerable degree of confidentiality about their health conditions and crime victim status, which could be jeopardized by such disclosures.
  • Regarding Intros 1232, 1233, and 884, which all relate to shelter transfers, it is important to note that many of the process issues that come up with transfers are directly related to a lack of capacity, which inhibit DHS’ ability to appropriately manage transfers with timely notice and respond to reasonable accommodation requests. It is therefore extremely important to focus on expanding the production of affordable housing in the Mayor’s Housing New York 2.0 to provide homeless households an exit out of shelters and reduce the strain on the system. It will also be important, in some instances, to open new shelter capacity to maintain a better-functioning system. We urge the Council to focus on efforts to reduce shelter crowding so that appropriate transfers can be made rationally and transparently, rather than limiting the City’s ability to add new, accessible capacity.
  • Intro 883 would require customer service training for shelter employees. We agree better training is required in many instances, but effectiveness will depend largely on how the training is implemented, and we urge the Council to demand that the City report on how it will conduct the training and implementation of any such program.

The full testimony can be read here.