Today’s Read: Why the City Should Convert Cluster Site Shelters Back to Apartments

Following the release last week of the Department of Investigation’s disturbing report on squalid conditions in the City’s family shelter system, many New Yorkers are wondering what can be done so that homeless families get the decent shelter to which they are legally entitled. One place to start: Phase out the “cluster site” shelters, which had the most severe health and safety violations outlined in the report – dead rats, urine puddles, mold and more. The cluster sites are private buildings that house about 3,000 homeless families. The Coalition has long advocated for the City to cease using cluster sites, and the DOI report has made that call even more urgent.

As the Coalition has reported, the cluster site system is both unsuitable for families and costly for taxpayers. The City pays well in excess of market-rate rents to private landlords and nonprofits to house homeless families. Unfortunately, the high price tag does not correspond to adequate social services – or even safe, clean living conditions. Although the Department of Homeless Services has been trying to decrease its reliance on cluster sites since Mayor de Blasio took office, the time has come to end the cluster site system entirely.

Patrick Markee, the Coalition’s Deputy Executive Director for Advocacy, recently spoke with Rosa Goldensohn of DNAinfo about why the cluster site units should be converted back to permanent apartments:

“We have long said that the city should phase out the program and revert those buildings to permanent housing — obviously with aggressive code enforcement,” said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Cluster shelters, essentially apartments the city rents from landlords and nonprofits to temporarily house homeless families, are rife with dangers like broken stairwells, rats, insects, fire hazards and bodily fluids, according to a new report from the Department of Investigation.

Promised services are “minimal,” and the city vastly overpays for the substandard, temporary housing, the investigation found. The DOI recommended more inspections, tougher contracts and a working group to look at the problem.

But shelter residents and advocates for homeless people say DOI recommendations did not go far enough. They have called the cluster-site program “disastrous” for years. The model doesn’t work, they argue, and rather than try to increase inspection, the city should convert cluster sites into permanent housing for the families living there, they say.

“If you just gave them a lease and a rent subsidy you could reduce homelessness by 3,000 families,” Markee said.

“Nobody thinks it’s going to happen overnight, but it could happen. They could make it happen,” he added.