Comptroller Scott Stringer slammed conditions in the city’s homeless shelters in a new audit released today—and called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to “immediately” hire a deputy mayor to head up the effort to get families into permanent housing.
“As a parent, it’s very hard to see kids living in such filthy, unsafe conditions and not be shaken to the core,” Mr. Stringer said at a press conference in his Manhattan offices. “There’s absolutely no excuse for any of this. We may not be able to solve homelessness overnight, but we can damn well fix leaky roofs and repair broken doors.”
The audit found subpar conditions in the city’s shelters, which house 23,000 children, including evidence of rodents in 53 percent of inspected apartments. The audit, which looked at 101 units, also found safety concerns in 87 percent of the units, including malfunctioning smoke detectors, blocked fire escapes, mold, mildew, peeling paint, and walls with holes.
The audit is just the latest review of the Department of Homeless Services, which has also been the subject of a well-received New York Times story documenting the life in city shelters of one young girl, a scathing Department of Investigation report released in March about life-threatening conditions in shelters. More recently, Mr. de Blasio announced that his administration would conduct its own 90-day review of the department, and that its commissioner, Gilbert Taylor, would be stepping down.
In Mr. Taylor’s absence—or rather, while he is moved to City Hall in an “advisory” position and keeps his salary while he seeks new employment—the department will be led by Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks.
But the commissioner spot at DHS isn’t the only vacant post tasked with dealing with homelessness: the de Blasio administration has not had a deputy mayor in charge of the subject since August, when Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who oversaw health and human services, stepped down.
Mr. Stringer, a frequent critic of the mayor’s and a potential primary challenger for 2017, called on the administration to “immediately hire a deputy mayor with the skills and experience necessary to create a bold new plan of action on homelessness in this city.”
Mr. de Blasio recently said “some very strong candidates” had come forward to replace Ms. Barrios-Paoli but indicated the administration wouldn’t rush to fill the role.
The mayor’s handling of homelessness has been fodder for political attacks from his rivals, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently saying that Mr. de Blasio was not properly managing the problem (today, on the radio, Mr. Cuomo shied away from making the same criticism, instead focusing on his own experience). Mr. Stringer borrowed a bit of the governor’s language today.
“The city can and must fix these problems and must have the management chops to ensure that essential services are being provided,” Mr. Stringer said.
The audit also found DHS to be understaffed, with just 14 program analysts who each oversaw 11 shelters and 900 families, a caseload the analysts argued made it “not reasonable” for them to be aware of every problem. Corrective Acton Reports, used to correct problems in shelters, were routinely filed late in 2014, according to the audit, and of 29 filed late, DHS only followed up on six.
While Mr. de Blasio has repeatedly noted that 22,000 people have been moved out of shelter into permanent housing under his tenure, Mr. Stringer’s audit argued that the DHS was failing to meet its goal of moving residents out of emergency housing within 270 days. He also noted that 64 shelters were operating without written contracts during the time of the audit, which surveyed people who entered shelter in 2013 and 2014 and remained there in 2015.
In addition to hiring a deputy mayor, Mr. Stringer called on DHS to beef up its own staff and increase security. The agency referred requests for comment to the Human Resources Administration, currently overseeing DHS, and that agency said additional staff will be hired in six to eight weeks and that security had already been boosted with 260 additional peace officers.
“Unhealthy and unsafe conditions in shelters are unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Mr. Banks, the head of HRA, said in a written statement. “In May the City created the Shelter Repaid Squad, which has already cleared more than 12,000 violations and will continue until all are cleared. As part of the comprehensive operational review just announced by Mayor de Blasio, we will carefully consider the issues raised in the audit and other reviews of the Department’s operations so that we can continue to improve shelter conditions and safety and help more individuals exit shelter as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Banks formerly ran the Legal Aid Society, where he often sued City Hall over similar issues. In a statement today, his successor, Attorney-in-Chief Seymour James, said the agency was “deeply disturbed” by the findings.
“These conditions also underscore the importance of maintaining affordable housing in our communities and ensuring that housing assistance is available for homeless individuals and families to move out of the shelter system as quickly as possible,” he said.
Mr. de Blasio, during a roundtable with reporters, said the shelters were in better shape than they were back when the DOI report came out.
“As for the shelter dynamics, no, we’ve made a lot of changes and improvements since the DOI report, and we’ve documented that,” he said. “I can’t speak to the totality of the comptroller’s report, because I haven’t seen it, but I can say that we’ve addressed a number of the issues that came up in the comptroller’s report.”