A Shelter Where the Cold Is An Unwanted Resident

(This article was originally posted on the New York Times’ Local blog and in the New York Times City Room.)

Auburn Residence Violations

To combat the icy chill that has invaded their rooms this winter, some women and families staying in a Fort Greene homeless shelter say they have slept in layers of clothes and bathrobes, with as many as eight blankets at night.

But those measures haven’t been enough to fight the cold at the Auburn Family Residence, one of the largest family shelters in New York City, and it has had health implications for some residents.

“My kids are all sick,” said a resident, Catherine, who did not want her last name used for fear that speaking to the press might jeopardize her housing.  “All of the kids in the shelter are sick because of the [expletive] cold in the rooms.”

Complaints about cold temperatures and unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the Auburn Family Residence are nothing new.As The Local reported last winter, the heat in the building, at 39 Auburn Place, has long been unreliable, partly due to engineering complications, and that’s just one of a long list of violations that the eight-floor emergency housing facility for families and single women has accumulated in various city reviews in recent years.

But despite some repairs by the Department of Homeless Services, the 100 families and 44 single women who are staying at the shelter this winter still languish in appalling conditions, residents and local community organizers have complained. Recent increases in the building’s homeless population, coupled with a lack of funding to increase the shelter’s staff, have exacerbated the problems, advocates say.

Fort Greene SNAP, a community advocacy organization and social services provider based nearby on Myrtle Avenue, learned of the shelter’s violations through Freedom of Information Law requests, which they filed in response to Auburn residents’ complaints, said a representative of the organization.

An Oct. 4 report by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which oversees the NYC Department of Homeless Services, listed more than 20 violations at the Auburn Residence, ranging from unsanitary conditions to insufficient services.

Inadequate food, inadequate medical attention, a leaky roof, moldy rooms and bathrooms with broken sinks and doors were among the violations, as well as insufficient security and fire safety protections, fetid odors, and leaks from waste containers.

Of 76 resident children under the age of 5 at the shelter, only nine were attending day care, as regulations require, the inspectors found. The lack of day care arrangements was also cited in 2009, 2008, 2007, and prior years.

Additionally, peeling paint on walls and ceilings cause a lead paint hazard, according to a May 2010 report by the Division of Facility Maintenance and Development’s Routine Site Review Inspection. A 2009 DHS report also pointed to the lead paint hazard in the building.

None of these problems are new. A 2006 OTDA report found that approximately 90 percent of the Auburn Residence apartments were “excessively cold” and noted that residents placed “mattresses in the windows in order to prevent cold air from penetrating the room.” The next year’s inspection found that “16 rooms were off-line due to the lack of heat due in part to drafty non-storm windows.” In 2008, a DHS inspection stated, “heat not working properly throughout building.”

Since then the shelter has replaced drafty windows, but residents say the rooms are still freezing cold, and some blame the persisting heat problems on a faulty boiler. The boiler that provides heat to the shelter is controlled by and located in Cumberland Hospital, which sits adjacent to the shelter at 100 North Portland Avenue. Since the shelter relies on that unattached boiler, shelter personnel cannot control temperatures in their own building.

The OTDA has repeatedly inquired as to the “long-standing plans” of DHS to install a new boiler, which were referenced in a 2008 budget hearing reportand 2009 OTDA report. In its response to the latter report, DHS stated that, “the heating upgrade was scrapped due to the lack of space in the basement needed to accommodate new boilers, as well as fiscal constraints.”

DHS spokesperson Heather Janik said that there are no heat problems at the Auburn Residence.

“Auburn Shelter is adequately heated for all residents,” she said in a recent e-mail. “Heat issues of the past were remedied by an $8 million capitol renovation project replacing all exterior windows with new energy efficient windows to prevent any heat loss through window panes.”

The reappearance of old violations seems to defy OTDA regulations.  The regulations state that, “DHS must correct deficiencies or submit a corrective action plan within 30 days,” said Anthony Farmer, OTDA’s public information director.

Craig Hughes, an organizer at Fort Greene SNAP, said some of the blame for Auburn’s condition falls on OTDA, which he said could have done more to push DHS to correct the shelter’s deficiencies.

“OTDA has called DHS on the heating issues for years, just like it cited them on child care issues,” Mr Hughes said. “But that doesn’t mean that OTDA sees it as a thing it’s going to push the hardest, in the context of all the other difficulties at DHS.”

Still, he added, “The ultimate blame lies on DHS. DHS prioritizes certain things in its budget and doesn’t prioritize others.”

Residents with medical needs are particularly vulnerable to the shelter’s chronic maintenance problems. Liza Rodriguez, a disabled resident, reported her difficulties using her floor’s shared bathroom, as well as the building’s elevator.

“I’m supposed to be in a disabled room with a bathroom inside,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “Sometimes I pee on myself because I don’t reach the bathroom in time.”

The elevator has been problematic since at least 2007, a year in which the OTDA report cited frequent elevator breakdowns that required the fire department to respond and extricate residents. Ms. Rodriguez said she has waited 45 minutes for the elevator to appear when called. This forces her sometimes to struggle down the stairs from her fourth-floor residence in order to make it to doctor’s appointments on time.

The Auburn Family Residence underwent a significant structural change this year, which advocates say has contributed to the chaos within the building.

Historically a family shelter, the building opened its top two floors to single women in October of this year to fill vacancies. There are now 69 beds for single women on the 7th and 8th floors, 44 of which were occupied as of Dec. 4, according to the DHS nightly census. Meanwhile, the population of families, housed on floors 2 to 6, also increased over the past year, from 80 families in May to 100 in October.

Records show that the shelter has received repeated violations for insufficient staff, including lack of housing specialists and recreation workers. On one inspection day this year, the 2010 OTDA report states, there were 112 school-age children at the shelter with only one recreation worker to supervise them. DHS has cited financial restraints in its responses to those violations.

Despite the increased population of residents, the shelter has not increased its staff of case managers, said Fort Greene SNAP organizers. Thus, the ratio of residents to on-site caseworkers has increased, putting a strain on resources. DHS would not provide information regarding the number of case managers employed at the shelter, but the shelter’s most recent available operational plan listed eight.  That plan is somewhat out of date, though, as the shelter has failed to submit an operational plan to the city for several of the past years, a violation cited in several OTDA reports.

The shelter plans to hire additional caseworkers for the single residents, said Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Heather Janik. She would not elaborate on how many staff would be hired, when, or with what funding. Previously, DHS officials had denied plans to add staff, stating that the singles floors were temporary.

The Department of Homeless Services faced a budget reduction target of $24.5 million for fiscal year 2011, and planned to cut 57 positions agency-wide, according to a May 2010 City Council document. Thus far the DHS budget for fiscal year 2011 has in fact exceeded 2010 spending by $39.6 million, but the agency faces a proposed $17 million cut for fiscal year 2012, said Doug Turetsky of the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Shelter security positions were also cut citywide for fiscal year 2011, including 13 contracted security officers at the Auburn Family Shelter as of May. Last year saw at least one violent incident at the Auburn Residence, in which a pregnant woman was assaulted, and DHS reported 16 other incidents with police involvement during fiscal year 2010, including one that ended in a fatal stabbing. DHS plans to replace the contracted security officers with DHS peace officers; 30 such officers will remain on staff at the Auburn shelter.

The shelter has also been involved in other controversies. In May of 2009,former Auburn Shelter resident Martha Gonzalez took her case to City Hall when the shelter demanded that she start paying $1,099 for her sparse room after she landed a job as a security guard. Ms. Gonzalez’s protest contributed to public outcry over the citywide enforcement of the policy, which was suspended later that month.

In the last couple of years, the New York City shelter population has climbed ever higher. According to an annual report by the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, at the end of January 2010 there were 10,375 homeless families sleeping in New York City municipal shelters, an all-time record high, and an increase of 3,183 from January 2009. The DHS daily census counts are lower, with 8,236 homeless families on record for January 2010, but they do show a nearly 12-percent increase in sheltered families with children since 2005. This year’s DHS count shows another increase, with a recorded 8,335 families with children staying in New York City shelters on January 14, 2011.

Meanwhile, the children at Auburn Residence, “have terrible, terrible colds that are forcing them to miss school,” said Claire Cuno, a Fort Greene SNAP organizer.

And, she added, “With missing school comes a boatload of other problems.”

About Eliza Ronalds-Hannon