When the city quietly transformed a brand-new Bronx building into an emergency homeless shelter in August, it incited a lawsuit and a blitz of rallies. Last Saturday — the fifth in a series of Saturday protests that, organizers say, with continue up through the election — more than two dozen angry residents filled a pen set up near the mayor’s Pelham Bay campaign office. “No hearing, no shelter,” they chanted, “No hearing, no votes.”
A local business group involved in the protests is suing the Department of Homeless Services, and on Thursday comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson filed a claim asking the court to allow him to intervene in the matter between them and DHS…
Back in August, the Department of Homeless Services moved homeless families into a building at 1564 St. Peter’s Avenue in Westchester Square, a mile from Saturday’s protest. The agency struck a per-diem arrangement with the building’s landlord, without soliciting community input or conducting a fair share analysis, citing an emergency need.
With a record number of citizens facing homelessness, protest organizers criticized the Bloomberg administration’s homeless policies and said the surge in the population would likely lead to a repeat of the St. Peter’s Avenue shelter in neighborhoods throughout the city. (A Coalition for the Homeless report released this week found that over 39,000 New Yorkers are homeless — a 45 percent increase since the Mayor took office.)
Pprotest organizer Sandi Lusk (pictured) of the Westchester Square/Zerega Improvement Organization denounced the mayor’s subsidized housing policies. She said the removal of housing vouchers only exacerbated the city’s homeless problem.
“It’s far beyond the scope of this,” she said, indicating the protest. She added it would only be a matter of time before the city “leapfrogged regulations” again. (The Coalition’s report predicts thousands more homeless families come December.)
John Bonizio, president of the Westchester Square Merchants Association — which financed the lawsuit against DHS — agreed.
“This is not just about St. Peter’s Avenue,” he said. ” It’s not just about a shelter. And it is certainly not about the homeless or people of this area not wanting to have shelters in their neighborhood. It’s a citywide problem that’s going to get worse after the election.”
The lawsuit, in which Bonizio and Lusk are plaintiffs, seeks to close down the shelter because it was opened without going through the Uniformed Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) or a “fair share” analysis. Over 20 social service providers saturate the area surrounding the site.
DHS also pays what opponents consider an exorbitant $2,700 a month for each unit. The agency pays the property’s landlord $90 a day, and the landlord subsequently pays Basic Housing Inc. $6 to provide social services.
This led Comptroller Thompson to file his claim on Thursday. He had already ordered DHS to cease payments to the landlord in September, and in court papers Thompson reiterated that the agency had no right to make payments since no contract existed.
While on the campaign trail in the Bronx on Friday, Thompson condemned the out-of-contract arrangements, since in 2003 an investigation by his office found that DHS violated procurement requirements with scatter-site housing it provided to homeless citizens in apartment buildings and hotels.
“The Mayor had promised that that’s not the way that things would happen,” Thompson said. “He said he would not do that. Again he broke his commitment.”
But DHS Commissioner Robert H. Hess said that the agency followed guidance it received from the city’s law department and followed legal requirements for securing shelter units. The scatter-site program was nixed, he said, and about three-quarters of the units in the shelter system operated under contracts.
“The per-diem payment process bridges the time lag between when shelter units must be made available and when contracts can be legally registered,” Hess said. “Not only is the per-diem process legal, it is an absolute necessity to ensure that those in need are provided with the shelter New York City is legally and morally obligated to provide.”
Assemblyman Michael Benedetto (pictured), who marched with protesters this week, said that angry community members did not take issue with the agency’s mission to house the homeless. Instead, he said, it was the absence of due process.
The assemblyman, council member Jimmy Vacca, and state senator Jeff Klein attempted to reach out to the administration to discuss the issue, but they’ve been rebuffed, he said.
“In effect, what’s been done here is the Mayor is saying to our community, drop dead, he doesn’t care,” he added.
The St. Peter’s Avenue shelter is not the first opened without notification. In the Bronx, residents of a Mosholu Parkway building learned earlier this year that the agency moved homeless families there only after noticing a security guard had been placed in the lobby. And in a Bedford Park building, teachers at a local school learned of a homeless shelter when they noticed bunk beds being delivered to the Briggs Avenue site.
The agency also entered a per diem arrangement with the owner of a luxury condo in Brooklyn, where apartments complete with granite counter tops and walk-in closets failed to sell at the asking price of $350,000. The owner of that building now receives $90 a day.
To Bonizio, the practice hit tax payers with a “double whammy.” He said it costs far too much, and hurts middle class families who had no opportunity to voice their opinions. He said the shelter in Westchester Square would cause property values to sink.
The business organization leader said that he’d reach out to the Coalition to the Homeless to underscore the point that their concerns centered on policy and had little to do with not wanting to help those in need.
“It’s about ill-planned Department of Homeless Services policy that’s created homelessness in New York City and is now using taxpayers money to fight that problem in an inefficient and irresponsible way,” he said.