New York City

Stringer Audit: Dept. of Homeless Services places families with children in shelters with substandard conditions

December 23, 2015 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Auditors found that 53 percent of inspected apartments had evidence of rodents, roaches and other vermin. Photos courtesy of Comptroller Stringer’s Office
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The New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) places homeless families with children in shelters plagued by rodents, mold, peeling paint and broken windows, according to an audit released Tuesday by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer.

The audit identified a number of operational deficiencies that contributed to these conditions, including the fact that DHS allows shelter providers to “self-monitor” their own facilities, has inadequate oversight over inspections performed by shelter staff, has failed to meet the agency’s own goal for helping families transition out of shelters into long-term housing, and has regularly failed to sign contracts with shelters, often relying on verbal agreements instead.

“Over 23,000 homeless children in our city slept in nightmare conditions last night, many of them surrounded by peeling paint, some of them feeling the chill from broken windows and others sharing space with vermin,” said Stringer.

“It is essential for DHS to repair all of the operational deficiencies that helped lead to the current conditions, develop a bold, new plan and take decisive action,” he continued. “The city needs to secure appropriate funding to fix these problems, and ensure that essential services are being provided. DHS must get rid of the rodents and the mold, stop gas leaks, fix the holes in the walls and repair the windows.” 

Stringer’s audit sampled 101 randomly selected housing units in the city’s 155 shelters that serve families with children. It focused on families that had been placed in shelters during fiscal years 2013 and 2014 and that still lived in a shelter in October 2015. 

Auditors found that 53 percent of inspected apartments had evidence of rodents, roaches and other vermin; and 87 percent of inspected units had conditions that raised health and safety concerns, such as malfunctioning smoke detectors, blocked fire escapes, mold, mildew, peeling paint and walls with holes.  

Auditors also found that DHS failed to hold shelter providers accountable. DHS had only 14 program analysts — the front-line staffers who oversee social services — assigned at 155 shelters housing 12,500 families. This meant that each analyst was responsible for 11 shelters and 900 families.

DHS program analysts told auditors that due to the large caseloads, it was “not reasonable” for them to be aware of all shelter conditions. Instead, analysts relied on the shelter providers themselves to flag issues and “self-report” compliance and repairs.

In 2014, DHS failed to ensure the creation of Corrective Action Plan reports, which are used to correct insufficient services and unsafe conditions, within the required period of 30 days.

“When DHS doesn’t monitor its facilities, New Yorkers suffer. Without oversight, the city has no idea whether the shelters are safe, clean and appropriate for families with children to be staying there,” Stringer commented. 

DHS set a goal of transitioning shelter residents out of emergency housing within 270 days.  Examining a sample of 12 “long-term” shelter families housed in eight different facilities, auditors found that DHS failed significantly to meet these standards. 

State law mandates that shelters ensure the safety of residents with onsite cameras and adequate security. But auditors found that one cluster site, which houses 300 families in 16 buildings, had only one guard, who was stationed in the main building. There were no security guards stationed at the other 15 buildings. In direct violation of DHS’s own rule, there were no sign-in and sign-out logs for residents to use when entering or exiting the building.

The city charter mandates that all services paid with city money be procured in accordance with the Charter and Procurement Policy Board rules. During the time frame of the audit, DHS placed families in 64 shelters that were operating without a written contract.

“It is critically important for DHS to have contracts with shelter providers,” commented Stringer. “If you don’t have a contract, it’s extremely difficult to enforce health and safety codes.”

Stringer recommended that DHS transfer staff from other DHS units so that there are more program analysts to oversee shelters in which children are at risk, revamp monitoring controls to ensure that shelters provide ILPs for individual families in a timely manner, ensure that apartments are inspected by shelter providers and more.

“When it comes to housing children and families, DHS has failed the test again and again,” Stringer said. “It is an agency in disrepair, and this audit shows how badly management has fallen short in its responsibility to provide safe and secure shelter.”

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