Fault LinesSunday 9pm ET/ 6pm PT
Victor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

New York City's homeless find little comfort in shelter system

The city overpays for dilapidated, pest-infested housing for its down-on-their-luck residents

In "Shadow City," Fault Lines examines the historic crisis of family homelessness in New York City and investigates the forces displacing so many from their homes. The film airs on Monday, March 30, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


On a bitterly cold January afternoon, Michelle Young, a single mother of two, does her best to keep the frigid air outside from getting through the windows in her Bronx apartment.

“Usually, I put all the dirty clothes here to keep the cold from coming in,” said Young, pointing to one of the windows of the neat and sparsely furnished home. “The heating is not really that good. There are days when I usually turn on the hot water and oven throughout the night to keep the apartment warm.”

Young’s two-bedroom unit is one of the 3,140 so-called “cluster sites” in New York—privately owned apartments that the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) uses to temporarily shelter families while determining their eligibility for housing assistance.

Young, 43, is one of the nearly 60,000 homeless people currently in New York City’s shelter system, the highest number since the Great Depression.

Under state law, the city is legally obligated to provide shelter to anyone who requests it. But families sheltered in cluster-site units live in poorly maintained buildings plagued by infestations of mice, rats, bedbugs and roaches.

“You see all the antennas when you cook,” said Young, referring to an army of cockroaches she found in the kitchen soon after DHS placed her in the apartment back in October of last year.

Despite repeated complaints to DHS about the infestation, Young and her 13-year-old son were forced to take matters into their own hands and fumigate the unit themselves.

“We put bombs all in each room. We stepped out for about 3 hours. We came back, everything was there,” she said, pointing to the floor where the dead pests were when they returned.

Substandard Conditions

Tiffany Rosado, a 27-year old, homeless mother of five, said at times there isn’t enough heat or hot water at the Intervale Avenue cluster site in the Bronx neighborhood of Longwood, where she’s been living since December 2014.

The facility, Rosado and former residents said, is filthy and rodent-infested. The building has eight open code violations, according to city records. Rosado said that despite numerous complaints, the broken elevator hasn’t been repaired or shut off, potentially endangering residents on upper levels of the building.

The Intervale Avenue cluster site was cited several times in the past for hazardous conditions. Aguila, Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates more than 200 cluster-site units in the Bronx, runs the facility. (Update: After this piece published, Aguila contacted Al Jazeera America to say it stopped providing service at the Intervale Avenue cluster site this past August.)

Bunk beds are one of the few furnishings typically found in shelters made available to homeless families
Sam Black for Al Jazeera America

DHS pays agencies such as Aguila to provide apartments for homeless people while helping them find jobs and permanent housing. In a 2013 report, then city Comptroller John Liu demanded City Hall cut ties with the company, after uncovering unsafe and unsanitary practices at its shelters. Nevertheless, in September 2014, the de Blasio administration awarded Aguila a $16 million contract.

That contract could include a huge premium footed by New York City’s taxpayers.

According to a yearlong Department of Investigation (DOI) probe, DHS is paying private landlords and nonprofits as much as three times market rate for the substandard housing homeless families occupy. Officials found that the average nightly rate for an apartment in a cluster site is $81.71 (or $2,451 monthly), while in surrounding neighborhoods, the market rate for units in non-shelter buildings ranges from $528 to $1,200 a month.

DHS will spend more than $1.11 billion on homeless shelter and services this fiscal year, according to city estimates. The agency currently houses more than 14,000 families with children in roughly 150 permanent shelters and 16 temporary cluster sites, primarily in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The cluster-site program, originally called scattered-site housing, has drawn sharp criticism since its inception more than eight years ago.

In its scathing report released earlier this month, DOI inspectors found buildings to be rundown, filthy and often overrun with pests. In many apartments, inspectors witnessed roaches crawling on the walls, flytraps swarming with dead flies, chipped paint throughout the units, pools of urine in common areas, and holes in corners and under sinks, allowing rats and mice free access, the report said.

“The cluster sites are the worst maintained, the most poorly monitored and provide the least adequate social services to families,” DOI proclaimed.

The agency’s commissioner, Mark Peters, said DHS must take immediate steps to ensure that the health and safety of those families living in the shelter system are protected and that dangerous and unhealthy violations are corrected.

You are made to feel like a criminal simply because of how the system is run.

Tawana Little

New York City Tier II shelter resident

Mary Brosnahan, president of the advocacy organization Coalition for the Homeless, called the findings “deeply disturbing” and said they “reveal how much further New York City must go to provide decent shelter for our homeless neighbors in crisis.”

In a statement, DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor said that his agency has accepted all of DOI’s recommendations.

"We have already begun implementing corrective actions in the areas referenced in the report, and pressing problems have either been addressed or are in the process of being corrected,” Taylor said.

Restricted Living

For families in the New York City shelter system, the poorly maintained facilities are just one of many obstacles they face in their daily lives.

“You can’t use a microwave. You can’t use a blender,” said Tawana Little, who currently resides in a so-called “Tier II” shelter in the Bronx.

Tawana Little, who has been in the city's shelter system since 2013, said she is not allowed to hang curtains in the apartment they provided for her.
Victor Tadashi Suárez for Al Jazeera America

Tier II shelters are apartment-style facilities DHS uses to house families deemed eligible for shelter. They are the most common type of housing available to the city’s homeless. New York City currently has 97 Tier II facilities providing housing for more than 7,400 families, according to DOI. Most of the facilities are run by nonprofits and are better maintained than cluster sites.

However, many residents, including Little, said DHS imposes rigid rules that make life in any type of shelter uncomfortable.

For instance, occupants are not allowed to bring furniture into the units, even when they end up staying for years. Shelter facilities that Fault Lines managed to access had few furnishings. Bunk beds, mattresses and cribs were standard, but residents repeatedly mentioned that amenities such as microwaves, toasters or hair-dryers aren’t allowed.

DHS says once a family enters the shelter system, they have certain responsibilities that they must meet. Failure to comply with the “Client Responsibility” rules could result in the eviction of the family.

For instance, guests and extended family are not allowed to visit, even during holidays, several homeless families told Fault Lines. And residents are required to sign in and out at all times and must abide by curfew hours.

Little said she’s not even allowed to put up curtains in the apartment her family has lived in since August.

“In [the city’s] thinking, these things make you feel comfortable,” she said. “And these things make you feel like you're going to be here longer.”

Little, a 42-year-old, single mother of six who has lived in the city’s shelter system since June 2013. Before being relocated into Tier II housing, she was a resident of the very same Intervale Avenue cluster site with several code violations where Tiffany Rosado currently lives.

She believes the condition of the shelter system and its rules that deny basic comforts fail to empower New York City’s most vulnerable population to get back on its feet. In fact, she says, it’s quite the opposite.

“You are made to feel like a criminal simply because of how the system is run,” Little said.


Additional reporting by Sam Black and Anjali Kamat.

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