A Rare Glimpse Inside

The New York Times has offered New Yorkers a rare look inside one of the dozens of illegal boarding houses increasingly used by the City of New York to shelter homeless adults.

This week’s “Rooms” photo-essay spotlights an illegally-converted boarding house on Seymour Avenue in the Bronx. This is one of the growing number of illegal boarding houses where the NYC Department of Homeless Services (as well as an addiction treatment program) has placed homeless men, including individuals living with mental illness and other disabilities – even when the City was aware of hazardous and illegal conditions.

The web version of the “Rooms” photo-essay features a 360-degree, rotating view (by photographer Fred Conrad) of one of the severely overcrowded rooms – and, sadly, this room is far from the worst in the Seymour Avenue house. As reporter Alan Feuer’s brief essay notes, many of the men living in the decrepit boarding house suffer from serious psychiatric disorders, and are merely looking for safe, permanent housing and treatment for their illnesses.

Last year City inspectors ordered the Seymour Avenue house vacated due to fire safety hazards, but the City refused to offer the men help with re-location to new housing. The residents – with the help of the Legal Aid Society – sued the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, arguing that they deserved housing re-location assistance. Although the City stubbornly denied them help, the residents prevailed at the trial court, and the City’s appeal is still pending.

Sadly, the Seymour Avenue house and its horrendous conditions are not unusual. Indeed, the Bloomberg administration’s policies are fueling an expanding, underground market for illegal boarding houses citywide. In January 2008 Coalition for the Homeless released a comprehensive report, “Warehousing the Homeless,” that documented the City’s accelerating use of illegal dwellings to shelter vulnerable homeless adults. When we released that report more than a year ago, the Coalition had learned about some 65 illegal boarding houses used by the City.

Since then, tragically, Bloomberg administration officials have refused to halt referrals of homeless people to such illegal dwellings, and the Department of Homeless Services has placed more and more homeless adults in unsafe, illegal boarding houses. The Coalition now has compiled a list of more than 110 such illegal dwellings where the City has placed thousands of homeless adults.

Many of these buildings continue to be plagued by life-threatening hazards. Last November, as the New York Daily News reported, City inspectors vacated four illegal boarding houses in Jamaica, Queens, which were found to have illegal gas hookups and other fire safety violations. The homeless men that were removed from the houses over the Thanksgiving holiday were forced to return to municipal shelters.

Bloomberg Administration’s Far-Fetched Claims About Street Homelessness

Yesterday, the New York City Department of Homeless Service released the results of its annual – and annually disputed – HOPE survey of street homelessness, and this year the City’s claims were met by extraordinary skepticism.

City officials claimed that, despite the worsening economic recession, the number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping on streets or in the subway system had fallen 30 percent from last year. They also claimed that the street homeless population was 47 percent lower than that in 2005.

Mary Brosnahan, the Coalition’s executive director, responded to the City’s claims this way: “The numbers released by the City today defy credibility and run counter to what New Yorkers observe every day on New York’s streets….Do New Yorkers really think there are half as many homeless people on our streets as four years ago?” (The full text of the Coalition’s statement is below.)

Many news organizations reported on the City’s street homelessness estimate, and many of the news reports captured the widespread skepticism about the incredible claims, including the Associated Press and WNYC radio. The New York Times’ City Room blog, which had a thorough report, quoted a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which mandates that cities nationwide produce street homelessness estimates as a requirement for Federal funding. The HUD official described the estimates as “point-in-time snapshot counts” and added, “They’re really just a glimpse at homelessness.”

COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS STATEMENT ON RESULTS OF NEW YORK COUNT OF STREET HOMELESS

New York, March 4, 2009 – “The numbers released by the City today defy credibility and run counter to what New Yorkers observe every day on New York’s streets.

The Bloomberg administration is claiming that there is the same number of homeless people in New York City as in San Diego – a city with one sixth of New York’s population.

Looked at over a four year period the city is arguing it has cut street homelessness in half. Do New Yorkers really think there are half as many homeless people on our streets as four years ago?

The methodology of the HOPE count and its reliance on a questionable statistical model have long been debated and now we know why.

What’s clear is this: tonight thousands of New Yorkers will sleep on our city’s streets, and as the economy continues to collapse that number will only increase.

This is the wrong time for New York City to be moving forward with plans to cut off access to emergency shelter by closing drop-in centers, eliminating shelter beds in houses of worship throughout the city and relocating the front door of the shelter system from the center of street homelessness in midtown Manhattan to the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.”