A stalemate over homeless contracts as city expects winter spike in shelter population

In politics, nothing happens by coïncidence 

The Pan American Hotel on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, Queens.  The hotel was converted into a shelter that has been cited with many code violations.  Opponents of the rapid expansion of homeless shelters in Queens have used the issue of code violations to call for the closure of the Pan Am shelter.  Meanwhile, critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio have used code violations at city-financed shelters to embarrass the mayor.  Caught in the middle are New Yorkers, who lack permanent shelter.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens/File Photo (Oct. 2014)

The Pan American Hotel on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, Queens.  The hotel was converted into a shelter that has been cited with many code violations.  Opponents of the rapid expansion of homeless shelters in Queens have used the issue of code violations to call for the closure of the Pan Am shelter.  Meanwhile, critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio have used code violations at city-financed shelters to embarrass the mayor.  Caught in the middle are New Yorkers, who lack permanent shelter.  Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens/File Photo (Oct. 2014)

By LOUIS FLORES

The political stalemate over unregistered New York City government contracts with homeless shelter providers is pitting hard ball politics against the needs of the homeless.

Since before he was sworn into office, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) faced an expectation that he would finally marshal the resources to provide shelter to New York City’s homeless citizens and put an end to “A Tale of Two Cities” that he campaigned against.  But, so far, Mayor de Blasio’s managed to ignore a federal class action lawsuit demanding the city provide shelter for all homeless youths at a time when the growing ranks of citizens lacking permanent housing continues to lack a “Marshall Plan.”

After enduring months of endless criticism about the escalation of the homeless population on his watch, to the highest levels since the Great Depression, according to a report published by The New York Times, Mayor de Blasio sought to deflect criticisms and augment some programs to fight a problem of “perception.”  

A few weeks after the administration was reported to have changed it’s tune, all of a sudden, nonprofit groups that depend on city contracts for funding are rolling up political blame to one of Mayor de Blasio’s political rivals, namely, Comptroller Scott Stringer (D-New York City).

In the rough and tumble world of New York City politics, nothing happens by coïncidence.

A report of shelter violations

After a scathing report from the city’s Department of Investigation found that many of the city’s homeless shelter providers were not in compliance with basic building code regulations, the de Blasio administration has been caught between charges that it was not adequately addressing homelessness, on the one hand, and trying to deal with homeless shelter providers that have lacked the resources to adequately address their contract compliance and code violations, on the other.  Some of the code violations found at some homeless shelters have included insect and rodent infestations, exposed electrical wiring, broken smoke alarms, broken window guards, water damage, and mold, amongst other complaints.

The Department of Investigation report made several recommendations to the city’s Department of Homeless Services, or DHS, to address the issues found with homeless shelter providers.  The first recommendation made was for DHS to deal with the contract issues, so that DHS could, in part, “ensure that providers of shelter facilities maintain and repair their facilities.”

Some good government activists only see Comptroller Stringer’s actions as following through on the Department of Investigation’s recommendation.  Given that the Department of Investigation noted that DHS was not enforcing compliance at homeless shelter providers, the city’s Comptroller’s Office, tasked as it is to oversee city contracts, has only been trying to enforce the Department of Investigation recommendation as it may apply to the Comptroller's Office, a representative from the Comptroller’s Office told Progress Queens.  The representative spoke on condition of anonymity, so that the representative could address the politically-charged issue of the homeless shelter contracts.

“We stand ready to work with DHS,” the source said, adding that the Comptroller’s Office was not voiding contracts.  Rather, the Comptroller’s Office was returning contracts to their respective providers with requests for missing documentation that would allow the contracts to be registered, which would place the providers in a position to be paid.  The source also said that the Comptroller's Office has offered to help providers to resubmit their contracts with the required documentation.  Once the providers have the information that documents site inspections, in cases where that information was missing, the contracts could be “fixed” and “resubmitted” to the Comptroller’s Office, the source added.

To that end, Comptroller Stringer, who is the city official tasked with overseeing city contracts for outsourced services, has been disciplined about making sure that homeless shelter providers are in compliance with all applicable regulations before registering the providers’ contracts, a form of approval which acts to support the contracts for payment by the city.  Providers, which are out of compliance, have not had their contracts registered, creating situations where providers may be providing shelter and services to the city’s homeless citizens without receiving payment from the city as a result of contract complications.

The bad press from controversies

In the wake of some political opponents of Mayor de Blasio using homelessness as an issue against City Hall, the specter of the resulting political blame game that the daily newspapers can sometimes whip up, some of it valid, has been evident for months.  There can be immense political ramifications for city officials directing homeless citizens to take shelter with providers that may later develop problems.

When a baby died in 2014 at a Brooklyn shelter, Mayor de Blasio had to order a “review of the city’s procedures for addressing child safety and domestic violence in shelters,” according to a report in The New York Times.  That review didn’t come soon enough before a baby died at the Briarwood Family Residence, a shelter in Queens.

Even people refusing to enter the over-burdened shelter system can trigger political embarrassments for politicians.  When the same man became the subject of a preposterous series of reports published by The New York Post, Mayor de Blasio found himself reacting defensively to reports that New York City was reverting to its bad old days, a narrative often used by his big business and conservative critics to undermine the mayor's public standing.

Besides wreaking havoc on politicians, issues about shelter conditions have also divided communities.  When the operator of the Pan American Hotel shelter in Elmhurst, Queens, failed to address lingering code violations, some Queens residents opposed to the rapid expansion of homeless shelters in Queens used the code violations as an excuse to call for the closure of the shelter.  Other Queens community residents, who support the need to create adequate shelters for citizens lacking permanent housing, have been flummoxed to raise the issue of the need to address code violations out of fear of encouraging shelter opponents, according to information obtained by Progress Queens.

“We want the shelters to be safe,” the source with the Comptroller’s Office told Progress Queens, adding that, “We are putting human beings in the shelters.”

Michelle Jackson, an associate director and general counsel for the Human Services Council, an umbrella organisation for social services advocacy groups, said that politics should not be a factor in the provision of resources to address homelessness.  “We don’t want to see providers or the people they service caught in the middle,” Ms. Jackson said, adding that, “We would appreciate the Mayor’s Office and the Comptroller’s Office collaborate together.”

If Comptroller Stringer’s office wasn’t being diligent about the review of contract compliance with homeless shelter providers, some government reform activists could see how the de Blasio administration would attempt to shift political responsibility in the direction of Comptroller Stringer for problems when, in reality, it should be the responsibility of DHS, the city agency tasked with providing homeless services, to comply with the Department of Investigation’s recommendations.

The bad press about the dangerous conditions at some homeless shelters has acted to essentially freeze DHS in place, preventing it from getting out in advance of the contract compliance issue, perhaps out of fear of generating more negative press for City Hall.  For months, Mayor de Blasio has been trying to quell questions about his collapsing opinion poll ratings and speculation about potential 2017 primary challengers.  

The press office of DHS did not answer a request for an interview for this article.  Predictably, the press office of City Hall ignored a request for an interview for this article.

Whilst the source at the Comptroller’s Office spoke candidly about the contract issues, the source refused to address whether loyalists to City Hall were trying to deflect blame to Comptroller Stringer in a defensive move before City Hall begins to ramp up its 2017 machinations.

Winter is coming

One area where the source at the Comptroller’s Office and some advocates for increasing homeless service resources could agree, in discussions with Progress Queens, was in finding some sort of resolution before the homeless shelter population is again expected to spike during the cold, winter months just around the corner.

The source at the Comptroller’s Office said the coming winter underscored the need for DHS to address the contracts issues pointed out by the Department of Investigation.

And Ms. Jackson, from the Human Services Council, said that the homeless shelter providers were doing an amazing job accommodating a large homeless population under very difficult conditions, notably, in the face of nonpayment for services that they have been providing.  Nonetheless, the city was still putting “our providers in a bad place,” by denying the providers adequate, overall funding that is urgently needed to both sufficiently pay for adequate client services and capital investments in their infrastructure, Ms. Jackson said.

The political stalemate over the contracts issue has also finally revealed inadequacies in how the city funds some nonprofit groups.

To the homeless shelter providers, which are in compliance and have seen their contracts registered with the Comptroller’s Office, the city budget, approved by the Mayor’s Office and the New York City Council, only pays bare bones amounts to homeless shelter providers for the delivery of services.  These payments, when they are made, are not enough to pay for improvements to infrastructure, Ms. Jackson told Progress Queens, citing the current fracas as evidence that more investment needs to be made for capital repairs.

The bare bones budgets of many nonprofit groups operating in the human services field mean that the current contract issues that DHS refuses to address leave many nonprofit groups facing their own catch-22 :  borrow money to keep programs open or make cuts when citizens lacking permanent housing have no other place to go.

Ms. Jackson said that she sees a real commitment from the de Blasio administration in the area of providing resources for human services, but she noted that, since the recession, there’s been a limit to the federal, state, and municipal tax dollars available to fund such programs.

Nonprofit groups generally have three months of cash flow, or less, on hand.  The interruption in funding caused by the homeless shelter provider contract controversy means that many groups are confronting the loss of funding that may threaten their long-term financial health.  To continue operations, many groups are borrowing money, for which interest expenses will cut into the groups’ operating budgets.  Ms. Jackson also added that employee morale suffers, because employees begin to question to city’s long-term commitment to key nonprofit groups, even those which provide services strategic to the functioning of society, such as shelter to citizens lacking permanent housing.

“The city needs to push out the dollars,” Ms. Jackson said.

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