Op Ed: Homeless Shelter Operators Must Open Their Books

Homeless
Shelter residents drag out garbage bags filled with clothing. Photo by Dean Moses
Maria Danzilo, candidate for the State Senate’s 30th District in Manhattan

Homelessness, one of New York City’s most intractable problems, keeps getting worse. The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) spent an astounding $3 billion in 2021, a dramatic increase from $774 million in 2010. Despite this, the number of adults in shelters has doubled – to over 100,000 – with more sleeping on streets and subways. 

Mayor Adams has earmarked an additional $171 million in the next budget and the Independent Budget Office has indicated that millions more will be needed in 2022 and 2023. While it is reassuring to see our focus on the problem, it is clear that massive spending is not working.  City leaders need to open the books of shelter operators.

Many existing shelters are unsafe and unsanitary, even though our City is spending an extraordinary amount—at least $100,000 per individual a year. Transparency and accountability will lead to informed decision-making, safer shelters, and better outcomes for shelter residents and New Yorkers overall.

Recently, Community Board 2, covering Chinatown and adjacent neighborhoods, grappled with whether a Best Western Hotel should be converted to a “drop-in shelter,” a facility with very few rules.

Residents argued that Chinatown has more than its fair share of shelters and a facility that enables drug and alcohol use will hurt residents with chemical dependencies and further destabilize a fragile neighborhood. They asserted that Chinatown shelters are not even at full capacity due to unsafe conditions. They are right.  By a vote of 37 to 7, Community Board 2 agreed on a resolution to not support this shelter. In a rare reversal, the City terminated the plan for the Grand Street site. 

As we grapple with filling the need for more beds we must first fix mismanaged shelters, a lack of accountability and transparency, and a history of DHS disregarding community input. With increasing homelessness and rapidly rising costs, broken shelters have to quickly meet the rising need.

In a recent New York Times interview, Christine Quinn, President of WIN, the City’s largest women’s shelter provider, said, “The history of homeless services has not been driven by the goal of ending homelessness. It has been driven by getting the topic off the cover of the paper, mostly tabloids.” It is also driven by the self-perpetuating nature of providers who operate with little oversight.

Proper oversight will weed out corruption and abuse. Victor Rivera, who ran the Bronx Housing Network, which received $275 Million in taxpayer money, was arrested for sexual assault, bribery, and financial improprieties, but only after the Times exposed the story. It is deeply troubling that this scandal has failed to ignite reform.

Opening the books, auditing, and examining shelter operations will keep people safe. Every shelter must be confirmed safe and clean and provide fair working conditions. Punitive financial penalties, including contract termination for failure to live up to standards and metrics should be imposed. Providers who reach performance standards, including ensuring that overhead and administrative salaries are not bloated should be rewarded. A comprehensive plan to address mental illness among the homeless, and metrics for providers delivering services must be implemented. These pragmatic steps will demonstrate the City is serious about dismantling ingrained institutional dysfunction and reducing homelessness. Otherwise, we’re just kicking the can down the road.

One of the few leaders to take a stand on mismanaged providers is City Council Member Robert Holden. In March, he introduced a bill that would require DHS to submit an annual report of every shelter provider’s performance. The Council needs to pass this bill.

Although Brad Lander, New York City’s Comptroller, is required to conduct performance and financial audits of city agencies, he hasn’t prioritized auditing DHS.

Mr. Lander’s wife, Meg Barnette, is President and CEO of the powerful lobbying group Non-Profit New York, the umbrella organization for over 4,700 nonprofits, including major homeless service providers. This astounding conflict undermines trust in Mr. Lander’s independence, and suggests he may not make the hard choices needed to fix a broken and costly shelter system which rewards itself for perpetuating homelessness. 

Mr. Lander’s March 2022 audit report failed to raise serious problems from past audits. More surprisingly, the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, which monitors vendor performance evaluations at DHS, hasn’t performed a full audit in years. The last one, from fiscal year 2018, revealed a blatant disregard of auditor recommendations. At the very least, Mr. Lander should have highlighted this report as a critical failing requiring immediate correction. 

New Yorkers deserve better. The Conflicts of Interest Board must take decisive action.  If they don’t, the State must step in to mandate independent oversight. While New York is flush with federal cash, economic indicators point to a harsh reckoning on the horizon. 

Despite federal funds, more hotel conversions are planned. Mayor Adams must consider fully the financial consequences on New York when vibrant tourist hotels are removed from the market and replaced with facilities that provide no tax benefits and engage in practices likely to destabilize communities. We need the full disclosure of special interests who have financial incentives for hotel conversions. 

Our City’s leaders should adopt a mindset that fixing what is broken is better than ignoring what is broken, or worse, blindly throwing money at the problem with little accountability. We need safe, clean, and functional hotels for tourists, and a well-run, efficient, modernized shelter system focused on rehabilitation and a better tomorrow for our homeless. 

Maria Danzilo is a Candidate for State Senate in New York’s 30th District, Manhattan. 

More from Around New York