In 2012 a purported “rumor” surfaced that the former factory at 78-16 Cooper Avenue in Glendale was to become a homeless shelter. This “rumor” was realized to be a reality when, in August 2013, Samaritan Village informed Community Board 5 they intended to operate a homeless shelter at the site. Research on the shelter provider and the NYC shelter system in general aroused numerous concerns in addition to concerns regarding the site itself. Concerns included, but were not limited to, the following:
Samaritan Village is a not-for-profit whose tax exempt status was granted based on the mission of providing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. A review of their tax filings revealed 99% of their funding comes from governmental agencies with no funds raised via fundraising or philanthropy. The President and CEO of Samaritan Village, Tino Hernandez, was a former high ranking official within several NYC agencies and served as the Deputy Commissioner for Adult Services at the Department of Homeless Services where he was responsible for the formation of homeless shelter policy and led the city’s efforts to privatize city shelters. Further analysis of their tax filings revealed that since Mr. Hernandez’s becoming President and CEO of Samaritan Village in 2008, Samaritan Village’s contracts with DHS have increased 590%, however the homeless population has increased only 36% for the same time period reviewed.
Misappropriation of taxpayer $
Aside from obvious conflict of interest and possible cronyism, further research revealed an audit performed by NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli cited Samaritan Village, as a vendor for the Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, for misuse and misappropriation of approximately $1 million of taxpayer funds.
Additional research regarding quality of life and crime issues in and around homeless shelters, some of which are operated by Samaritan Village, added to the concerns, as well as allegations of abuse of shelter residents at the hands of Samaritan Village employees.
The former factory at 78-16 Cooper Avenue to be used as a site for warehousing 125 families added additional concerns. The site itself is adjacent to a chemical factory and a hazardous waste remediation site, and directly abuts an active freight line used to transport solid waste materials. Access to the site via vehicle is limited and can create dangerous conditions for vehicles and pedestrians due to the road design and vehicular congestion. The site is not convenient to many public transit options, nor is it convenient to basic necessities such as supermarkets and hospitals. The area lacks the appropriate infrastructure to support such a large influx of people, especially children, as it is located in the most overcrowded school district in NYC. Placing a large scale shelter in this location clearly would not provide effective and efficient services to the residents of the shelter and would create additional strains on the neighborhood.
Warehousing the Homeless
The proposed shelter comes at a cost of $3,600 to house one family for one month. DHS has indicated length of shelter stays are increasing and currently average 14 months. It is apparent that large scale shelter providers are not effectively and efficiently transitioning homeless families to permanent housing. DHS has also indicated that many homeless families are homeless as the result of eviction. Surely, the funds expended to warehouse a family in a shelter would be better spent on rent subsidies with the cost savings going to other preventative and assistance measures to those in need. Families are needlessly uprooted from their neighborhoods, friends, schools, and places of worship to be “stored” in a large scale facility and at times, shuffled from one facility to another. Warehousing the homeless does nothing to solve the homeless crisis and is not in alignment with Mayor DeBlasio’s plan to help the homeless and those facing the prospect of homelessness.
Lack of transparency and dialogue
Accordingly, local elected officials, the Community Board, and residents have
repeatedly expressed these and many other grave concerns to Samaritan Village and NYC’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS); however, these concerns have largely been ignored or dismissed. The lack of transparency, lack of any meaningful substantive dialogue, and total disregard for the community’s concerns has raised more questions than answers. To illustrate, here are a few examples:
At the hearing held on May 22, 2014 at Christ the King High School, representatives from DHS and Samaritan Village “answered” questions with vague generic responses, did not respond at all, and/or hid behind the record number of homeless and the city’s obligation to provide shelter. Additionally, Lisa Black, the then Commissioner of DHS, responded to numerous questions by simply stating the Environmental Assessment would address those concerns.
One such question that remained unanswered after the May 22, 2014 hearing was what happens when shelter residents miss the shelter curfew. In response to follow-up questions sent to Lisa Black in June 2014 regarding the protocols when curfew is missed, asking if the neighborhood is searched or police are called, Lisa Black dismissively indicated these concerns were irrational.
In response to questions regarding possible housing of sex offenders and those with criminal history, DHS has consistently responded that by law, they must provide shelter regardless of criminal background. In June 2014, Kathy Masi, President of the Glendale Civic Association, requested information regarding screening processes to ensure persons with outstanding warrants, history of sexual assaults, and domestic violence are not admitted to the shelter, to ensure shelter resident families and surrounding neighbors are protected from such individuals. Lisa Black flippantly responded “The assertion that neighbors need to be ‘protected’ from families with children, as indicated in the question, is not productive dialogue.”
The Rubber Stamp
The Environmental Assessment Statement dated June 2014 contained many factual errors and ignored potential adverse impact on the surrounding community. Examples include factual errors regarding open space, school enrollment and capacity, and proximity to hazardous conditions such as the Kleigman brownfield, chemical storage facility, and the freight line. Additionally, little to no consideration was given to the effect of additional strains that would be imposed by introducing a large scale high density residential facility on the sewer system (the surrounding homes have been plagued by sewer backups and poor drainage), traffic, public transportation, and emergency responders. Letters sent to DHS regarding these concerns went largely ignored.
In July 2014, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley questioned the assertion that shelter residents would use mass transit to commute to and from the site. In response, Gilbert Taylor, Commissioner of DHS indicated that Samaritan Village would be providing vans to shuttle shelter residents to mass transit. This contradicts the assertion in the Fair Share Analysis dated December 16, 2013 that the proposed site is “well-served by public transportation networks and most trips to and from the site that are not made entirely by foot would occur via bus or subway.”
Concerns voiced with DHS and the NYC Comptroller’s office regarding awarding new contracts to Samaritan Village after the recent NYS audit revealed misuse and misappropriation of taxpayer funds by Samaritan Village in relation to a drug and alcohol treatment program have fallen on deaf ears. The inappropriate spending of state funds by Samaritan Village should be reason enough to suspend, if not deny, awarding a $27.5 million dollar contract to operate a homeless shelter at the Cooper Avenue site, as well as any other new contracts being negotiated with NYC, however, the proposal is proceeding as planned.
Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for information have been ignored and or denied by DHS. In one instance, the original FOIL request was denied stating the records sought were exempt from disclosure and the appeal was denied stating the records did not exist.
It is apparent that NYC and DHS are not only blatantly ignoring the community’s concerns and are not interested in partnering with the community to find viable solutions, but this appears to be their current modus operandi throughout the city, and particularly in Queens. In a letter dated July 17, 2014 from NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer to Gilbert Taylor, Commissioner of DHS (in response to protests sparked by the placing of homeless families at the Pan Am Hotel without community notification), Mr. Stringer implored DHS to “repair its relationship with local communities by creating a robust consultative process with community stakeholders for all of its currently planned sites and for those proposed in the future.” Since then, no meaningful outreach has been initiated on the part of DHS or Samaritan Village; instead, a work permit has been applied for with the Department of Buildings to convert the existing property to a transient hotel, indicating to the community that there is no intention to involve it in any discussions about the future of the site.
Civics Unite to Form Coalition
The dismissive manner in which both DHS and Samaritan Village have addressed community concerns and the arrogance with which both entities have handled the situation suggest they are accountable to no one. As a result of the clear and blatant disregard for the community’s concerns, various civic leaders, business owners and residents decided to coordinate their efforts and formed the Glendale Middle Village Coalition in August of 2014. The Coalition co-founders include Salvatore Crifasi, President of the Middle Village Property Owners & Residents Association and President of the Middle Village Chamber of Commerce, Kathy Masi, President of the Glendale Civic Association, Robert Holden, President of the Juniper Park Civic Association, Brian Dooley, President of the Glendale Property Owners Association, as well as other local business owners and concerned residents.
The Coalition co-founders meet on a weekly basis to discuss strategies to stop the proposed warehousing of families at the Cooper Avenue site. It was clear to Coalition co-founders that legal action would be needed since DHS and NYC had continued to ignore community concerns and the project was quickly progressing. Various attorneys were interviewed to discuss possible legal actions and strategies.
Coalition hires attorney
Discussions with one attorney, Christopher Murray, revealed that there was a deadline to challenge the results of the Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS) prepared by DHS for the proposed site, and that deadline was quickly approaching. The EAS concluded, in the form of a negative declaration, that the proposed project would not have any significant adverse impact on the surrounding community. Mr. Murray was provided a copy of the EAS as well as researched performed by coalition members that outlined the factual errors and inconsistencies within the document and other data relevant to the proposed site and its surrounding area. Based on a review of the EAS and information provided, Mr. Murray advised the Coalition of the standards that are required to be met by DHS to issue a negative declaration and that it appears the EAS did not meet those standards. As such, an Article 78 could be filed to challenge the results.
As the clock was ticking to challenge the EAS results, funds were needed to retain the attorney, as well as ensure enough funds were available to pay for the action. The founding coalition members, personally and on behalf of their organizations and businesses, contributed the majority of funds needed for the retainer. An informational meeting was organized and held at Christ the King High School on October 1, 2014 to inform the community of the formation of the Coalition, its purpose, and how to help. Over 300 concerned residents attended the meeting, many making contributions immediately, and many signing up to be “block captains” to promote awareness and solicit contributions from their neighbors. Block captains were provided informational packets and flyers to assist them in their efforts. The block captain model has proven to be an effective strategy and is essential to the fundraising effort; however additional block captains are needed to fill gaps in coverage areas, particularly in Middle Village.
The funds needed were quickly raised to finance the Article 78 legal action challenging the negative declaration and the action was filed mid October. The hearing is scheduled for January 9, 2014. Mr. Murray is optimistic that the judge will rule in the Coalition’s favor and require NYC and DHS to undertake a proper environmental review prior to proceeding with this shelter project.
Although a favorable ruling will compel a full environmental impact study, this does not necessarily mean, after the impact study is performed, that the shelter plan cannot proceed. Therefore, additional legal actions are being discussed and considered by the Coalition which will require further funding for additional legal fees.
In addition to fundraising via block captains, an event was held on Friday, October 24th at Yer Man’s Irish Pub on 88th Street in Glendale. The owner of Yer Man’s generously allowed use of his pub, provided food and live entertainment, and contributed 10% of the bar bill for the night. The event included raffles of items kindly donated by individuals and local businesses. The night was a huge success, there was a large turnout, and approximately $8,000 was raised to be used towards legal fees. In addition, as testimony that the Coalition is working towards a worthy goal to stop the inhumane warehousing of the homeless, a homeless woman traveled via public transportation from her shelter in Brooklyn, to commend us on our fight and that we were doing to right thing. She proceeded to tell us of the deplorable conditions in the shelter and how she has been “recycled” over and over again for years in the shelter system as opposed to being transitioned into permanent housing.
The Coalition continues to spread awareness of its efforts at various civic and property owner meetings and via social media and is currently in process of arranging other fundraising events. Contributions continue to come in through the efforts of the block captains. Weekly meetings continue to be held to discuss other possible legal actions and strategies to force NYC and DHS to realize warehousing the homeless is a temporary and expensive band-aid to a problem that will not be solved by continuing to place large mega warehouse shelters in neighborhoods without the proper infrastructure to support them.
If you are interested in becoming a block captain, have questions about the Coalition’s efforts or wish to help, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should you wish to make a contribution, online contributions can be made via credit card at http://www.gofundme.com/Cooper-Avenue-Shelter.
Checks can be mailed to Glendale Middle Village Coalition c/o Middle Village Chamber of Commerce,
79-47 Metropolitan Avenue, Middle Village, NY 11379. Checks should be made payable to
Glendale/Middle Village Coalition.