Comptroller, residents agree that 95th Street shelter should not become permanent
Imagine living in a 10-foot by 10-foot room, having to share a bathroom with a floor full of people, and only having one microwave to use to cook food. And the cost of living is $3,500 a month.
This is what life is like inside the controversial 95th St. homeless shelter, known as Freedom House. Freedom House opened last summer at 95th and Riverside as an emergency shelter, much to the chagrin of its Upper West Side neighbors. Since then, the developer Aguila, a company that owns several shelters in Manhattan has tried to get a five-year $47 million contract with the city to continue operating on a more permanent basis. Each room in the 200-person facility would cost the city over $3,000 per month, in the price range of a one-bedroom apartment in the area. Residents have opposed the plan and local representatives like Council Woman Gale Brewer and Assembly Woman Linda Rosenthal have spoken out against the contract.
“The way they were able to dump all these people there was by declaring it an emergency, and we need to fix these rules,” said Linda Rosenthal. “The city skirts this approval process, and gets away with it. This points to the failure of an affordable housing program for homeless.”
The protesters were recently joined by Comptroller John Liu in the fight to shut down the 95th St. Shelter. He rejected the Department of Homeless Services contract on the grounds that the terms were not clear, and that the “Fair Share” statistics that city cites are misleading or incorrect. According to the city, each community and borough must have its own “Fair share” of social, housing and sanitary services, from trash dumps to homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation centers.
“This is a shelter that has been operated without a contract for so long,” said Comptroller John Liu. “This has been a problem site from the beginning; it has disregarded the collective good will of the community. They have neglected to comply with the city’s fair share standards.”
In response, Mayor Bloomberg is intending to sue the Comptroller. The Department of Homeless Services refused to comment on the Fair Share policy, or on the contract with the developer. Aguila Inc., a human services organization that has shelters in The Bronx and Harlem would not return phone calls. The city maintains that these facilities are needed and that any attempts to keep homeless people out of these shelters is political posturing.
Said City Council Member Gale Brewer, “The comptroller has been very responsible to the fiscal issues which is what he’s supposed to do. He has done two audits of the shelter, and he has determined correctly that this contract still has issues. It’s a vey expensive contract. Its up to $3,700 per room and I think that’s outrageous. I think its extreme that the city is suing him and the comptroller is living up to his fiscal responsibilities. I think he’s doing the right thing and the city should be figuring out how to house people permanently instead of spending time suing the comptroller.”
Others have a different view. “The only thing unconscionable is the Comptroller’s blatant misuse of his office for political ends,” said Samantha Levine, press secretary for the Mayor’s office. “He has no basis not to register these contracts and we will take the steps necessary to do so for the vulnerable New Yorkers who badly need these services.”
The comptroller retaliated, saying in response, “The Comptroller’s primary responsibility is to safeguard taxpayers’ money, and this Administration has wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a homeless policy that has failed completely.”
But the fate of the homeless shelter is not just about political back-and-forths. According to community members, it’s about the unbalanced amount of homeless facilities in the neighborhood. According to nyc.gov, the Upper W Side has 10 permanent supportive housing facilities for homeless people with disabilities and six shelters. Meanwhile, just across the park, the Upper E Side has one permanent supportive housing facility and one homeless shelter. W Harlem, however, has the exact same amount of homeless shelters as the Upper W Side. Most of these facilities exist in the 90s and 100s.
“I can think of very few communities who take in their own the way the Upper W Side does,” said Aaron Biller, the head of Neighborhood in the 90s and local resident. “We not only take in our own, but we also take in a couple of thousand more around the city. We are willing to do more than our share but there’s a breaking point.
But the problems aren’t just with the amount of shelters. According to Aaron Biller, nearby neighbors have complained of noise and dangerous conditions because the shelter has taken in the mentally-ill and drug abusers, as well as just New Yorkers who were down on their luck. In fact, when walking nearby the shelter, mentally-ill adults can be seen walking in and out of the shelter, past the 24-hour security.
Even for someone without special medical needs, life at the 95th St. is no picnic. Residents say that scuffles amongst residents, there are frequent thefts and that it is almost impossible to live easily without the use of a kitchen and only one bathroom for dozens of residents. In addition, the security at the shelter repeatedly told residents not to talk to the press.
“They don’t really help us out to get a job, and they want to know what you’re buying all the time said Amy Trantham, who lives at the shelter. “Why can’t you just give me a studio? You can get way more for $3,000!”
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