A state agency’s failure to adequately monitor and inspect homeless shelters allowed violations and squalid living conditions to go unchecked, according to an audit released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. The audit found fire and safety hazards, rodent and vermin infestations, and mold conditions at shelters under the oversight of the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA). DiNapoli commended the agency for agreeing to strengthen its inspections and monitoring of shelters. DiNapoli’s audit covered the period from April 1, 2013 to Aug. 5, 2015.
“It is imperative that OTDA strengthen its oversight of shelters as we undertake a badly-needed statewide review of this vital support system,” DiNapoli said. “Homelessness is a problem throughout New York State. Escaping homelessness requires opportunity and support. New York’s most vulnerable residents deserve far better than the unacceptable conditions we found in these shelters. We appreciate the state’s renewed effort to improve these critical services.”
There are approximately 80,000 homeless men, women and children in New York State. OTDA monitors and inspects 157 state-certified shelters and delegates oversight of uncertified shelters to the New York City Department of Homeless Services and to county Departments of Social Services elsewhere in the state. However, OTDA remains responsible for monitoring local oversight and inspection of uncertified shelters, and for ensuring they meet minimum standards set by state and local laws and codes.
OTDA recently announced it would increase inspections of homeless shelters and introduce new regulations to strengthen the state’s oversight of the emergency shelter network. In coordination with Governor Cuomo’s staff, DiNapoli’s office and the New York City and Buffalo Comptrollers are working together on an audit initiative to help correct problems like those identified in today’s audit.
DiNapoli’s auditors visited 39 shelters throughout the state (20 certified and 19 uncertified), including 26 in New York City. Officials and shelter operators were given less than 24 hours’ notice of the pending visits, during which auditors were accompanied by OTDA or county representatives who helped identify conditions that needed to be fixed. With the exception of a very few, auditors found certified and uncertified shelters in a state of general disrepair, with filthy and unacceptable living conditions, the worst of which posed obvious and serious risks to shelter residents’ health and safety.
At certified shelters auditors found:
- Evidence of rodent and vermin infestations at 16 shelters;
- Fire safety issues at 18 shelters, including expired fire extinguisher inspections and fire panels operating in “trouble warning” mode;
- Mold growing in residents’ rooms at 8 shelters;
- Trash piled in a children’s play area at one shelter;
- Repairs to walls and ceilings made with plastic sheeting or garbage bags and duct tape at two shelters;
- One shelter with 143 residents and only four showers and nine toilets, when it should have had at least 10 showers and 15 toilets;
- Six family shelters with no laundry facilities, despite the requirement of at least one washer and one dryer;
- Worn and soiled mattresses; and
- Three shelters that were understaffed: One family shelter had only 29 of 32 approved full-time equivalent staff; two single adult shelters had inadequate night shift coverage (one staff vs. three required at one location, and two staff vs. four required at the other).
Nearly half (22) of the 47 most serious issues the auditors found had previously been noted on OTDA’s most recent inspections, yet remained uncorrected. OTDA did not conduct any follow up or take any enforcement action after its inspections and had not received any plan to remedy the violations from shelter operators. OTDA also did not inspect all certified shelters once a year as required. In 2014, there were 29 shelters operating without a current inspection.
Although OTDA has delegated direct oversight of uncertified shelters to local counties it is still responsible for ensuring that shelters are inspected and monitored. Auditors’ interviews with OTDA officials revealed that the agency has no formal process for checking on county inspections and has minimal involvement with the management of uncertified shelters. For example, according OTDA officials, it has no way to ensure local inspections take place on time and that shelter violations are corrected.
The audit also identified six uncertified shelters whose capacity of 20 or more residents should have triggered a requirement for state certification and inspection. Because of OTDA’s lax oversight of uncertified shelters, agency officials were largely unaware these shelters were operating without required state certification and inspections.
|Facility||Type of Shelter||Location||County||Capacity|
|Dorothy Day Expansion||Women||Syracuse||Onondaga||27|
|Orange County DSS||Adult||Newburgh||Orange||21|
In the case of Bellevue Men’s Shelter, which is owned and operated by the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), OTDA officials said it is inspected every year but does not meet requirements for certification. According to records, Bellevue was certified until 2004, at which time its certification was not renewed because its physical condition was so bad that a traditional plan of corrective action could not bring it up to standards. Because it served such a large population, however, officials said closing it was not viable.
OTDA has withheld $25.9 million from Bellevue for failing to meet certification standards, despite the upgrades it has made since 2004. According to OTDA, DHS plans to make the remaining required upgrades and has submitted a corrective action plan.
Among the worst conditions found at uncertified shelters were:
- Overcrowding: three shelters provided between 81 and 116 square feet of space for two people, as opposed to the minimum of 120 square feet required by law;
- A rooftop-access door removed from its hinges that allowed anyone — including children — unprotected access to the roof at one shelter;
- Large holes in walls and ceilings: missing plaster, lathe and drywall, and peeling paint;
- A high-rise facility where two of three elevators were out of service;
- Worn and soiled mattresses;
- Air vents taped over to prevent vermin entering rooms at one shelter;
- Missing carbon monoxide detectors in sleeping areas.
The audit recommended that OTDA:
- Take steps to complete all annual inspections, and issue facility certifications, within the time limits prescribed for each shelter type;
- Monitor local districts’ oversight activities and get the documentation needed to ensure they are meeting the responsibilities delegated to them; and
- Ensure that problems identified in prior inspections are remedied and that conditions are acceptable.
OTDA declined to provide a formal response to the audit findings.
OTDA oversees New York’s network of transitional homeless shelters — ranging from large former hotels, apartment houses and armories to smaller multi-family houses, specifically designed housing units, and roadside motels. There are 157 State-certified shelters in New York, comprising 91 adult shelters and 66 family shelters. Seventeen of these are outside the New York City metropolitan area. OTDA is required to inspect certified shelters annually and to certify adult shelters every four years and family shelters every five years. OTDA does not track the number of uncertified shelters, which can include hotel and motel rooms used by counties on an as needed basis. During 2014, local districts submitted claims for $1.1 billion to OTDA: $954.5 million for housing in New York City and $140.4 million for housing in the rest of the State.
The full audit can be found at www.osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093016/15s23.pdf