Many of the state’s homeless shelters outside New York City are in substandard condition with numerous health and safety issues that need to be addressed immediately, according to a report on homelessness released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. DiNapoli called on state and local officials to improve coordination and respond quickly to improve homeless shelter conditions.
“Homelessness is a problem affecting communities in virtually every corner of the state,” DiNapoli said. “Despite our best efforts, there continue to be run-down – and sometimes even squalid – shelters that pose a real danger to the health and safety of families and individuals that have nowhere else to go. It is clear that greater action is needed to ensure that all homeless shelter facilities provide safe accommodations for some of New York’s most vulnerable residents.”
The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) administers the state’s homeless housing and services programs. The agency certifies and directly oversees larger-scale facilities and is responsible for inspecting them and ensuring they meet certain standards. OTDA has delegated authority for oversight of smaller, uncertified shelters to county Departments of Social Services, but remains responsible for monitoring local oversight and inspection of uncertified shelters. In New York City, the Department of Homeless Services serves the same role as the local service districts statewide.
Earlier this year, DiNapoli’s office released an audit finding that OTDA did not sufficiently monitor state-certified shelters, nor local districts’ oversight of uncertified shelters, to ensure that inspection violations are addressed properly and that shelters are operating in compliance with state and local requirements. During visits to 39 facilities, auditors observed a range of substandard living conditions, the most egregious of which pose obvious and dangerous risks to shelter residents’ health and safety, including fire and safety violations, rodent and vermin infestations and mold conditions.
Governor Cuomo, in his 2016 State of the State message, announced a Homeless Housing Initiative that would give the state new oversight of the homeless shelter system. The Governor recently announced that OTDA would require corrective action plans for shelters with violations.
In support of the Governor’s initiative, DiNapoli’s auditors, working with the comptrollers from Albany, Dutchess, Nassau, Onondaga, Suffolk and Ulster counties, visited 200 emergency shelters and 187 hotel/motels, located across 48 different counties (exclusive of New York City and the city of Buffalo), during February and March 2016.
Auditors considered 320 facilities to be in generally adequate condition, but the remaining 67 facilities were in poor or very poor condition. DiNapoli’s auditors found:
- 45 facilities had one or more health safety issues, including mold, unsanitary restrooms and vermin;
- 61 facilities had one or more fire safety issues including lack of fire escape; missing or uninspected fire extinguishers; missing or disabled smoke detectors; no carbon monoxide detector; portable heaters in use and exposed electrical wires, among other issues;
- 37 facilities had personal safety issues, including restroom doors that didn’t lock; unsafe stairs and railings; and unsafe playgrounds; and
- 20 locations had issues with occupant accommodations, including insufficient bedding; and an insufficient number of toilets, sinks and showers.
- At a hotel for families and single adults in Albany County, auditors found candles and space heaters in use, disabled smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, missing outlet covers, exposed wires, mold in bathrooms and bedrooms, and bathroom doors that did not lock.
- At a men’s shelter in Monroe County, auditors found an insufficient number of toilets, sinks and showers. They also observed missing fire extinguishers, no carbon monoxide detectors, mold and mildew, unsanitary bathrooms and peeling paint.
- At a family shelter in Westchester County, auditors identified excessive mold and mildew in some showers as well as a bug infestation and the remains of a dead rat in an air duct.
While auditors considered 320 facilities to be in overall adequate condition, many persistent issues still need to be corrected at these facilities, including some of the same concerns at the sites listed above.
Albany County Comptroller Michael F. Conners II said: “I would like to thank Comptroller DiNapoli for his efforts to identify the problems with homeless shelters in New York State. I would also like to thank his auditors for their professionalism in dealing with this important issue.”
Dutchess County Comptroller James Coughlan said: "Homelessness in New York, and in Dutchess County, is a growing concern. The findings in this audit help to shine a light on this problem. Identifying shelters that are below or above an acceptable standard is critical to protect those who are vulnerable and at risk, especially children. Moreover, counties need to work more closely with local municipalities to provide better oversight of hotels and motels that appear more frequently not to provide the level of accommodation necessary to provide adequate protection of those in need."
Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos said: “We have urged stepped up inspections of homeless shelters. We are pleased to join in a statewide coordinated effort to care for our homeless and expect to be a model for all counties to follow in this very important New York state initiative”
Onondaga County Comptroller Robert E. Antonacci II said: “Every night, there are hundreds of people in our community that need a place to sleep. We have more than a dozen local shelters that help people get back on their feet and off the streets. While these organizations are working with limited resources, my auditors found conditions there were startling and unsafe. We will continue to partner with State Comptroller DiNapoli’s office and local comptrollers to identify problems and propose common sense
Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. said: “I applaud the efforts of State Comptroller DiNapoli in undertaking this comprehensive statewide review of homeless shelters. We welcomed the opportunity to work directly with key members of his staff, and the results of this audit are startling – clearly swift corrective action is warranted. No level of government can tolerate neglect of those most vulnerable among us.”
Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach said: “It’s encouraging to see the homeless facilities in Ulster County were all rated as adequate by Comptroller DiNapoli’s auditors, which demonstrates our local dedication to some of our most vulnerable residents. Still, it is clear from this study that adequate isn’t good enough and that conditions need to be improved everywhere. I’d like to thank the Comptroller for tackling this important issue in his thorough report, and I offer my full support in his continuing efforts to help ensure that every New Yorker has a clean and safe place to sleep at night.”
DiNapoli’s initial audit found OTDA had very little information about the conditions – and in some cases, even the existence – of facilities that were not subject to its direct supervision as certified shelters. While the agency has made significant strides forward in this area, it still lacks information on many of the hotels and motels used for short-term placements as well as many other operations that do not necessarily receive direct government funding. The report recommends that a more comprehensive statewide database be put in place to better manage the conditions at shelters as well as the placement of recipients.
There is a significant reliance on the use of hotels or motels in many areas of the state, particularly in areas where more formal shelters do not exist or are already operating at or above capacity. In general, the rate of poor conditions and health and safety hazards auditors observed was about twice as high where these facilities were not associated with a recognized chain of establishments.
Auditors noted that from a health and safety standpoint, most of the burden for these facilities is borne by local officials such as building inspectors, zoning officers and fire officials. DiNapoli’s report recommends greater coordination and cooperation among these various entities to increase oversight of these facilities.
Similarly, some areas of the state have facilities operated by non-profit groups like churches or voluntary agencies that receive no direct public funding at all, relying instead on donations or funding from a parent organization. Since they receive no government money, these facilities generally receive even less oversight than the hotels and motels. As with the hotel and motel sector, there needs to be greater coordination and cooperation among stakeholders to ensure the individuals who use these facilities remain safe and secure, according to the report.
DiNapoli’s report also notes there is considerable disparity in the way homeless housing is funded around the state. Some areas have their own government-operated shelters, while others rely primarily on contracted facilities, hotels and motels, or even groups that receive no government financial assistance. Furthermore, the cost of these services also likely varies considerably. These fiscal issues merit further study and discussion to identify the best prospects from both an economic and service quality perspective, according to the report.
DiNapoli’s office is currently auditing the rate-setting process at New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, part of an initiative related to rate setting at state and city agencies. In its New York State Shelter Inspection Report, released earlier this month, the Governor’s office announced that the state would take a larger role in the shelter rate setting process going forward.
DiNapoli plans to soon launch an audit of the oversight of hotel and motels used as homeless shelters and, in conjunction with his county comptroller partners, will conduct a series of reports that examine best practices and innovations related to homelessness.
See homeless and demographic data http://www.osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093016/16d3.pdf for ten regions across the state at: