The collapse of the relationship between non-profit Aguila, Inc. and the Department of Homeless Services has thrust hundreds of homeless families into limbo, leaving them without essential services or even the certainty of knowing whether they'll be forced to relocate.
Last week we reported that Aguila gave 41 families residing at 941 Intervale Avenue what amounts to eviction notices, a testy response to the mayor's plan to make the shelter system less costly and more efficient. But two former employees, who both asked to remain anonymous, told us that several Aguila-run buildings in the Bronx Neighborhood Annex Shelter system were served with the same perplexing notification, meaning nearly 500 families are left wondering if and when they will be forced to uproot their lives.
One tenant, who asked to be identified only as Yolanda, said Aguila distributed notices last week alerting tenants that they would be transferred to new shelters in the coming "weeks and months." Several hours later, employees from DHS showed up and announced to tenants that they were to stay put. "If anyone tells you to leave, tell them to contact the city," Yolanda recalls being told.
"My son is in 2nd grade, and he's already been to two different schools," said Yolanda, a mother of eight. "He's never going to get on the right track if he has to keep changing schools."
Additionally, the program's case management staff—consisting of three supervisors and 18 case managers—were laid off without warning or severance, and were told only that Aguila opted to abort social services in response to a DHS funding cut.
The system's case managers are integral for providing residents with crucial paperwork like proofs of residency, which the Department of Education requires in order to issue MetroCards to students.
Moreover, the former employees said that every three months, the Annex was required to place 81 families in permanent homes, but in the last quarter, only 26 families were moved.
"We were all wondering what would happen to our clients who were pending move-outs, but they basically told us 'Who cares, that's DHS' problem now,'" one former employee said.
DHS spokesman Christopher Miller said, "We're working on a close out plan for Aguila's Bronx cluster sites, and we're going to work with each family individually to determine their next steps." Miller said he couldn't give us a timeline for when the families would be relocated.
According to the Comptroller's Office, Aguila will receive $56.1 million in contracts from the City this year and last year alone. The company was run by Mayor Bloomberg's former DHS commissioner, Robert Hess, until his death earlier this year,
Former Comptroller John Liu conducted two audits on Aguila in 2011 and 2013. The first [PDF] showed that the company had misappropriated more than $10 million in taxpayer funding, $1.4 million of which could be immediately recouped.
The second audit [PDF] revealed that the City had done little to demand more accountability from Aguila, and that the company's shelters in the Bronx and Manhattan had a total of 1,565 open violations, 24% of them "hazardous."
Comptroller Scott Stringer opted not to comment.
"There's going to be a lot of backlashing when it comes to their decision with what to do with us," Yolanda told us. "We're the ones who are being affected."
Additional reporting by Christopher Robbins.
Update, 4 p.m. After initially declining to comment, Comptroller Scott Stringer offered the following statement.
It’s unconscionable for a homeless service provider to stop offering services to vulnerable families. Our top priority must be the safety, security and shelter of those families in the City’s care and that responsibility falls squarely upon both the shelter provider and the Department of Homeless Services.