Sinthia Negron has had a turbulent week. On Monday afternoon, she came home from work to a notice slipped under her door saying she had less than 48 hours to pack her bags and leave her apartment. At 4 a.m. on Tuesday, her daughter gave birth to a baby girl at North Central Bronx Hospital. Early on Wednesday, Negron called out of work at Hope Care Management on Grand Concourse, where she oversees patient care for mentally ill drug addicts, so she could head down to the Department of Homeless Services office on Beaver Street in Lower Manhattan.
Since they were evicted in February, Negron has been living in a one-bedroom apartment with her two adult daughters and nine-month-old grandchild at 60 Clarkson Ave., a cluster-site homeless shelter in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. Arriving back on Clarkson late Wednesday morning to compare notes with a dozen other shelter residents gathered on the sidewalk, Negron wasn't satisfied with her case worker's response.
When she first moved into 60 Clarkson, a rent-stabilized apartment building mostly converted into homeless housing over the last decade, there was none of the required furniture in her unit, she says, so she only put some of her own furniture into storage in the Bronx, and trucked the rest over to 60 Clarkson in a U-Haul. She says she protested to her case worker on Wednesday that the transfer would force her to rent yet another U-Haul and storage unit, setting back her meager savings and her dream of another apartment.
Besides, she needed more time. The DHS notice said that all of her household members needed to be present for the Thursday morning move, and her daughter was still in the hospital. It included no mention of where she might be headed, and, she told the case worker, to bring a newborn into an environment anything less than painstakingly prepared would invite charges from the Administration for Children's Services.
"I told her, 'That's an ACS case,'" Negron said.
Negron would know: she's been working in poor and homeless services for 15 years.
"She told me, 'There's nothing I can do.'"
A DHS spokeswoman declined to comment on the specifics of Negron's situation.
60 Clarkson Ave. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
To live in a homeless shelter is to be constantly subjected to strange rules and demands. One must sign in daily or face removal to the intake shelter in the Bronx. There, applicants have to be grilled about income sources and family members, and if admitted, endure a stay that can stretch for days. A 1 a.m. arrival at a shelter in an unknown corner of the city can bleed into the next day as one scrambles to clean up mouse feces and find bedding before finally laying down to rest.
Such a transfer trip can put one's name back at the bottom of a waiting list for housing vouchers, no matter how much time one has spent in the system already. A new shelter means finding a new route to work, starting relationships with case workers and neighbors anew, finding the nearest food pantry, transferring one's kids into the neighborhood school or daycare, and an array of other mundane concerns turned fraught. A trip to the corner store could result in losing custody of kids should a city investigator stop by for an unannounced visit and find them in a shelter room alone. Failure to answer a call from an unrecognized number at a time set in a letter not received could mean missing a food stamps interview and having the case closed. Failure to find housing using a Section 8 voucher within a certain number of months can mean the expiration of the voucher, never mind that landlords are required by law to accept them but frequently refuse to do so.
Sinthia Negron isn't on public assistance, and so she has yet to be able to meet the 60 percent savings benchmark of her independent living plan, a document she is supposed to meet with a caseworker once a week to discuss (more than half of New Yorkers spend more than a third of their income on rent and utilities, meaning most of us would also be hard-pressed to meet this demand). The shelter is supposed to provide help looking for a suitable apartment, but between hour commutes to and from work, she has been looking on her own.
"I just come here to sleep," she said. "They don't help me with nothing."
At 60 Clarkson, bureaucrats' demands of people experiencing extreme poverty and disability, already weighty, have been weaponized. Three blocks from the Parkside Avenue Q train, 60 Clarkson is a rent-stabilized apartment building where all but 15 of the units have been turned over to house homeless residents, at a cost to the city of $2,700 a month per apartment despite rampant mold, mice, and leaks, and anemic services. The landlord is Barry Hers, aka Barry Hersko, and the building, on a block known for its violence, is now around the corner from an upscale Caribbean restaurant where the signature cocktails run $12 or more, and four blocks down from a nearly complete 23-story luxury tower.
Shootings persist, and it's still not unusual during an evening stroll to encounter young men muttering to each other about cripping and Folks, but average rents in the working-class West Indian neighborhood are now approaching what taxpayers pay Hers and the nonprofit We Always Care, Inc., which Hers is reportedly financing. (Residents and advocates believe he directly controls the nonprofit.)
In June, Hers and the city's Department of Homeless Services first started trying to move out families, saying they were retiring the building as a shelter. We Always Care sent notices to all residents, some of whom had been there for as long as five years, giving them fewer than 24 hours to pack bags. Residents balked, activists and politicians rallied, and lawyers from the Legal Aid Society pledged a fight.
The city and Hers backed off of a mass removal, but this week residents got another scare when around 15 families received notices on DHS letterhead saying they were to be transferred, some in fewer than 48 hours. It's still not clear whether the notices were real—DHS representatives have repeatedly declined to discuss it, and Hers has not responded to emails. DHS dampened the urgency by Wednesday, with a spokeswoman saying all transfers were optional, and that the agency isn't trying to close down the shelter till October 31st. But the fear and uncertainty has not stopped there.
Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services Lorraine Stephens, center, vowed to communicate more with shelter residents at a Thursday night meeting. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
On Thursday night, about 40 residents and advocates met with a delegation of a half-dozen DHS representatives, including Deputy Commissioner Lorraine Stephens, at Lenox Road Baptist Church in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. Residents described a disorienting harassment campaign being carried out by people claiming to work for the department. Jasmine Chevres received a notice saying she was to be out on Wednesday. In follow-up phone calls with a Ms. Lane claiming to work for DHS, she says she was told that if she refused, the police would be on hand to carry her out.
Late Wednesday morning, Taofeek Owoade, a We Always Care supervisor, and a woman residents know as Ms. Deon gathered Chevres and several other women in the lobby. People present say the pair told two families they had to pack and leave immediately, under orders from DHS, or face arrest. But when this reporter happened to walk by, they abruptly went silent and left the building.
"They must have thought you were Legal Aid," said Hilonka Saldana, another transfer notice recipient.
The uncertain, authoritarian atmosphere extended to the meeting itself when Assemblywoman Diana Richardson's chief of staff Edu Hermelyn, seen at right in the photo above, said the gathering billed as a "town hall" wouldn't proceed until I left.
"I'm sorry that you were misinformed, but this meeting was organized with the understanding that there would be no reporters allowed," Hermelyn said. He refused to provide a reason, and when asked whether I would be allowed if I was a non-journalist member of the public, he said, "Do you want my honest answer? I'm not going to tell you that."
When I left and walked back in the middle of a crowd, he summoned a church security guard. The guard steered me out again by the shoulder and Hermelyn hissed, "This is a house of worship!" A scolding by just-arriving Legal Aid lawyer Mimi Rosenberg finally convinced Hermelyn to allow me in on the third try.
To begin the proceedings, Stephens, the deputy commissioner, said she was sorry to the residents. "I first want to say, I apologize," she said. "There's no reason for you to not have the information you need in order for you to make an informed decision for you and your families."
Stephens said that 43 of 56 families in the building have housing vouchers, and pledged to help those with them to find housing, and those without to get them. This prompted an outpouring of stories about absent housing specialists and discriminatory landlords—some residents have had vouchers for as long as eight months without being able to sign a lease. Tameake Macklin, a former school-bus matron disabled and on worker's compensation after a bus crash, has had a Section 8 voucher since the spring and estimates she has looked at more than 25 apartments. Another woman said it had been a year since she heard from her housing specialist.
Legal Aid lawyer Mimi Rosenberg urged DHS to "stop here and acknowledge that the scatter site [homeless shelter] model didn't work." (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Other recurring complaints—including Hers routing residents' mail through the We Always Care office on Maple Street, so that many time-sensitive bills and forms come late, if at all—mingled with a newfound sense of unity and defiance among residents. Here were decision-makers from the top level of the agency that has contracted out their care, and residents were making demands. They wanted: a) 30 days before any transfer, b) for DHS to start working with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to force Hers to address the more than 100 buildings violations at 60 Clarkson, and c) for DHS and other city agencies to give tenants who wanted it the option to remain in the building as rent-stabilized tenants.
60 Clarkson resident Frederick Gardner said the city should withhold money from Hers until he begins complying with the law. "That's what the city is supposed to do," he said. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Frederick Gardner pulled his two kids from school and stayed home from his job selling Statue of Liberty tour tickets on Wednesday for fear he'd be put out if he left the shelter. He and others said a housing specialist no one had heard from in more than a month called just before the meeting, telling them not to attend and promising them an apartment. He condemned the city for failing to pull Hers into line:
The city is paying a lot of money for this. It's not about wanting to stay at 60 Clarkson, because [Hers] is a slumlord, right? But if we're gonna be there, do what you have to do for us. Because you're getting paid for it. We shouldn't have to worry about getting up, going to work, coming home, and having your door locked, having your case closed, none of that. He's getting paid a lot of money...He's doing what he wants and no one's doing nothing about it.
Rules do seem to apply differently at Hers's level. The building's legally required registration with HPD lapsed at the beginning of the month. The penalty: Hers may be fined $250-$500 and cannot obtain work orders or sue for nonpayment of rent until he files his paperwork. That likely won't make much of a dent, considering We Always Care's $17.5 million 22-month contract for 60 Clarkson and several other nearby shelters.
About that contract: the Comptroller's Office recently started blocking payment to cluster-site shelters using the checklist of a scathing spring Department of Investigation report that found they are the worst-maintained, least monitored type of shelter housing, with the least adequate social services, and in many cases no social services at all, nor any measures in place to compel landlords to fix dangerous conditions. The We Always Care contract appears to have been drawn up retroactively, and a hearing on it was held in June, but a comptroller's spokesman could find no record of it, meaning Hers is likely being paid out of an unaccounted-for city slush fund.
More trouble: Residents reported seeing a $1,500 bill from Con Edison on the door of 60 Clarkson this week, and several said that their gas had stopped working before coming to the meeting. Some suspect a campaign by Hers to let things deteriorate so badly that it forces the city to remove everyone all at once. So far, though, ceilings have collapsed, people have weathered a Thanksgiving without running water, and camera crews have traipsed through on several occasions to document the neglect, but the checks have kept coming.
Pressed to respond to residents' demands, Stephens would only promise to be in contact, to route communication through Legal Aid, and to not transfer anyone with 24 hours notice. "It sounds like We Always Care is giving out some misinformation," she said, urging residents to demand badges of people claiming to work for DHS. She and a spokeswoman declined to comment on what action DHS is taking against Hers, how he is being paid, or where the latest transfer notices originated.
After the meeting, a group of Clarkson residents' recap session on a nearby street corner was interrupted when one pointed out a cockroach skittering around Chevres's open-toed sandals. Chevres said, "oh," and pulled her foot in a few inches.
"We must have brought it with us from 60 Clarkson!' Saldana said, and they all laughed.
"We have to laugh at this stuff," Saldana said. "It's the only way to get through."
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Isaac Hersko as an alias of Barry Hers's. This was believed to be the case by residents of 60 Clarkson Avenue and lawyers representing them, and Hers did not refute it in correspondence with Gothamist, but subsequent investigation by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal's Tenant Protection Unit showed that Isaac and Barry are in fact two different people.