About 15 families at a notoriously decrepit, privately run homeless shelter in Prospect Lefferts Gardens received notices yesterday saying that they have to pack their bags and leave as soon as tomorrow morning.
Two-year resident Hilonka Saldana is a mother of three and became homeless after being kicked out by the father of her children. She has been in the shelter system for three years, and staying in the so-called cluster-site shelter at 60 Clarkson Ave. for more than two. The "shelter" consists of apartments that take up most of an 83-unit rent-stabilized apartment building. It is one of several such buildings in the area owned by a man who goes by Barry Hers, aka Barry Hersko. The nonprofit We Always Care, founded by a man named Isaac Hersko and reportedly financed by Hers, collects $2,700 per apartment from the city for the homeless families it houses and is supposed to provide with services. We Always Care is midway through a 22-month city contract for $17.5 million.
Since moving in, Saldana says she has endured mold in her bathroom, roaches in her cabinets and fridge, and mice crawling over her stove, and has done all of her own repair work. Altogether, the building currently has 107 open building violations, including 4 deemed "immediately hazardous" and 74 classified as hazardous. They are for problems including a rusted-through elevator, a defective fire escape, rotted floors, mold, and vermin. A violation for a corroded boiler pipe has been open since November of 2006. The building's registration with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, required for all residential rental buildings, lapsed at the beginning of this month.
Saldana would be happy to move out—if the housing vouchers she has been waiting on had come through and she was headed for an apartment of her own. But the notice she received yesterday afternoon throws her and other residents into further uncertainty. The paper slipped under her door listed the wrong name and apartment number, but says, "based on your need for intensive case management and additional services" she is being transferred to another shelter, and must "be present and ready to leave" on Wednesday.
Where the "new shelter placement" is, the notice doesn't say. The letter bears the insignia of the Department of Homeless Services, but is similar to one distributed in June by Hers's staff, saying residents had less than 24 hours to leave. The morning after that letter arrived, residents who convened downstairs with bags packed found vans waiting, according to residents. Most declined to get in, finding the sudden mobilization conspicuously lacking in DHS officials, but one resident took a ride to another Hers building at 401 East 21st Street in Ditmas Park. She described finding rodent holes, missing fire-escape gates, and people smoking crack in the hall. She too refused to move.
This time, DHS said it is behind the removal. Thirteen families are up to be transferred, five in the next week, a spokeswoman for the agency said. The moves will start tomorrow, but the spokeswoman said the department still does not know where it is sending people, and that it will depend on family size and where there are openings. Case managers are purportedly going to try to avoid sending the families to other Hers-owned buildings. The spokeswoman claimed that all residents of 60 Clarkson have received vouchers, but Saldana said that at least eight heads of household beside her have not.
The spokeswoman, Nicole Cueto, emphasized that homelessness is tied to the city's affordable housing crisis, and said 60 Clarkson was never meant to be a permanent home.
“This particular facility is a temporary solution for our clients," she said. "Our ultimate goal is to find suitable and sustainable pathways to permanent housing for our clients."
A resident's kitchen sink is sinking into the floor, and mold is radiating out from it. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Since June, pressure has mounted on Hers and the city to address the dangerous and unsanitary conditions at 60 Clarkson or find people better housing. Both We Always Care and the city have said they plan to stop using the building as a shelter. In July, inspectors from the departments of Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, Buildings, and the Fire Department toured the building, and last month the New York Times put residents' plight on the front page. Still, not much has changed, Saldana said.
"When they come for inspection, it's always the same thing," she said. "Nothing ever really gets done. Maybe if the toilet is clogged, or the sink is clogged, they'll come do that."
Hers has managed to bring the number of building violations down from 215 in August of 2013.
The pledges to close down the shelter operation have not come to fruition thus far. In fact, families have been steadily moved in all summer, residents said, including four last week. Saldana's seven-year-old son is autistic, and her 10-year-old daughter, a student at PS 375 nearby in Crown Heights, has fallen behind in her classes. Saldana blames in part the hectic nature of shelter life. A previous series of three shelter transfers disrupted her kids' schooling so much that the city's Administration for Children's Services brought an educational neglect case against her, she said, and the last thing she needs is another transfer.
"What are we supposed to tell the school? [DHS] is telling us not to send our kids to school," she said. "Here we are again, being transferred, don't know where we're going...This is unacceptable."
Other residents, many of whom are single parents who are disabled or have special-needs kids, have had housing vouchers for as long as eight months, Saldana said. But she said they have not received help finding apartments, which We Always Care is required by its contract to provide, and some describe having their vouchers repeatedly declined despite a city law prohibiting such discrimination. Calls to DHS have not yielded any more information about where residents might be headed tomorrow, Saldana said, but Crown Heights Tenant Union organizer Esteban Giron said there is no way they can be kicked out like this.
"Physically removing a tenant from their apartment without a judgment is illegal and can result in jail time for Barry and his employees," Giron wrote in an email, "so I can't imagine how he's planning on getting everyone to willingly pack up and leave!"
The Legal Aid Society is contemplating a lawsuit on behalf of shelter residents, saying they should have tenancy rights, and on behalf of the remaining tenants, over repair issues. Saldana emphasized that what shelter residents need now is stability and livable housing, the opposite of what they are getting.
"We're already in a messed up situation," she said. "Just swinging us around everywhere is not acceptable."
Hers did not respond to a call and emails requesting comment.
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.