Community Comes Down on DHS Over Shelter Proposal

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“Audit DHS.” That was the main message sent at Tuesday night’s Community Board 14 monthly meeting. With a big topic at hand, a larger venue, the Scholars’ Academy auditorium was chosen as the scene for the community to release a full on attack on the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) over their proposed shelter for Beach 101st Street. With speeches loaded with facts and figures, from those in the community and those from other neighborhoods facing similar shelter proposals, a clear message was sent that these shelters are not welcome and that these communities are fed up with the shady dealing of DHS, shelter developers and service providers.

Before representatives from DHS even got to say a word about the shelter proposed for 120 homeless men at 226 Beach 101st Street, the public made it clear that it was not welcome. The meeting immediately opened with a public speaking session, which more than 40 people signed up for, with most focusing on the shelter issue. Many of those who spoke came armed with facts that would set the tone for the rest of the meeting and would leave CB14 passing a motion to demand an audit on DHS and the service provider, Black Veterans for Social Justice (BVSJ).

Local CPA Sarah Kenny riled up the crowd and ruffled feathers when she spoke about findings from tax returns for Black Veterans for Social Justice, the group selected to run the proposed shelter for Rockaway. “The 2016 Form 990 showed grants received from the government of $7.4 million, salaries and expenses of $5.2 million, other expenses of $2 million and program expenses, which is what us in the nonprofit area call ‘what we actually spend on the mission’--$289,000,” Kenny said to a shocked audience. “When you look at the actual program expenses, they comprise less than 10 percent of the revenue that this group gets from the government and other sources. Less than 10 percent is so terrible, it wouldn’t even measure on charity watch organization rating sites, where organizations like Wounded Warriors, and American Cancer Society and the Parkinson’s Foundation spend 80 percent on programs and services.” Kenny then turned to members of CB14, requesting a formal audit of the organization.

Adding more fuel to the fact fire, local resident Torey Schnupp referenced reports that summarized how much DHS spends on the homeless population. “The DHS spends $117 per day on average for every homeless individual. That’s $3,510 a month, $42,120 a year. And the best we can do is put them in a warehouse on a cot, in a place with no transportation, no jobs?” Schnupp said, before addressing the members of DHS directly. “You people need a conscience. You need to think it through. If this isn’t criminal, I don’t know what is. is. One hundred and twenty men times $42,000 a year. I would like to know what percentage of this goes to Liberty One, greedy JoJo Rabinowitz, greedy Dan Levitan, the greedy LLC owner. We now know that Black Vets for Social Justice pretty much spends nothing on these people and if this isn’t criminal, I have no idea what is.” Schnupp ended her speech, calling for an audit of DHS, which led the crowd to chant, “Audit, Audit…”

With this information, others started to call out DHS and demand audits. When local, Paddy Tubz got up to speak, he asked the DHS representatives to identify themselves, saying, “I want to look LIARS in the eyes.” He continued, “I’m calling on Community Board 14 to write a letter to Scott Stringer, calling for an audit of DHS. They are shady, shady, shady. It seems in all of this regarding 226 Beach 101st Street, there have been shady dealings. Where is the money going? Seven million to Black Vets for Social Justice, $5 million in salaries, $289,000 for services? Where is the social justice there?”

Besides looking at numbers and calling for an audit, many cited reasons for why Rockaway may not be the best place for a homeless shelter due to a lack of sufficient transportation, a lack of services, a high unemployment rate, only one hospital in town, and the shelter in question being proposed in an area surrounded by schools.

Many spoke of the nearby schools as a reason to oppose the shelter. Speaking on behalf of the Channel View School for Research PTA, local Alison Kase spoke specifically about the school’s population, 13 percent of which are special education students, many on the autism spectrum. “You’re packing a shelter close to socially disabled students. I beg you, do not let this happen. Do not put a vulnerable population into an exponentially dangerous situation,” Kase said.

Irene Dougherty of Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato’s office, instead came to speak as a member of the PTA for Scholars’ Academy. She called all surrounding schools to ask for their population, which she found to be more than 4,000 students in the area. “We know firsthand what it was like to be homeless, what is was like to try to build our lives in a different community after Sandy. Rockaway is still recuperating. We’re not there yet, and to put a vulnerable population of people in this close proximity to so many children, is wrong. I was told that when someone is in a homeless shelter, they don’t have to register as a sex offender because it’s considered temporary housing,” she said, stirring the crowd.

A local 10th-grade student named Lily expressed her concerns regarding the potential shelter population. “As a female student, I’m very concerned about the potential of an all-male homeless shelter coming into my school community,” she said, before following up with vital questions. “I ask, where will these men spend their time when not in the shelter? Does Meghan’s Law apply to DHS? Where are these 120 men coming from? Without answers to these questions, how can me and my peers feel safe in my school community? I call on the Community Board to audit DHS.”

The young student wasn’t the only one to pose important questions to the DHS representatives. After the public speaking segment, the representatives were given an opportunity to present information on the shelter, but through interruptions of jeers from the crowd, they weren’t able to present much before Community Board members started asking questions.

Jocelyn Carter, Administrator for DHS, tried explaining their intentions. She didn’t get to say much after explaining that these shelters are being set up in communities to help people nearby and that there are more than 1,000 homeless people in Community Board 14. “So none of you have experienced this, but there are over a thousand..” she said before being cut off by the loud audience.

Jelani Masheriki, regional director of Shelter Operations for BVSJ, then attempted to provide some information about the organization. Trying to address concerns about the homeless men being forced to leave the building during the day, Masheriki tried to clarify, explaining that the men are offered a full schedule of services and recreational activities to deter them from  loitering outside all day, if they’re not at work. He began to cite BVSJ’s oldest shelter in Bed-Stuy, to which someone shouted out calling it a “sh*thole.” Masheriki immediately responded, “It’s not a shi*hole,” but as the crowd got louder, they made it clear they didn’t want to hear what he had to say, so the discussion turned to the board members, who began to question all of the reps.

After board members had an opportunity to ask a few questions, an official motion was made to request a forensic audit of both DHS and the service provider. After a majority vote in favor, the motion carried, so the board will be sending a letter to Comptroller Scott Stringer, requesting an audit.

At one point, a board member reiterated the concern about the $5 million spent on salaries out of $7 million given to BVSJ. A representative responded that those salaries account for case managers, social workers, housing specialists, employment specialist, retention workers, security, cooks, cleaners and more.  “It is for salary of the staff that is in there providing social services for our clients,” she explained. “Go look at what the salary is for and what the money is going for and what people are being paid for,” the rep said, responding to the audit request.

Another board member asked a rhetorical question of DHS, about whether or not they did any assessment of the Rockaway community, which is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. He followed up with a motion to oppose the shelter completely. This motion was then expanded upon to include this proposed shelter and any others.  With a majority vote, the motion carried.

The fight is far from over. Councilman Eric Ulrich has put out a call for action, to take the protests outside of Rockaway. “I want to make sure our frustrations, anger and concerns, which are valid and legit, are channeled in the right direction. If you’re angry and upset and genuinely concerned, join me in bringing this protest to the source of where it’s coming from,” Ulrich said. He then announced that there will be a protest on the steps of City Hall in Manhattan on Sunday, March 24 at noon, to send a message to Mayor Bill de Blasio, that his homeless policies aren’t working. Additionally, there will be a protest outside of the home of DHS Commissioner Steven Banks’ home at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 18, at Sherman Street, between 10th Avenue and 11th Avenue in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. All are encouraged to join in both protests.

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