Residents await word on where they’ll be moved
Over 40 families living in a troubled homeless shelter in Longwood say their lives were turned upside down when the city’s Department of Homeless Services sent them a letter Monday telling them to pack their belongings into two garbage bags and prepare to leave the building within 24 hours.
Many of the families have lived in the building for a year or more.
But at a press conference Tuesday in front of 941 Intervale Avenue, a DHS official told nervous residents that the letter was a mistake and although occupants will have to move out, they will not be pushed out quite so quickly.
Confused residents say they received an ominous letter earlier this month from Bronx-based Aguila Inc., the non-profit the city pays to help them find jobs and permanent housing during their shelter stay. It advised them Aguila would no longer provide those services and that they would soon be moved to other shelters. Last week, a DHS worker brought copies of the identical letter, unaware that Aguila had distributed the same notification days earlier.
Yahweh McDuffie, 33, an EMS worker who has lived at 941 Intervale with his wife and two children for a year, says his caseworker told him two weeks ago, “this is it for us (caseworkers). We’re shutting down.”
Although losing a place to stay is a jolt, McDuffie said, the job placement and permanent home finding services Aguila promised never amounted to anything.
“These caseworkers haven’t been helping us with anything,” he said.
The shelter first came to the community board and elected officials’ attention in December 2012 when a fire set by a child in the building’s lobby raised concerns about residents’ safety. The families were evacuated to other shelters while the building underwent repairs and renovations. At a Jan. 2013 meeting of Community Board 2, the board scolded a DHS representative for the building’s bleak living conditions.
Community Board 2’s District Manager Rafael Salamanca says the formerly homeless residents have been caught in a cruel game of cat-and-mouse between Aguila, DHS and the building’s landlord, Allan Lapse.
“The community board’s concern is, what’s going to happen to those kids who are displaced?” said Salamanca, pointing out that many of the children attend area schools.
While advocating for the residents at meetings between the three sides since early August, Salamanca said he has found that the conflict “boils down to money.”
941 Intervale Avenue is part of Aguila’s Bronx Neighborhood Shelter Annex, which lists 14 Bronx shelters on its website. Through last year, the city had been paying about $3,000 per month for each family at 941 Intervale Ave., about a third of which went to Aguila for case management and the other two-thirds to the landlord to pay for power, water, heat and basic furnishings.
But under the new mayor’s budget, which calls for cuts of up to $60 million for homeless services, Lapse, the landlord, is due to receive about $200 per month less for each apartment. Aguila’s portion would be sliced by about $700 per month per family, which would leave it with $180 per month for each family it serves, a sum the company says is not nearly enough to continue operating. It has laid off over 20 employees and now has only one case manager on staff.
Neither Aguila nor DHS responded to requests from The Express for comment.
Building resident Kendra Riley, 35, a certified nurse’s assistant, said her case manager told her weeks ago she would help her find work. But then the worker was suddenly gone and yesterday Riley received a phone call from DHS telling her she would have to “pack up and be moved to some unknown place.”
“You feel like you’re stuck, there’s nobody helping you,” she said.
Antoinette Redman, 43, has been in the building for three years. She is blind, has two children, and is worried about where she will be moved.
“What they did was ludicrous,” said Redman. “I can not just be placed anywhere,” she added, leaning on a walking cane.
At the press conference, the deputy commissioner of the homeless services department, Lorraine Stephens, told residents that the city would work with each family to place them in nearby shelters so children would not have to change schools.
DHS workers have been assigned to the neighborhood to work with the residents in preparing them for the move. Two DHS case managers have begun working out of the office of Community Board 2, and others will work out of State Senator Jeffrey Klein and Ruben Diaz Sr.’s offices in the district.
DHS’s handling of the decommissioning of the shelter is a “further victimization of [residents’] freedom,” said Board 2’s chairman Ian Amritt. “To treat these people as if they’re insignificant to society is criminal.”