special report

Woes at Wards Island Homeless Shelters Overseen By Gov. Cuomo’s Sister

A HELP shelter on Wards Island houses single men, May 22, 2019.
A HELP shelter on Wards Island houses single men, May 22, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Last fall, a Cuomo administration agency signed off on a new shelter on Wards Island to be operated by HELP Social Services, part of a nonprofit founded decades ago by the governor and chaired by his sister, Maria Cuomo Cole.

The Office of Temporary & Disability Assistance had inspected the facility several times before and after it opened on three floors in a state psychiatric hospital. On Oct. 5, the agency certified that the site on the island between Manhattan and Queens was fit to provide safe lodging for single homeless men, records show.

Then cold weather arrived.

Inspections by the Coalition for the Homeless found interior temperatures in two dozen rooms on all three floors of the new shelter hit lows in the high 50s. Men slept with their jackets on. Extra blankets and space heaters arrived, but the chill remained. At one point, some men were moved into city-run shelters.

That wasn’t the only problem for HELP on Wards Island. An investigation by THE CITY discovered that as the state has approved an expansion of HELP’s homeless shelters in the city, multiple woes have plagued the nonprofit’s four Wards Island facilities.

THE CITY’s examination, based on public records, interviews with clients and accounts of inspections of the Wards Island HELP shelters by the Coalition for the Homeless, found:

• Raw sewage flooding a basement, black mold creeping along walls and ceilings, and a summer blackout that stranded a man in an electric wheelchair for hours in the dark. On Memorial Day, inspectors found another man in a wheelchair locked in a bathroom – apparently by shelter staff.

• As of May 24, the three shelters in facilities within city Department of Buildings jurisdiction had 71 building code violations — some dating to 2017. The fourth shelter, Meyers, where the heat outage struck, is in a state building and is not inspected by the city’s Buildings Department. The city Department of Homeless Services says most of the violations have been addressed, though they’re still in the process of certifying that the repairs are complete and have allocated $10 million for upgrades.

• HELP currently has 33 active contracts with the city dating back as early as 2013 — 20 of which wound up costing more than their original estimated amounts by as much as 80%. While the city contracted for $371.8 million in services, HELP USA has so far been paid $419.5 million.

• Since 2008, Cuomo Cole, her shoe-designer husband, Kenneth Cole, seven other members of HELP’s board and several top employees have written dozens of checks totaling $451,285 to Andrew Cuomo’s campaigns for governor, a review of campaign finance records shows.

Maria Cuomo Cole at a benefit gala in Los Angeles in 2012.
Maria Cuomo Cole at a benefit gala in Los Angeles in 2012. Photo: Phil Stafford/Shutterstock

Stephen Mott, a HELP spokesperson said, “We are now and have always been a non-political organization. We have never endorsed any candidates for public office, nor have we ever raised money for political purposes.”

Mott added, “HELP USA has been working with the homeless for more than 30 years. We are deeply committed to this work and proud of our record of service to the people of New York City.”

Gov. Cuomo’s office declined to comment. During an interview with Cuomo Thursday on WAMC, host Alan Chartock spoke generally about donors expecting something in return. The governor scoffed at the notion of pay-to-play.

“If anybody ever walked up to me and said, ‘I contributed to your campaign and I therefore want you to do me a favor,’ I would knock that person on their rear-end in a nice, polite, legal way,” Cuomo said. “But look, I think it’s simpler than that. If you can be bought off for a contribution — I don’t care for $10 or $5,000 or $50,000 — you are unethical or you are criminal.”

Lines of Responsibility Blurred

The operation of shelters on Wards Island is complicated by multiple overlapping bureaucracies — including three state agencies, two city agencies and HELP itself — making it unclear who’s responsible for addressing problems.

The city Department of Homeless Services, which contracts with HELP to run these shelters, could impose daily fines of up to $125 per day per violation for health and safety lapses at the shelters.

To date, it has not done so.

HELP USA was founded in 1986 by Andrew Cuomo, while his father, Mario, was governor and before he became President Clinton’s Housing and Urban Development secretary. Maria Cuomo Cole, who receives no salary, has chaired HELP’s board throughout.

Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D-Queens) has criticized Cuomo’s focus on expanding shelters while derailing a Hevesi measure earlier this year that would have pumped millions into a homelessness prevention program. The bill is again pending in Albany.

“The governor is actively steering money to his sister’s shelter business while collecting nearly half a million dollars from people connected to the program…. It’s indefensible and unconscionable,” Hevesi said.

Gov. Cuomo has earmarked millions of dollars for supportive and affordable housing. Meanwhile, the state in recent years also has approved and had oversight over an expansion of HELP shelter beds in the city, particularly on Wards Island.

A man waits outside of a HELP shelter on Wards Island, May 22, 2019.
A man waits outside of a HELP shelter on Wards Island, May 22, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

HELP has run one shelter, HELP SEC, on Wards Island since 1998. The non-profit later added three others: HELP Clarke Thomas in 2007, HELP Keener in 2015 and HELP Meyer last year. The state also approved two more HELP shelters (HELP Creston and HELP 107) elsewhere in the city in 2014.

In each case, city DHS selected HELP to run the shelters after soliciting proposals from multiple providers. City Comptroller Office records show HELP was the only provider who responded to the call to run the Meyer facility.

Since 2007, HELP has opened 1,149 new beds in the city under city contracts, all of which are regularly inspected by the state, records show.

Approval for shelters is by no means automatic and follows a rigorous vetting process, state officials said. A shelter proposed for W. 58th St. in Manhattan, for example, has been awaiting approval since the summer of 2017.

In response to questions from THE CITY about conditions in HELP’s Wards Island shelters, Anthony Farmer, a spokesperson for the Office of Temporary & Disability Assistance emphasized the state’s oversight of all city shelters is constant.

‎”OTDA routinely inspects all publicly-funded shelters to ensure that appropriate services are being provided,” Farmer said. “Specifically, OTDA conducts inspections and then works with DHS and shelter operators to help ensure that any violations cited during inspections are appropriately addressed through a corrective action plan.”

That interaction was put to the test in September after the city Department of Homeless Services awarded HELP a $51 million, five-year contract to run the Meyer shelter in an underutilized state psychiatric facility on Wards Island.

In 2017, DHS and HELP applied to the state for a certificate of operation. State inspectors visited the site five times before green-lighting the shelter Oct. 5, state officials said, and returned twice shortly after. Since the state leases the property from the city, the state is also partly responsible.

By late November, as temperatures dropped, the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless was hearing about serious heat problems at HELP Meyer. The Coalition regularly inspects shelters as part of a court ruling known as Callahan, which requires New York City to provide shelter to any single adult who asks for it.

‘Sleeping with Jackets on’

In a Nov. 30 email to DHS obtained by THE CITY, a Coalition inspector noted, “The lack of heat in numerous rooms is of immediate concern.” Radiators in multiple rooms simply didn’t function, and glass-brick walls inside allowed the spread of frigid temperatures throughout the three floors of the shelter.

“Clients in these and other rooms have been sleeping with jackets and thermals on,” the inspector wrote.

Because the state was the actual leaseholder of the building, officials had to declare a state of emergency to allow for immediate repairs. The state Office of General Services, which is responsible for maintaining state-run properties, did that on Dec. 3, and radiators in the frigid rooms were drained. The state Office of Mental Health, which runs the psychiatric facility in the building, also got involved.

State maintenance workers discovered that days after the draining, the radiators still couldn’t provide nearly enough heat, the Coalition found.

In a Dec. 29 email from the Coalition — a month after the heat problems surfaced — a Coalition inspector noted that 24 rooms on all three floors registered temperatures between 57 degrees and 66 degrees.

“There has been no improvement on the lack of heat in numerous rooms. Staff have not winterized windows and in some cases clients have winterized their own rooms. Clients in affected rooms are sleeping with combinations of jackets, multiple sweaters and hoodies, thermals etc. and they are getting pneumonia and endless colds,” the email states.

The Coalition noted that HELP staff had asked a state worker to adjust the heating system “for many weeks now and he hasn’t been able to.” The inspector noted that the heat worked fine on other floors of the building – just not on the three floors occupied by HELP Meyer.

Heat and Water Problems Reported

On Jan. 11, a Coalition inspector emailed DHS’ lawyers under the subject: “URGENT: conditions at Meyer.” Heat was still a problem, but now there was a water main break that forced clients to shower at other shelters on the island. The Coalition noted 12 clients had been transferred to the city-run men’s shelter on 30th Street in Manhattan because of the continuing heat deficit.

Mott, the HELP spokesperson, said the group, city and state agencies “responded immediately to this issue. Residents in affected rooms were moved to other parts of the building while repairs were made. The issue was resolved and heat has been restored to the rooms in question.”

OTDA spokesman Farmer said the state brought in heat system contractors, authorized spending up to $600,000 for emergency repairs, trucked in 50 space heaters and monitored conditions daily. The number of frigid rooms eventually diminished, and the agency is working on upgrading the system so there’s no repeat of problems next winter.

“At no time was the heating system offline,” Farmer said. “OTDA worked with state and city agencies to ensure all residents were safe and accommodated during this time.”

Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the city Department of Homeless Services, said that when the Meyer contract was signed, there were “no apparent heating issues” at the site.

When the problem emerged in November, he says his agency “took immediate action, temporarily suspending use of the units while adjustments were made to ensure appropriate conditions for our clients.”

Man in Wheelchair Locked in Bathroom

But cold rooms weren’t HELP’s only issue on Wards Island.

On Memorial Day, a Coalition for the Homeless inspector visiting HELP Keener discovered a client in a wheelchair trapped in a bathroom that was padlocked shut  from the outside with a makeshift wooden barrier, according to Giselle Routhier of the Coalition.

“The monitor succeeded in finding a worker to release the client after a janitor refused a request to unlock the room,” Routhier told THE CITY.

The Coalition later received complaints from other clients in wheelchairs claiming they, too, had been locked in the bathroom by the same worker and were “threatened should they report the confinement.”

Asked about this on Tuesday, HELP spokesperson Mott said, “This is the first time this issue was identified and it was addressed immediately. The bathroom was locked briefly for cleaning and staff had not double-checked for client presence first. Immediately upon hearing of it, HELP clarified protocol and best practices with staff to ensure it does not happen again.”

Besides frigid conditions, another HELP shelter experienced problems at the other end of the thermometer. On Aug. 28, there was a blackout on Wards Island, and HELP’s Keener and Clarke Thomas shelters registered room temperatures of 82 to 86 degrees during the day, according to the Coalition.

Clarke Thomas got it the worst. Generators failed because of flooding. When Coalition inspectors visited two days after the blackout, they discovered a client in an electric wheelchair who had been stuck for hours in an “unlit unventilated cafeteria” because he couldn’t recharge his chair, according to the Coalition’s Aug. 30 email to DHS.

“Security officers at Clarke Thomas confirmed that there was no emergency plan in place to get residents to a functioning cooling center in the event of another blackout,” the Coalition wrote.

HELP’s Mott said Clarke Thomas now has a back-up generator for all areas of the building, “ensuring that unforeseen outages do not affect the clients we serve.” The OTDA’s Farmer said the state worked with HELP and DHS last summer to ensure adequate power is provided to the Ward’s Island shelters at all times.”

Mold and Sewage Messes

At HELP Keener, raw sewage has erupted several times from some unseen source in the basement, officials said. DHS red-flagged the situation for repairs in 2017.

It happened again on Tuesday. Video shot by Teamsters Local 237, which represents DHS peace officers, shows a grotesque river of fecal matter near the officers’ locker rooms in Keener’s basement flowing down the hall.

Local 237 also provided THE CITY with video shot last week of a coating of thick black mold covering much of the ceiling in the women’s locker room there. A day after the union complained, the union says, HELP workers painted over the mold.

Black mold was seen in a women's locker room for workers at a HELP-run shelter for single men on Wards Island.
Black mold was seen in a women’s locker room for workers at a HELP-run shelter for single men on Wards Island. Photo: Courtesy of Teamsters Local 237

When THE CITY visited Wards Island last week, HELP Keener resident Tariq Hart, 40, said he’d recently been in one room where a single client was assigned that was “wall-to-ceiling covered in mold. Black and green.”

DHS and HELP officials said the sewage and mold issues were addressed and quickly resolved after the union reported them.

After THE CITY told the state OTDA about the client locked in the bathroom, the sewage spill and the black mold, state inspectors visited HELP Keener Thursday to investigate, OTDA spokesman Farmer said.

Window Replaced with Cardboard

Keener resident Zion Thomas, 45, said he’s been living there for about six months. In January, he recalled, one of the windows in his room fell out. Workers replaced it with cardboard, he said.

“They stuck it with tape and put it in the groove” of the frame,” Thomas said. “That went on for six days. We had to sleep with our jackets on.”

Zion Thomas, 45, said he's been staying in a HELP facility on Wards Island for about six months, May 22, 2019.
Zion Thomas, 45, said he’s been staying in a HELP facility on Wards Island for about six months, May 22, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Some issues linger for months. In August 2017, city building inspectors found “unsafe electrical wiring on the second and third floor of the [Keener] building,” a Department of Buildings spokesperson said.

When a different inspector returned in December 2017, nothing had changed. The problem remained the same when that inspector returned again in April 2018. This time, the Buildings Department issued its most serious violation: “failure to comply with an order of the commissioner.”

As of last week, the “failure to comply” violation remained unresolved.

Each time, records show, the Buildings Department had ordered the property owner — the city Department of Parks and Recreation — to certify that the problem had been fixed. In response to questions, DHS officials said Wednesday the “underlying conditions” with the wiring have been addressed, and that the agency is working on sending the Buildings Department a certification that the problems have been fixed.

Figuring out who is ultimately responsible for addressing these conditions is made more complicated by a confusing array of multiple bureaucracies overseeing Wards Island shelters.

The buildings that house all of HELP’s four shelters on Wards Island are owned by the city Parks Department, which in turn leases them to the state, Parks officials said. HELP is hired by the city to run the shelters, and the state contends it is up to HELP to make sure their properties are all up to code.

The city Department of Homeless Services’ contract with HELP for the Meyer shelter, for example, specifically states HELP is responsible for “the preventative, daily, corrective, interior and emergency maintenance and repair of the Premises” and “shall comply with and correct any deficiency” found during inspections.

The contract specifies that the city can seek from HELP damages ranging from $25 to $125 per day, depending on the seriousness of the problem.

The city has not initiated any enforcement against HELP, DHS officials confirmed.

On May 24, after an inquiry by THE CITY, the Buildings Department transferred all the open code violations to the Department of Homeless Services.

DHS spokesperson McGinn defended HELP’s record. He said the city was aware of problem conditions at many shelters — not just HELP’s — and was spending more money to bring them all up to par.

“Playing blame games with our partners won’t solve the challenges that we inherited due to years of neglect — and the real, sustainable transformation we’re focused on achieving doesn’t come free,” he said.

“On Wards Island, working in partnership with HELP and the state, we’ve made real commitments and real progress, with the vast majority of issues simply requiring formal paperwork to close out and the remaining issues part of ongoing capital repairs and renovations, which take more time to design and implement.”

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