homelessness

Wards Island Homeless Shelter Operator Gets Another Four-Plus Years Despite Troubles

HELP USA's Keener Shelter on Wards Island.
HELP USA’s Keener Shelter on Wards Island. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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With winter approaching, the city is giving the operator of Wards Island shelters that have suffered heat and plumbing troubles another 4 1/2 years at one of the sites — without enforcing penalties its contracts allow.

City records show the Department of Homeless Services is close to entering a new deal worth up to $45 million with HELP USA — founded decades ago by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and chaired by his sister Maria Cuomo Cole — to continue operating the 233-bed Clarke Thomas Mental Health Shelter for men.

In May, THE CITY revealed heat outages, sewage and water main breaks, black mold and other conditions have plagued the shelters and their residents. At Clarke Thomas and another Wards Island facility, temperatures soared to as high as 86 degrees during a blackout last year, an inspection by the Coalition for the Homeless found.

The Clarke Thomas shelter currently has 22 open building code violations, dating back as far as 2017, for problems with plumbing, electrical wiring and safety measures. One violation cited “use of an extension cord as a permanent wiring system.” Another noted a “rotted pipe” feeding into a boiler.

Ten of the open violations are classified as “immediately hazardous.” The city Department of Buildings has pinned responsibility on the site’s owner, the city Department of Parks and Recreation. DHS does not reflect the violations on its Shelter Repair Scorecard tracking conditions.

HELP USA officials said they resolved problems as soon they were notified, and are awaiting paperwork to clear the record. The nonprofit stood by the safety of its Wards Island shelters.

“We’re proud of the progress we’ve achieved at all of our sites, including the Clarke Thomas shelter, and we are committed to continuing to make a concrete difference in people’s lives,” said Stephen Mott, a spokesperson for HELP USA.

Mott added that the organization is “conducting system-wide pressure testing, inspecting all radiators for leaks and testing all of the thermostats on the occupied floors to ensure adequate heat is provided” for Wards Island shelter residents.

A scheduled Aug. 7 inspection by the Coalition for the Homeless, which watchdogs adult shelter conditions under a court consent decree, found “no issues” at Clarke Thomas. Recent Coalition inspections at other Wards Island HELP USA facilities flagged damaged fixtures — items that if identified in DHS shelter inspections can trigger fines if not soon corrected.

No Fines Levied

HELP has operated Clarke Thomas since 2008. Last year, the Department of Homeless Services issued the group a new $52 million, four-year contract to run the Meyer Mental Health Shelter, bringing its Wards Island facilities to four.

A DHS spokesperson, Isaac McGinn, said, “HELP is a valued partner with extensive experience providing essential shelter, services and supports to New Yorkers in need.” McGinn said HELP was one of four shelter providers to bid, but declined to disclose the other contenders.

Under its contracts with HELP USA and a policy issued in June 2018, DHS underscores its ability to impose financial penalties on shelter operators when broken building conditions remain unaddressed.

McGinn said that the agency has not fined HELP: “We are focused on working together with providers, using the investments committed by this administration, to address what we agree to be conditions/repairs/renovations needs.”

“It would not make sense to fine them at this time and take away the very money meant to address the conditions that are theoretically causing the fine before they have had a chance to use that investment to make the repairs, which take time,” he added.

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