special report

How Shelter Chaos Drives Many Homeless to Live on Streets and in Subways

Jeffrey Wolford panhandles on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, Nov. 11, 2019.
Jeffrey Wolford panhandles on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, Nov. 11, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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The night Jeffrey Wolford came in off the frigid sidewalk seeking warmth in Manhattan’s 30th Street Men’s Shelter last winter, it was too late to get a bed.

He was assigned a plastic chair, alongside 20 other men already dozing in the city’s biggest shelter, a major intake center for homeless people.

Just as he was nodding off, he looked down and saw a man rifling through his backpack, trying to steal his phone.

The two were wrestling on the floor when a shelter supervisor intervened. Wolford says he explained the attempted phone theft. But the supervisor told the thief to take a seat — and ordered Wolford back out into the cold.

Disgusted, he grabbed his belongings and ventured back out into the pre-dawn Arctic chill.

“Sleeping in the streets is preferable to that,” said Wolford, 33.

City Hall’s last official count in January found more than 3,500 homeless people on sidewalks or in the subways on a night when the temperature plummeted to 28 degrees.

Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to train 18,000 city workers to call 311 when they see a homeless person to get more folks into city shelters, which house about 60,000 New Yorkers.

“The problem here is not (that) we don’t have a place to get someone that’s safe and where we can get them mental health services and substance misuse services, we have that,” he said. “It’s getting people to come in.”

But as winter approaches, homeless people living on the streets, in interview after interview, told THE CITY they’d rather take their chances on trains or sidewalks.

Dangers Loom All Over

The myriad dangers facing them are underscored by a recent spate of killings of homeless people. That includes the Oct. 5 beating deaths of four men sleeping on the streets of Chinatown — allegedly by a man twice arrested for committing crimes inside city shelters.

On Nov. 5, a homeless man allegedly fatally stabbed another homeless man outside an East Elmhurst, Queens, shelter. Four days later, a similar killing took place inside an Upper West Side shelter.

A memorial for Chuen Kwok, one of four homeless men murdered while sleeping on the street in Chinatown last month.
A memorial for Chuen Kwok, one of four homeless men murdered while sleeping on the street in Chinatown last month. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Amid this violent landscape, THE CITY zeroed in on the shelter where Wolford says he was accosted and is often cited by homeless people as a place to avoid: the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Kips Bay.

Our review of nearly 3,000 pages of internal records of dangerous and criminal activity inside 30th Street in 2017 and 2018 found:

• Serious incidents — such as assaults, death threats and possession of significant quantities of drugs — won’t necessarily get someone arrested or even kicked out.

• Violations of shelter rules often go without punishment.

• Repeat offenders have no trouble bedding down for the night in a shelter, even after multiple incidents in various city-run facilities. That was the case with the man accused of the Chinatown killings.

Reports Paint Grim Picture

The internal reports depict life inside 30th Street as teetering on the brink of anarchy at times: A client openly smokes crack in bed. Another runs from room to room, flicking light switches.

One resident whacks another in the head with a lock stuffed inside a sock. A handgun is hidden in a construction barrier just outside the building’s entrance.

Brass knuckles, stun guns, a hammer — all found inside lockers. An entire section of the shelter is known for “high drug activity.”

In April 2016, one 30th Street resident fatally slit the throat of another. In 2017 and 2018, the NYPD launched several drug sweeps to shut down rampant dealing.

Bellevue Hospital
Bellevue Hospital Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

At times, when residents commit violence against each other or staff — even against City Department of Homeless Services police — and there’s an arrest. But sometimes, there is no arrest.

Often that’s because the client is deemed to be mentally ill and is shipped off as an “EDP” — police-speak for “emotionally disturbed person” — to nearby Bellevue or Beth Israel hospital.

The reports obtained by THE CITY offer numerous examples of incidents that ended with an EDP designation — but without an arrest or summons.

In one instance, a shelter client who tried to push his way into an elevator past a security guard refused an order to stop — then kicked and bit a DHS police officer. Another client threw hot coffee on a staffer, burning the worker’s ankle.

Extended Shelter Stays

The 30th Street Shelter sits inside an intimidating 19th century red-brick fortress next to Bellevue Hospital. The huge shelter holds 851 beds and houses only single men.

As one of several intake facilities around the city, it serves as the gateway to the shelter system for tens of thousands of homeless men each year. Residents are supposed to stay temporarily until they can be sent to shelters around the city.

The 30th Street Men’s Shelter
The 30th Street Men’s Shelter Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But the number of single men seeking shelter has risen recently, to more than 16,200 one night last week, while the quantity of available beds has not kept up. So 30th Street residents often spend months there before the Department of Homeless Services is able to find them a spot elsewhere.

As of last month, more than half the shelter residents had been living in a bureaucratic purgatory at 30th Street for an average of nearly 10 months.

‘The Worst Reputation’

“The 30th Street Men’s Shelter has the worst reputation of any men’s shelter in the city,” said Josh Dean, director of Human NYC, a non-profit homeless support group. “The quality varies from shelter to shelter, but the intake and assessment shelters are the shelters that are notoriously dangerous. And those are the shelters that are discouraging people from entering the system.”

Giselle Routhiere, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that has long labored to reform the city’s shelter system, agreed that 30th Street — in part because of its size — has long been considered the most dangerous shelter in the system.

She called the mayor’s assertion the system is safe “total bulls–t.”

“All of the problems that happen throughout the system are extreme at places like 30th Street. You can understand the reticence of people to go to places like that,” she said. “The idea that intake shelters are more chaotic is true.”

The Department of Homeless Services forbids the press from entering 30th Street, saying such transparency would violate the privacy rights of the men living there.

But DHS must submit reports of every “critical incident” in every shelter to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. THE CITY used the Freedom of Information Law to obtain from the state all 30th Street reports filed in 2017 and 2018, encompassing about 675 critical incidents.

Names were blacked out, but details were not.

Threats of violence seem a common occurrence. One client promised a staffer, “I am going to put on a ski mask and cut your face.” Another told a staffer “he would cut me wide open.” Yet another resident “made verbal comments about killing officers.”

The policy on residents found with marijuana in amounts that indicate dealing appears to be confused.

In March 2017, a client was arrested with 29 bags of weed and $300 cash. But in April 2018, a client caught with 35 bags of weed was issued a summons, but wasn’t arrested.

Both drug possession and dealing are strictly forbidden in city shelters, according to DHS’ rules.

The documents examined by THE CITY also made clear that repeat offenders who commit multiple violations in DHS-run shelters are often allowed to stay or simply move to another shelter.

Suspect’s Violent Past

That was the case with Randy Santos, who now awaits trial on multiple murder charges after police say he killed the four homeless men sleeping on the streets of Chinatown. Santos has pleaded not guilty.

In March, Santos was staying at a city-run homeless shelter in Jamaica, Queens, called the Hotel Fortune. A female employee held the door to a room open for him and on his way in, Santos allegedly groped her.

He was arrested, charged with forcible touching, sexual abuse third-degree and harassment second-degree, then released without bail.

Within weeks, he’d moved into another city-run facility, the Kingsborough Men’s Shelter, in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. He was arrested there on May 13 and charged with third-degree assault for allegedly punching a fellow homeless man in the face.

NYPD detectives walk Randy Santos out of a precinct after charging him with murdering four homeless men in Chinatown.
NYPD detectives walk Randy Santos out of a precinct after charging him with murdering four homeless men in Chinatown. Photo: Screengrab Courtesy of WNBC

Santos’ path from Queens to Brooklyn as he faced charges highlighted a serious flaw in the system, a source within the DHS police assigned to patrol city-run shelters told THE CITY.

“There is no policy. There should be a policy for repeat offenders,” the source said. “It creates a major problem for them because these officers have to deal with these repeat offenders and their behavior gets worse and worse because nothing ever happens” to them.

DHS’ rules state clearly that residents must “refrain from acts which endanger the health or safety of oneself or others or that substantially and repeatedly interfere with the orderly operation of the shelters.”

The system’s “prohibited acts of dangerous conduct” include violence, sexual assault and possession or sale of illegal drugs.

The rules say if a resident “unreasonably fails to comply with these standards, the client’s shelter will be temporarily discontinued.”

But the regulations provide a number of loopholes — including specifying that no resident can be kicked out if their failure to comply with rules “is due to the physical or mental impairment of the individual.” Shelter operators “may take into account” prior incidents at other shelters when considering whether to suspend a resident — but they don’t have to.

In an emailed reply to questions about why many serious incidents result in no arrest, Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, wrote, “As part of our commitment to ensuring that all those without housing have a place to stay regardless of background, we stand by our legal and moral obligation to provide shelter to those in need and will not discriminate or turn people out into the street based on previous criminal justice involvement.”

McGinn wrote that DHS police follow the same community policing approach to try and de-escalate potentially violent situations and “not unduly punish New Yorkers for low-level offenses or saddle them with unnecessary criminal justice involvement.”

“Safety and security is our top priority and so too is ending the era of mass incarceration, which in decades past found many homeless New Yorkers in needless cycles of arrest, particularly those experiencing compounding mental health or substance use challenges,” McGinn wrote.

Repeat Offenses Abound

DHS officials say the agency can choose to bar residents from a specific shelter “to protect the safety of clients and/or staff at a given location.” But they concede the suspension is only temporary and that the resident can simply go to another shelter.

Shelter residents also can appeal suspensions to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. But records reviewed by THE CITY found no such appeal by any resident of a New York City shelter since 2014.

McGinn declined to provide statistics on how many 30th Street residents have been suspended in the last five years.

The Coalition for the Homeless, which is notified when DHS moves to temporarily suspend a resident from shelter, has been receiving far fewer of these so-called “sanction notices” since de Blasio arrived at City Hall in 2014, Routhiere told THE CITY.

At 30th Street, the internal reports reviewed by THE CITY show there is often little or no action taken against repeat offenders.

The resident who was arrested after being caught with 29 bags of marijuana and $300 in March 2017 was back at 30th Street within days and arrested again — this time carrying 41 bags of weed and $160 cash. Four more bags of pot were found in his locker.

In a report dated Dec. 8, 2017, staff wrote that a man who showed up at 4:15 a.m. and demanded a bed told a shelter worker “he hopes that (the staffer) goes home and kills himself in front of his wife and kids.”

“He uses his physical stature to get his way and impose his will upon others,” the report states.

The report noted the man “has a long history of incident reports and is banned from at least 3 shelters.”

DHS police were summoned after the threat, but there is no record of summons or arrest. The solution was simple: Move the problem to another shelter.

“A transfer to another facility is warranted and recommended,” the report stated.

A Department of Homeless Services report filed with the state documents alleged misconduct by a shelter client.
A Department of Homeless Services report filed with the state documents alleged misconduct by a shelter client. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Another client tallied 11 incidents — “seven drug-related, four ranging from threats to staff or clients, trespass and inappropriate behavior” — before he was arrested when he was found with marijuana laced with PCP and resisted arrest.

Only at this point was he deemed “inappropriate for 30th Street.”

Staff was warned “if he returns every effort will be made to assign him to a program that can deal with his many issues.”

By the time another client was arrested for grabbing a female worker’s buttocks and yelling obscenities at her, he’d accumulated four prior incidents involving DHS police in the four previous months — including one two days before his arrest.

Yet another client was involved in an altercation, but escaped without an arrest or summons. The next day, the report states, he stabbed another homeless man at 30th Street with an ice pick.

This time he was arrested.

Warned About 30th Street

Jeffrey Wolford says he came to the city from California in early 2017 to be near his mother and other relatives. But they wouldn’t take him in, so he wound up on the streets.

A wiry man who struggles to hold down a job, Wolford says he was quickly warned by other homeless people to stay out of the shelters.

Jeffrey Wolford said another homeless man tried to rob him at the 30th Street Men's Shelter in Manhattan.
Jeffrey Wolford said another homeless man tried to rob him at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Manhattan. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

For a time, Wolford tried to obtain supportive housing, but was told he’d have to be seen again and again living on the street by outreach workers to qualify as “permanently homeless.”

He found himself bedding down each night under scaffolding in Midtown where a shopkeeper allowed him to stow his sleeping bag and luggage with his life’s possessions in some bushes outside the store.

During the day, he says he’d line up outside Home Depot to try and snag work as a day laborer. At night, he’d return to his spot under the scaffold.

Then came the night in January 2018 he returned to find his luggage gone and his sleeping bag slashed.

The temperature was dropping fast.

“I wouldn’t say I was afraid of dying but I was definitely anxious and ready to get the night over with,” he said.

He scrounged some cardboard and climbed into what was left of his sleeping bag. Around 2 a.m., he says, an ambulance pulled up and the EMTs asked him if he wanted to get out of the cold.

“At that point I was like, ‘I don’t care if I have to sleep upright in a chair, I have to get out of this cold,’” he recalled. “I’ll never forget that particular cold. It was like coming out of the sidewalk.”

Wolford soon arrived at the place he’d been warned about: the 30th Street Men’s Shelter.

‘The Smell was Awful’

After giving Wolford a chair, a blanket and a pillow, shelter workers told him he could apply in the morning to get a bed.

“There’s no room,” he said of the roomful of men sleeping in plastic chairs. “We were shoulder to shoulder. The smell was awful.”

Wolford said that during his wrestling match with the would-be phone thief, nearby security guards just watched “like it’s a television show.”

The shelter supervisor eventually intervened, Wolford said, and threw him out shortly before dawn.

“I remember thinking, ‘Thank goodness — by the time I get back outside, the city will be waking up.”

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