homelessness

NYC’s Biggest Shelter Plagued by Asbestos and Other Dangers

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

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The day after the Fourth of July, 2018, the city evacuated eight homeless men from their beds at Manhattan’s 30th Street Men’s Shelter and moved them elsewhere inside the cavernous facility.

Their third-floor dorm room was padlocked and sealed off with tape.

The reason for the drastic step: asbestos discovered where the men had been sleeping. The carcinogen also was found in a sixth-floor electrical closet near several other dorm rooms, and in a then-unused ninth-floor room, according to Department of Homeless Services (DHS) records.

All three rooms were closed and clean-up began. At one point, the city’s environmental agency ordered the work halted after receiving an anonymous tip that the job wasn’t being done properly. The rooms were subsequently cleared of asbestos and reopened.

It wasn’t the building’s last bout with asbestos — and asbestos isn’t the only unsafe condition afflicting the nation’s biggest homeless shelter, THE CITY found.

A review of city, state and court records reveals an aging structure plagued by serious fire safety violations, collapsing ceilings and elevators that frequently break down.

Inspectors in the last two years have cited the building for more than 100 code violations — 75 of which remained open as of last week, records show. Documents also detail serious incidents — including a homeless man losing the tip of a finger to a window that slammed onto the digit.

Plumbing work in the building, which has suffered repeated hot water outages, had to be stopped after the DHS staff plumber doing work there was caught claiming to have performed plumbing and fire safety inspections on other jobs that he hadn’t done. The plumber made more than $230,000 in 2016 alone, records show.

Meanwhile, homeless men who spend weeks and often months at 30th Street endure an atmosphere of persistent violence, recently reported on by THE CITY. Internal documents showed assaults, threats and drug dealing as constant problems.

Shutdown Plan Scrapped

Opened in 1933, the 400,000 square-foot nine-story building originally housed Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. The city turned the space into a huge shelter for single men after the ward moved to the new Bellevue Hospital next door in 1984.

Two decades later, the Bloomberg administration announced plans to shut the shelter and replace it with three smaller centers within two years. At one point, the city Economic Development Corp. even solicited proposals to turn the building into a luxury hotel.

A DHS report notes asbestos discovered at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in July 2018.
A DHS report notes asbestos discovered at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in July 2018. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But the plan was abandoned as the number of homeless New Yorkers rose citywide from about 31,000 in 2006 to 51,000 by the time Bloomberg left office in 2013. Last week, the figure was holding steady around 62,000, according to statistics kept by the Coalition for the Homeless.

Amid the city’s unceasing need to house the homeless, the 30th Street shelter remains open, serving as the entry point for single homeless men seeking lodging. The facility, undergoing a $42 million renovation, provides up to 850 beds on any given night.

Meanwhile, DHS is forced to confront a seemingly never-ending string of unsafe conditions inside the sprawling facility on a piecemeal basis, moving residents within the building as workers attack one problem after another.

That upgrading, in turn, has created a new problem: cleaning up the asbestos found on multiple floors throughout the 30th Street shelter that’s kicked up by all the renovating. On a regular basis, dorm rooms have been sealed off and residents moved to other beds within the facility, records show.

Abatement Process Questioned

The July 2018 case stands out because of the involvement of the city Department of Investigation and city Department of Environmental Protection. A July 5 internal report obtained by THE CITY via the Freedom of Information Law states that both agencies advised DHS to lock and seal the affected rooms.

DHS spokesperson Isaac McGinn did not answer questions about why DOI and DEP were involved, but stated in October of that year, a few months into the cleanup, “an anonymous call was placed questioning the (asbestos) removal process” in those rooms.

McGinn said the DEP then issued a stop-work order on the abatement and inspected the shelter “out of an abundance of caution” so DHS “could affirm that the work taking place was appropriate/in accordance with standard.”

The next day, DEP cancelled the stop-work order, and the job resumed, McGinn wrote.
 
DEP did not respond to questions, while Diane Struzzi, a DOI spokesperson, stated, “DOI is aware of the matter and declines further comment.”

Department of Labor Pains

This past August, Coalition for the Homeless staffers visiting 30th Street noticed a section on the seventh floor had been closed off to clients while the room was cleaned of asbestos. In October, the Coalition was told beds were being taken “off-line” because the abatement process requires rooms to be sealed while the clean-up is underway.

Though the law requires building owners to notify the state Department of Labor when performing asbestos abatement, there’s no record the state was told of the July 2018 case or the asbestos cleanup the Coalition witnessed in August.

One notice dates to May 2016, when a vendor was hired to do $45,000 worth of abatement on pipes, caulking, roofing and wire insulation related to elevator upgrades, state records show. That work ended in April 2017.

The only other notice with the state describes $850,000 in asbestos abatement in July 2018 related to upgrading the shelter’s exterior facade and roof. That exterior work is ongoing, records show.

McGinn noted that the presence of asbestos is to be expected in a building that opened in 1933. He emphasized the agency follows all required regulations to ensure that abatement is done properly, although he couldn’t say why the state wasn’t notified about the July 2018 and August interior work.

Top to Bottom Issues

THE CITY’s latest review of records show that the shelter’s physical woes stretch from the cellar to the roof.

During a May 30, 2018, visit to the shelter’s sprawling basement, two Department of Buildings Inspectors — badge numbers 2771 and 2775 — discovered “large chunks of concrete loose,” partially collapsed ceilings throughout and exposed rebar. One inspector noted a “constant flow of water coming from [the] ceiling.” That inspector “could not locate the source of the leak.”

Inspector 2771 issued a simple order: “REPAIR.”

By November 2018 the DOB was forced to take the unusual step of escalating the infraction to the most serious level — Aggravated Offense Level 1 — because the conditions had not been addressed, records show.

And still nothing was done. In April, nearly a year after first discovering the mysterious water leak, Inspector 2771 returned to the cellar to experience deja vu. The inspector’s report once again noted the “flow of water coming from the ceiling.”

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

The day after Thanksgiving, the inspectors again reissued the “aggravated offense Level 1.” That is where it remained as of last week.

And the cellar is hardly the only problem. On Oct. 25, inspectors found the self-closing fireproof doors throughout the building were “being wedged and propped open.” The Fire Department advises all building owners to install these doors because an open door turns a stairwell into a wind tunnel that feeds fire.

The inspectors also found cracks and shifted bricks throughout the exterior of the roof bulkhead, and discovered emergency lights on stairwells on multiple floors didn’t function when tested. There was no fire-stopping material where pipes passed through walls.

Last week, McGinn said the agency has submitted paperwork to DOB certifying DHS has addressed the cellar issues, the fire doors, the bricks and the emergency lights, along with dozens of other open violations, and are awaiting DOB’s review. McGinn noted the current list of 75 open violations was down from a peak of 233 in January 2016.

A Finger Lost

But the internal reports DHS is required to file with the state show even more dangerous conditions.

Since 2017, these so-called “critical incident reports,” obtained by THE CITY, describe a collapsing window chopping off the tip of a resident’s finger; a knob falling off a shower, causing a flood that took days to mop up; and pre-dawn mattress fire that forced the evacuation of the entire shelter for hours.

Elevators break down, at times trapping residents and staff.

In the last two years, the hot water has repeatedly gone out inside 30th Street, sometimes for days at a time. But in October 2018, plumbing work underway at 30th Street was halted, and DOB notified the shelter it planned to “revoke all approvals and permits” related to work being performed there by a DHS plumber named Treldon McMillan.

McMillan had earned six-figure salaries for years as a DHS plumber, netting $230,359 in 2016. Court records show in September 2018, McMillan pleaded guilty to three “A” misdemeanors after admitting that he’d deliberately filed false statements to the Buildings Department certifying that he’d inspected plumbing and fire safety systems at three residential buildings in Brooklyn.

Following the guilty plea, DOB suspended his license and revoked permits on all his now-suspect work. Last week, the number for McMillan’s plumbing firm was disconnected and he could not be reached for comment.

DHS’ McGinn said McMillan retired in February 2018. As for McMillan’s work at the 30th Street shelter, McGinn stated, “During the course of continued repair and renovation work, we continue to review the materials produced by Mr. McMillan to ensure they meet relevant standards.”

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