Ask anyone living near the Lower East Side’s Catherine Street shelter and they will tell you it’s a hellhole.
The Department of Buildings has repeatedly cited the homeless family shelter for occupying an aging school building without a proper certificate of occupancy. One year after the shelter opened in 1985, the New York Times reported squalid conditions that resulted in a diarrhea outbreak.
There are no private bathrooms. That means children have to use shared restrooms at the end of hallways, potentially with strangers such as the group of teenage boys who, in August of 2012, “took over the building” and threatened the children. Months later, a resident took five children and two caseworkers hostage.
Understandably, those incidents have led to a lot of safety concerns. In February, the Coalition for the Homeless wrote that the shelter was “utterly unsuitable for families with children, and have been cited with hundreds of violations by City and State inspections in recent years.”
That month, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered that the shelter no longer house families with children, a decision prompted by a recent New York Times series on the dangerous and disgusting conditions of a similar shelter in Fort Greene.
While Lower East Side residents won’t argue the shelter is safe for children, some are furious that its population is changing without their input, and worried the change will result in increased violence and, essentially, more drama in the neighborhood. As a result, a subcommittee of Community Board 3 has passed a resolution to create a community advisory board made up of shelter and community representatives to provide oversight of the facility’s conditions and management.
“It’s a very troubled facility. Some of these issues have been raised for a long time,” Susan Scheer, a committee member, said.
The resolution’s passage followed a heated discussion between residents, community board members and a Department of Homeless Services’ representative on April 8.
Heidi Schmidt, a public affairs manager with the Department of Homeless Services, said about half of the 92 families at Catherine Street have moved out and into permanent housing or another shelter. The transition to an adult family shelter, which is expected to be complete by the beginning of the school year, will mean less residents (“adult families” have a maximum of two people; “families with children” can have as many as 10 members).
Aixa Torres, president of the Alfred E. Smith Resident Association, said it would be more appropriate to renovate the shelter so it could still serve children, noting its proximity to P.S. 126 and other schools. “Why would you want to put [an adult shelter] in the middle of a development with five thousand people and a school of little children, K through eight?” Torres asked, stressing that many of Alfred E. Smith’s residents were seniors.
According to Schmidt, the shelter’s bathrooms will be renovated over the next 16 months, at a cost of $3.9 million dollars (a contractor will be selected in June). But she said it would be too expensive to make it suitable for children, since those renovations would involve putting bathrooms and kitchens in each room.
“It’s cheaper to demolish it than make it useful for families with children,” Susan Stetzer, the community board’s district manager, said. She recounted a tour of the shelter and the shortage of bathrooms, kitchens, play space for children, and lack of privacy for families. “This is not a place for families,” she said.
Pamela Goesre, 46, agrees. She says she moved into the shelter one week ago with her three children. She knows that DHS is transitioning families out, and has been waiting to see a case manager to try and move back to a shelter in Brooklyn.
“We don’t have no privacy,” she says. “My 19-year-old should not have to see his mother and sisters get undressed. We have to walk down the hallway to use the bathroom and shower. They feed us our own meals. They treat us like we’re in prison.”
She frequently hears scraping inside the walls, and feels less safe than when she and her family were in a Brownsville shelter. “There, we had a bathroom. It wasn’t the best bathroom. But it was a tub and shower. I don’t even know why they’re sending people here,” Goesre said.
The Catherine Street shelter originally served adult families, and Torres and community board members noted that its history of violence, fights and poor management caused problems in the area. “We’ve lived through this before. It was a nightmare. It was insane,” she said to nods and murmurs of approval.
When Schmidt, in an apparent attempt to cut to the chase, asked Torres if she was worried about sex offenders, the DHS rep was met with boos and shouts of “that’s not what she said” and “who said anything about sex offenders?”
“The issue is our experience,” Torres countered. “It is not acceptable to us. It cannot be for adults.”
Schmidt did say that the Department of Homeless Services is working to make the shelter safer, including by adding 20 security guards. A new gym and job training program will also be added after the transition is complete.
But when a staffer from Councilwoman Margaret Chin’s office asked for an update on the installation of security cameras that Chin helped fund, Schmidt said they hadn’t been installed, and didn’t have a ready answer as to when they would.
The De Blasio administration is also working to recreate a rental subsidy program, WNYC reports, that would help families with at least one member working full-time pay the rent. Between 1,400 and 2,800 families could be helped by the program, according to a draft proposal sent to Governor Cuomo in March.