“You can’t use my real name,” she says the minute we’re introduced.
“Just call me Honey Brown.”
Staff at the Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership, a k a Fort Greene SNAP, have already warned me that residents of the Auburn Family Residence might be afraid to talk to me about conditions in the enormous, 10-story homeless shelter located between the Cumberland Family Health Center and the Walt Whitman public housing complex off Myrtle Avenue. Retaliation—in the form of sanctions that can arbitrarily uproot an individual or family—have slapped down many would-be activists, cautioned Claire Cuno, SNAP’s part-time community organizer/social worker.
But as soon as Brown begins talking, her apprehension vanishes and she rattles off a litany of concerns. “I want to start positive,” she says, “so I want you to know that I enjoy the children in the building. The kids are oblivious to the fact that they’re homeless.”
Brown then takes a breath, looks me in the eye, and slowly enumerates the problems she’s had since being placed in Auburn last spring. “The food? I can’t eat it. It’s all freeze-dried with lots of salt and it’s either under- or over-cooked. If you want it warmed up you need to wait on line to use one of the building’s two microwave ovens. Yes, you heard right: Two microwaves for around 400 people. To tell you the truth, I try to buy my own food out of my disability check. I get $1,286 a month. I used to be a computer technician but I’ve had several strokes and have a seizure disorder so I’m considered disabled,” she says.
Now that we’ve scratched the surface of Brown’s complaints, she seems eager to continue. Single women like her, she says, are required to stay out of their rooms between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., regardless of weather. “They hold your room key when you’re out and you need a doctor’s letter to stay in your room during the day if you’re ill. One day I got sick on myself and had to ask permission to go inside and change my clothes. I’m 54 years old and have to be inside each night by 10:00 p.m. I can’t go out at night if that’s what I choose to do. Actually, you need to be inside by 8:00 so you can sign for your bed. They strip you of everything; you have no control over anything.” By now, Brown’s exasperation has mounted and her fury is visible.
“Look, you put 400 or more people in a small area, different people with different personalities, and there are bound to be issues. A lot of residents—both the single women and the families that live here—are from the streets. Some have a history of drug and alcohol abuse. You say something and they right away want to fight.”
And the staff? Brown just shakes her head.
Auburn is one of New York City’s largest shelters, with room for up to 180 families. It’s also the only dual use shelter in the five boroughs, meaning that single women and families reside together, albeit on separate floors. The problems evident at Auburn vivify the struggles residents face throughout the shelter system.
The 59-year-old building, a former hospital, is managed by the City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS), an entity that oversees 11 city-run and 192 privately run facilities for the homeless. The DHS did not respond to my numerous phone calls and email requests for information. But according to nyc.gov, the average shelter stay for adults without children is 329 days; for families with kids, it’s 244. Worse, as of last winter, nearly 40,000 families—including more than 15,000 children—were calling NYC’s municipal shelters home, the highest number since record keeping began in 1983.
Jacob and Vanessa Simpson (pseudonyms) have lived at Auburn for two years and share one 13 by 12-foot room with their three children, 6-year-old Marcus, 4-year-old Terry, and 4-month-old Isaiah. “There are ants, roaches, mice,” Jacob begins.
Although Vanessa is focused on feeding Isaiah, she quickly chimes in. “I almost passed out when it was really hot earlier this summer. We only have one mediocre-type fan. In winter we freeze and in summer we melt. The rules change depending on which security person is on duty and they don’t allow any cooking in the room. There’s also garbage piled up on the first floor.”
Like Honey Brown, the Simpsons say that the food at Auburn is abysmal, but as Jacob further explains his family’s predicament, his anger becomes palpable and extends into public policy. “Does the government want us to be homeless?” he asks. “Whatever happened to building public housing? Whatever happened to Section 8?”
“I’m an ex-convict,” he continues. “Every job I’ve landed they’ve come back after a few months and told me they have to let me go. Every single job has ended because of a felony conviction for a crime I committed when I was 17. I’m now 50 and I’m still paying for something I did 33 years ago. I served my seven years. We’ve been homeless since 2004. The economy isn’t what it needs to be and wages aren’t what they need to be. Even if I accept the hand I’ve been dealt, what about the children, the people the politicians always tell us are our future?”
While Jacob Simpson’s speech is carefully measured, Chanel Sykes—that’s her real name—talks fast, as if she can’t wait to describe the hundreds of indignities she’s experienced. “I’ve been at Auburn with my kids—a 4-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old, two nines, and two tens—for a year. I used to live with my husband and kids on Staten Island; I worked for the Parks Department. We had a house but there was an electrical fire and we lost everything we owned. Then my husband left us. We have one big room with bunk beds,” Sykes says, “but there is no sink and we share toilets and showers with over 20 families. There are no closets, just three dressers for all of us. Some days they serve rotten juice and sour food. We’re always hungry. Some of the people here are mentally ill. You see them rocking back and forth or talking to themselves. It’s scary. We’re afraid to go to the bathroom at night so I keep a piss bucket in the room when we go to sleep. And last winter? Wow. It was colder inside than outside. They taped plastic on the windows but it didn’t help. My kids didn’t want to get out of bed to go to school.”
Sykes is standing with Mia, a 26-year-old mother of two who wound up in Auburn after fleeing an abusive partner. A trained medical assistant, she says that she has been unable to return to work because she has no one to watch her children. “Over the summer there is absolutely nothing for the kids to do, no recreation whatsoever,” she says. “There is a Rec Room, but it is often locked and even if it’s open there’s just one worker for a building full of kids. I would love to do childcare for some of the other mothers but when I approached the staff about doing this, they refused to let me use one of the empty rooms.”
Jose Rivera (his real name) adds that the staff are not only negative, but are also frequently rude and disrespectful. “They scream at you like you’re garbage,” he says. “One guard grabbed his crotch and told me and my wife, ‘This is for you guys.’ I complained to DHS but he’s still on the job.”
Other residents allege that caseworkers have been intoxicated on the job, routinely curse at residents, and are often missing-in-action during business hours. Nonetheless, all agree that the problems at Auburn go beyond personal mistreatment to include structural negligence and a crumbling infrastructure.
And the city knows all about it.
Complaints—lots of them—from Fort Greene SNAP and the Auburn Independent Monitoring Committee, a group composed of lawmakers, activists, and shelter residents, have been largely ignored. What’s more, a report released in October 2010 by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) listed a slew of deficiencies at the shelter: Inadequate smoke and carbon monoxide detectors; water leaks; failure to transfer residents with documented medical problems to more suitable facilities; and failure to provide bottle warmers and portable tubs to families with infants. They also noted that several security guards lacked proper certification and that medical record keeping was shoddy.
In addition, since 2007 Kallen & Lemelson, a Manhattan-based engineering firm, has periodically evaluated the premises. “All of the existing ventilation systems are obsolete and not operational,” they concluded in 2008. “There are practically no existing operating HVAC systems in the building.” The main problem, the firm added, was that 39 Auburn and the Cumberland Family Health Center share one boiler and recommended the installation of an independent system to generate heat and hot water for the building. The projected cost: Slightly more than $1 million.
They also recommended that DHS install a new pumping system and garbage chutes to alleviate trash pile-ups on stair landings.
The city’s response? New windows, at a cost of $8.1 million. “They began installing insulated windows in the building in the dead of winter 2009,” reports Dr. Georgianna Glose, Executive Director of Fort Greene SNAP. “Once they began this yearlong project they cancelled plans to install a new boiler even though they knew that windows alone could not remedy the problems with heating and cooling.”
Not surprisingly, residents and community activists are extremely frustrated by conditions at Auburn. Although past meetings with DHS have been fruitless, the Health, Environment, and Social Services Committee of Community Board 2 has once again invited DHS to a meeting on September 7 to demand repairs and other changes.
Still, they know that even if the situation at Auburn improves, they need to push lawmakers to focus on the bigger picture, the lack of affordable housing for families with incomes below $25,000 a year. Given that more than 140,000 New York families are wait listed for public housing and 125,000 others are awaiting approval for Section 8 subsidies, Chanel, Honey, Jacob, Jose, Mia, and Vanessa—like virtually everyone else at Auburn—agree that it’s high time to reckon with the real culprit, the collective government failure to build needed public housing.