Homeless ‘Need Protection’ from Crime: Advocates

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Photo by Tom Kavana via Flickr

A rise in crime in New York City hotels over the past three years has had an unexpected victim: the city’s homeless population.

Crime in New York hotels and motels has increased by almost 20 percent since 2015 according to New York Police Department (NYPD) data, the New York Post reported last week.

This surge comes despite a significant decline in the citywide crime rate in recent years.

While law enforcement officials and industry experts are unsure of the cause, the increase coincides with data showing a disturbing pattern of arrests in hotels that the city has been using to house homeless families since 2014.

In interviews with The Crime Report, homeless advocates say the figures suggest a lack of security at those hotels which has put an already-vulnerable—and growing─population at risk.

“We know that there are a lot of people who do prey on vulnerable homeless folks,” Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told The Crime Report. “And when you start to talk about Skid Row, the issue of drug use and drug peddlers always comes up.”

Although homelessness rates have eased across the US, the number of homeless has increased in New York: the city now holds an estimated 30 percent of the country’s homeless families.

According to a report issued by the New York’s Department of Investigation (DOI) found that since January 2017, criminal activity has been recorded at 34 of the 57 hotels used by the city to house homeless families with children.

New York is among only three places in the country, the others being Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., with a “right to shelter,” or a legal obligation to house homeless people. The right was established by a 1979 New York State Supreme Court ruling that compels the city to provide shelter to all New Yorkers who are homeless by “reason of physical, mental, or social dysfunction.”

The high homeless population in New York─roughly 76,000 people─makes this a challenge. The law does not specify exactly what form shelter must take and, particularly when demand is high, crowding can force people into spaces that are uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe.

New York City’s homeless population increased by 115 percent between 1994 and 2016. Since the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) began using hotel vouchers in 2014 to address the resulting strain on the city’s shelters, some 11,000 people are now housed in hotels around the city, from the Bronx Super 8 Hotel to the Manhattan in Times Square.

According to DHS spokesman Isaac McGinn, the NYPD Management Team at DHS oversees and manages shelter security citywide, including overseeing the 24/7 contracted shelter security at commercial hotel locations. As part of that oversight and management, NYPD reviews security at all new locations.

According to the DOI report, incidents recorded at the hotels used to shelter homeless included 59 prostitution and sex trafficking-related arrests, 34 assault-related arrests and 112 arrests related to the sale or use of drugs.

Overall, the number of hotel crimes reported annually rose to 2,656 in 2017, compared to 2,223 in 2015. Felony assaults, third-degree assaults, and second-degree harassment all exhibited particularly dramatic spikes of 51.9 percent, 38 percent, and 62.7 percent, respectively. Grand larceny was the most commonly reported crime, with 531 reported incidents, which marks a 12 percent increase since 2015. (The research group’s analysis on hotel crime did not provide details on locations.)

But the DOI report on arrests in hotels where homeless are housed suggest growing levels of insecurity for an already vulnerable class of people.

Homeless individuals currently being housed in hotels told New York Times reporters, for instance, of being propositioned to work as prostitutes.

It is unclear whether the criminal activity uncovered by the DOI preceded the placement of homeless individuals in the hotels, or whether criminal actors are drawn to locations which house the homeless.

Hustings of the National Coalition for the Homeless made clear that homelessness itself does not correlate with crime or violence in the areas where it is prevalent, citing a study by the Guardian focused on Seattle and Portland that uncovered no link between the homeless and crime rates in those cities.

Although Massachusetts and D.C. also use hotel vouchers when faced with crowding in shelters, both cities have significantly smaller homeless populations than New York, and Hustings said he was unaware of similar security issues in those places.

McGinn confirmed that DHS has no evidence indicating that any of its clients have participated in any illicit activity at these locations.

City investigators found that prior to the release of their report, the DHS did not consider criminal activity when evaluating the suitability of commercial hotels for housing homeless families, focusing instead on location, rates, number of available units, and the outcome of a site inspection.

The DOI recommended that safety should be included in the DHS’s assessment of prospective hotels, and that in the cases of hotels that might harbor criminal activity, the department should either withdraw its clients from the hotel entirely or occupy the entire facility to ensure that rooms are not used for criminal activities.

The January report claims that the DHS has accepted these recommendations and is working to solve the problem. McGinn confirmed that city officials took immediate action to relocate clients or occupy locations entirely following the report’s release.

McGinn told The Crime Report that after the DOI investigation, the NYPD enhanced its vetting procedures to perform vetting in the same way the NYPD Vice Unit does, including evaluating complaints, previous arrests, and any existing cases related to the location.

“We continue to work closely with our NYPD partners to protect the safety of all homeless New Yorkers, including providing 24/7 dedicated security at commercial hotel locations,” he said.

McGinn called commercial hotels “bridges” to be utilized while DHS phases out the use of all cluster sites and commercial hotels citywide and replaces them with a smaller number of high-quality borough-based facilities.

“Until we are able to fully implement our plan, and since the city is under court order to provide shelter under emergency circumstances at all times, there will be some cases in which we need to provide emergency shelter and place families and individuals in hotels if we have reached capacity,” he said.

This phase-out will take time. Despite the issues raised by the DOI, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio formalized the hotel voucher practice into three-year contracts costing nearly $1.1 billion in total this March.

While Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn) told the Post that “we should under no circumstances place families and children in situations where their safety is compromised,” he added that “unfortunately, with the shelter census being so high and the vacancy rate in shelters so low, we continue to rely on hotels, which are often not providing the level of security and wraparound services that families deserve.”

Shelters are not always a safer option for the city’s homeless, however.

The General Welfare Committee, of which Levin is the chair, will hold an oversight hearing later this month to investigate how DHS contracts are granted, including examining safety within hotels used by the DHS and allegations of abuse and violence inside homeless shelters around the city. The investigation was prompted in part by a video recently released by the Daily News that captures several guards beating and kicking a resident of a Brooklyn shelter.

In a statement on June 1, Levin confirmed that since 2015, shelter residents or staff have filed a combined 21 lawsuits against FJC Security Services and Sera, two security firms contracted by shelters, for violent incidents.

“Our communities deserve high quality shelter care and services,” said Levin, “and yet it is incidents like this that have made some New Yorkers concerned about entering a shelter, choosing instead to sleep on the street.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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