Unsafe Haven: Documents Show That Pervasive Violence Has Flooded City Shelter System

NY1 has obtained documents that for the first time detail the horrific crimes that occur at city homeless shelters. These reports show domestic violence, assaults and drugs are saturating the system. NY1's Courtney Gross will examine these horrific stories all week long in her series Unsafe Haven. Here is her first report.

Thousands of homeless New Yorkers choose to live out on the city's streets instead of inside its shelters.

Gross: Do you think the shelter system is safe?
Max Vidal, homeless: No, not at all. That's why a lot of people right now are in the trains and places out other than a shelter, because they would rather not be in a shelter. They would rather be on a train because it's safer.

For months, we heard stories about danger and crime, drug overdoses and assaults. They are tales that are only now becoming much clearer, with some hard numbers to back up the anecdotal evidence.

NY1 has obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request never-before-seen crime reports, which, for the first time, detail violent and what are called critical incidents that were reported in all of the city's homeless shelters in 2015.

The data and reports show that domestic violence has overrun the system, overdoses occur in bathrooms, and bedrooms and sexual assaults happen behind closed doors.

These are all horrific and violent incidents plaguing a system that is supposed to provide sanctuary and shelter for the neediest New Yorkers.

"We do have security guards or whatever, but it doesn't really matter because it's just getting worse and worse by the day here," said Nicole Souza, who stays at the Parkview Hotel.

The numbers show that there were 416 reports of domestic violence last year, more than one per day, and clearly a common occurrence at the city's family homeless shelters. They show tat there were 153 assaults that led to arrests, violence plaguing the city's shelters for single adults. There were 90 reported sexual assaults, rapes or attempted rape.

Forty adults died inside shelters, at least five from what appears to be drug overdoses.

"For many years, the Department of Homeless Services has become a de facto mental health system because a substantial number of people have had nowhere else to turn for help but the shelter system," said Steven Banks, commissioner of the city's Human Resources Administration.

The details of these reports are both startling and disturbing. Take a report from the Parkview Hotel in Harlem from August of 2015. One individual, whose name has been redacted, was stabbed in the stomach by three people on the premises. Two of those three also lived at the shelter. One of them was a "trespasser" and escaped.

Here at that very same shelter people still do not feel safe.

"Drugs, weapons, everything going on in here," said one woman at the shelter.

There are similar stories elsewhere. A man had been waiting for a bed at a Bronx men's shelter. While he waited, he headed to the cafeteria bathroom. Half an hour later, someone knocked on the door to find him on the ground, unresponsive, his skin gray and his fingernails blue. There was a small paper next to him with a panda stamp on it. The man had recently entered rehab for heroin. He was pronounced dead an hour later.

There are reports of drugs and violence repeated over and over again. A woman at a Brooklyn homeless shelter reported she had been raped by two of the other residents. When the NYPD arrived, officers found those two individuals hiding in the bathroom of one of the units.

Perhaps most pervasive are the stories of domestic violence, like at one homeless shelter in Midtown known as the Aladdin Hotel. Police answered a call there last March to find one woman with bruises and choke marks. She told them her partner threw her against the wall. She had woken up and couldn't find her cellphone. When she asked her boyfriend where it was, he became violent. 

The abuse comes in all shapes and sizes. At one shelter last February, a man staying here was arrested for molesting a 13-year-old child.

All of these instances are merely examples of what we have found: a system that has clearly become saturated with violence and crime.

"It didn't happen overnight that we got to this place," Banks said. "More robust reporting in the past would have provided the transparency, which well may have led to the kinds of services we are putting in place now to address these gaps."

City Hall says security at shelters is one of its top priorities. Earlier this year, after several murders at homeless shelters, the mayor promised to increase security at both shelters that house those with mental illness and hotels that have been converted to shelters. And now, hours before our report aired, NY1 learned that the NYPD will begin training the Department of Homeless Services peace officers, and the department will deploy an action team to develop a plan to upgrade security at shelters.  

The administration is also promising to address domestic violence in shelters more aggressively, including putting more social service workers in shelters and providing more training for shelter employees.

A three-month review of how the city runs shelters ordered by City Hall is about to be completed by the city's Human Resources Administration. 

With all of that in mind, we are asking this question:

Gross: Do you think shelters are safe right now?
Banks: I think it's clear there is more we can do, and we are going to be doing more in the coming days.

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