Since Freedom House opened in 2012, our beautiful neighborhood has faced security and quality of life issues that we did not have before. Now the community may have an opportunity to force a review of the facility’s operations since it is up for contract renewal. While improvement in staffing and operations have been proposed by the City, their word has proven to be unreliable. We would like the City and its Freedom House vendor to learn some valuable lessons from the Veterans’ Residence next door.
Freedom House, a City homeless shelter at 316 West 95th St., run by Aguila adjoins a nearly identical building, 330 West 95th St., which houses the Veterans’ Residence, run jointly by Harlem United and Bailey House.
The buildings are twin structures, but the outcomes achieved for its respective residents represent Jekyll-and-Hyde polar-opposites.
In August 2012, the two buildings opened as a 400-person Freedom House adult family shelter, which was twice the legal limit for City shelters, a fact that N90s used to sue City Hall. With the support of the Comptroller’s Office and the Borough President, the disastrous shelter was cut in half.
While N90s legal action prevailed, the remaining Freedom House building, 316, has been poorly run by Aguila, and apparently understaffed by 50%, in violation of the City’ own family shelter model standards. Even more concerning is that the Aguila contract for the shelter is up for renewal in June, and the prospect for real change is tentative.
Five Years In A City Shelter!
Whatever we say about the negative impact Freedom House has had on quality of life for our neighborhood, the saddest part is that the City and Aguila have not been able to count the placement of one individual resident in a job, although Aguila is paid for employment training.
Five families who moved in during the summer of 2012 still live in Freedom House, although this shelter is only a temporary housing arrangement of 60-to-90- day stays. While Aguila says the average stay was 14 months, City officials admit most residents stay much longer, a sign that the shelter is not fulfilling its mission.
At a Freedom House CAB convened by Council Member Helen Rosenthal last April, Daniel Tietz, the Chief Special Services Officer for the City’s Human Resources Administration announced that the landlord of Freedom House had asked its service provider, Aguila to withdraw from its contract, but stay on until a new provider is selected.
C.M. Rosenthal said a deal was in the works to replace Aguila with the same team that has succeeded with the Veterans’ Residence next door, Harlem United and Bailey House. Ms. Rosenthal admitted reluctantly that this plan won’t happen. The timing coincided with Mr. Tietz recently being named CEO of Bailey House.
Rosenthal Budgets For New Hires – Shelter Doesn’t Budge
Recent discussions have centered around the City doubling the staff of Freedom House from 10 to 20 employees, while retaining Aguila for another five years. The rationale offered is that Aguila’s absence of results and poor management of Freedom House stem from a lack of resources.
The additions, which are subject to approval by the De Blasio Administration, include three peer counselors, a case manager, employment counselor and supervisor. C.M. Rosenthal had fought for a budget line to increase the staffing a year ago, but Aguila and the City have yet to add more staff. She frequently tells City homeless officials, “If you have a problem, call Helen.”
Yet there’s no progress!
N90s has requested that Freedom House use its basement space to create a recreation space for its clients, to improve their quality of life and lessen the issues on neighborhood streets. This follows the successful recreation space that the twin 330 building carved out for veterans. But the City and Aguila have repeatedly greeted the rec space proposal with disingenuous and contradictory excuses.
Mr. Tietz had also promised that the selection of a new Freedom House vendor would have “community input.” Clearly, the City has not bid this contract, instead blazing a trail of unfulfilled promises since Mr. Tietz departed. We still hope C.M. Rosenthal will step up to ensure that other qualified agencies can bid this contract, as required by City law.
95th St. Vets’ Residence Shows Great Improvement
But next door, the 330 building’s Veterans’ Residence, after a rocky beginning two years ago, which included drug dealing, theft and violent behavior, has transitioned quickly into a well-run facility that offers successful job training, drug counseling and health care. At a Community Advisory Board (CAB) meeting in late January, officials of Bailey House, Harlem United, the building’s veteran residents and SRO tenants, we heard several vets speak at length about how the program has helped to turn their lives around.
Vets Learn New Job Skills
One Vet, who worked seasonally as a glazier on the City’s highest buildings talked about how he fell into the shelter system where he encountered violence. Today, he has turned his life around and volunteers in a neighborhood Church food pantry. Another vet found work with Harlem United at its offices uptown. The residence’s Stipend Program is helping 11 vets who perform janitorial services; plans are set to help them develop management level skills for better paying jobs. Three of the vets have returned to full time military duty.
One neighbor who has attended meetings at both Freedom House and Veterans’ Residence CABs observes, “There are already many successes at the Veterans Residence which can and should serve as models for the 316 W 95 St Freedom House Shelter, notwithstanding the similarities and differences in mission. West 95th St between WEA/RSD should be treated as a “subdivision” of the Upper West Side with a commonality of problems/opportunities, not separate postal addresses.”
Call To Action:
We urge our neighbors to contact Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. The comptroller must approve and sign vendor contracts, like Aguila’s, and is responsible for exposing waste and fraud in City Government. Please reach out to:
Community Action Center, 212.669.3916
Chief of Staff Sascha Owen, 212.669.7773
Division of Contract Priority Review, Division Chief, Kayona Wall, 212.669.3785
On Twitter: @scottstringernyc
Wasteful Spending hotline: 212.NO-WASTE
What to Say:
– Ask if the Comptroller has reviewed the Aguila contract for Freedom House at 316 West 95th Street?
– You might wish to tell them you have concerns that the bidding process appears to have been bypassed. It is in the best interest that the City follow its own laws that ensure competitive, open bidding. Given that the project has been problematic, it appears unfair that these fiscal safeguards may have been ignored. We do not want the Comptroller to rubber stamp vendor contracts.