UWS shelter moving, gets new provider


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Residents raise concerns at announcement


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  • Praxis Housing Initiatives will operate a new shelter at 306 West 94th Street. Photo: Michael Garofalo




  • Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street, will close later this fall. Photo: Michael Garofalo




BY MICHAEL GAROFALO

Freedom House, an Upper West Side homeless shelter long a source of neighborhood grievances, will soon close and be replaced by a new facility nearby.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services plans to close the shelter, at 316 West 95th St., between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, late this fall. A new 200-resident shelter operated by a different nonprofit provider will open one block south on West 94th Street by December.

Since it opened during the Bloomberg administration in 2012 with no advanced public notice under an emergency contract, “Freedom House has never shed the reputation of being a problem site,” said Helen Rosenthal, who represents the neighborhood in the City Council.

For years, neighbors have complained of Freedom House residents engaging in aggressive panhandling, drug dealing, harassment and other disorderly activity, prompting calls from Rosenthal and members of the local community for the shelter to be closed or placed under new management.

Steven Banks, commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services, which oversees the Department of Homeless services, acknowledged that the shelter had fallen short of the agency’s standards. “This particular location has not been an effective facility for serving our clients, and [Rosenthal] has been extremely helpful in pointing out ways in which there have been challenges for both our clients and the community,” he said.

The new shelter, also between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive at 306 West 94th St., will be operated by Praxis Housing Initiatives, a Manhattan-based nonprofit.

“We have a high-quality provider that wants to provide services on the Upper West Side, they have a track record of providing excellent services, they have a building in which our clients could get better services, and that was really the catalyst for going in a different direction here,” Banks said.

Locals learned of the city’s plans for the site at an Oct. 4 meeting with elected leaders and DHS and Praxis officials at P.S. 75 on West 95th Street. A few dozen neighborhood residents attended the forum, which was billed in flyers as a “community update” on Freedom House.

“I think there would have been more people here if they had said in advance what their intentions were,” said Aaron Biller, president of Neighborhood in the 90s, a local block association.

The Praxis proposal aims to address key deficiencies that Rosenthal and local groups identified as contributing factors to many of the problems plaguing Freedom House.

Freedom House lacks an indoor common space, prompting residents to gather on the sidewalk and in Riverside Park. Additionally, Rosenthal said, security at Freedom House is provided by a third-party firm contracted by Aguila, Inc., the nonprofit provider that runs Freedom House, and not well-integrated into the shelter’s operations.

Praxis will hire its own security guards and the new shelter facility will feature indoor common space and a courtyard area for residents.

Praxis CEO Svein Jorgensen told residents at the Oct. 4 meeting that he and his colleagues would regularly attend community advisory board meetings, employ staff to patrol the area, engage with neighbors to address concerns and address loitering and public nuisance issues. “We will be part of the community,” Jorgensen said.

Rosenthal said she was reassured by her City Council colleague Andy Cohen’s assessment of a Praxis-operated shelter in Cohen’s Bronx district. “Praxis has a good reputation, which never could be said about the [provider at Freedom House],” she said.

“If the provider is meeting the needs of the residents, then you don’t see the types of problems that the neighbors have had with Freedom House,” Rosenthal said.

DHS intends to terminate its contract with Aguila and close Freedom House in the weeks to come.

Including Freedom House, the city has four contracts with Aguila, for which the nonprofit receives $34 million annually in public funds. The nonprofit’s other contracts will remain in effect after Freedom House closes. DHS officials declined to address DHS’s assessment of the quality of services at the other Aguila facilities or whether DHS plans to phase out its contracts with Aguila entirely, as the agency has done with other underperforming providers. “We’re always looking at their portfolio,” Banks said, adding, “we’re raising the bar and so we’re reviewing all of our providers constantly.”

Banks said he is hopeful that the Freedom House building will become permanent affordable housing after the shelter closes. DHS officials declined to share details regarding how such a transition might play out.

Several residents expressed concern over the site’s future at the Oct. 4 meeting, fearing that Freedom House could eventually be replaced with another shelter or supportive housing. DHS Deputy General Counsel Aaron Goodman said that the agency has no plans or proposals at this time for another shelter at the location.

Rosenthal shared some attendees’ skepticism toward DHS’s response. “I hear it the same way you hear it,” she said. “It’s not a guarantee.”

“I will flip out if they put a shelter where Freedom House is now,” Rosenthal said. “That is unacceptable to me.”

The site of the West 94th Street shelter is the Alexander Hotel, an SRO-style building. Praxis identified the building and submitted a proposal for the site through DHS’s open-ended bidding process for new shelters. Six permanent residents living in the building will not be evicted as a result of the transition.

The new shelter will serve as a temporary residence for adult families — for example, a couple experiencing homelessness or a grown child caring for a parent — the same population served by Freedom House. “To the extent that residents of Freedom House aren’t connected to permanent housing yet, they’ll be able to move into the new site,” Banks said. The new shelter will have capacity for roughly 200 residents, about the same as Freedom House.

Some attendees questioned the fairness of siting the new shelter on the block, which is in the vicinity of several supportive housing facilities. Another topic of concern brought up repeatedly by neighbors, dissatisfied with what they characterized as the ineffectiveness of the community advisory board model in fixing issues during Freedom House’s six-year history, was the perceived lack of avenues for meaningful recourse to spur response to recurring problems.

“We will continue to work with the community as much as we can, in any way possible, to answer any and every question that comes our way as the community has concerns,” said Lori Boozer, a special adviser at DSS.

“I’m interested in getting in that building and seeing for myself that it’s in good shape,” Rosenthal said, adding, “It’s really important to me that the community hear this and that we hear their concerns. I’m going to continue to hold DHS’s feet to the fire to make sure that what we’re talking about actually plays out.”

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Oct. 18.

Closing down and replacing problem shelters such as Freedom House is one aspect of the de Blasio administration’s “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” plan to overhaul the city’s approach to homelessness, which DHS officials explain evolved in a haphazard manner over the previous decades to include shelters operated by not-for-profit providers contracted by the city, commercial hotels and so-called “cluster” sites consisting of private apartments largely in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The city is working to end the use of cluster sites and hotels, as well as to reduce the overall footprint of the system while opening 90 new shelters.

DHS has ended the practice of opening new shelters without advanced notification and now provides public notice of plans for new facilities at least 30 days in advance. Last year, the shelter system census remained flat roughly from the previous year for the first time in over a decade.





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