Video: Auburn Shelter Residents Lament Living Conditions

(Video by Ashoka Jegroo)

With each step upward, Amanda Sabin takes a deep breath and bites her bottom lip.

Seven months pregnant with her first child, it’s all she can do to withstand the pain en route to her seventh floor apartment.

“I’m not supposed to be doing this to my baby,” Sabin, 23, said. “But nobody cares about our problems in this building. Nobody listens. It’s a living hell in here.”

The stairwell is typically the only route to Sabin’s apartment at the Auburn Family Reception Center, a 10-story homeless shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It provides temporary and emergency shelter to 129 families with children and is owned and operated by New York City’s Department of Homeless Services.

Each of the shelter’s two elevators has been consistently broken since at least November, according to complaints filed by residents in the past four months on the Department of Buildings Web (DOB) site.

The most recent complaint, filed on March 31, claims both elevators in the shelter are out of service, and noting that, “There are numerous tenants that are disabled or have limited mobility. Caller almost fell several times.”

Nearly two months have passed since that complaint, but buildings department records show no inspection has been conducted, and many residents say the problem hasn’t been remedied. Residents have logged 10 complaints about the elevators since February 25, 2007, some calling the situation an “ongoing issue” and “chronic problem.”

A complaint filed on April 17, 2012, reads: “dangerous elevators, has been out for 1 wk, due the fact that people got stuck, and was shut off, but not fixed, need inspector ASAP, elderly and disabled in bldg [sic].”

There are 21 “active” (no remedy has been reported) violations regarding faulty elevators at the Auburn Shelter dating back to 2008, according to the DOB. Those violations fault the shelter for working on the elevators without a permit (twice), failing to file a 2011 annual elevator inspection test (twice) and failing to correct defects on a 2010 annual elevator inspection test, among other violations. The shelter must file a “Certificate of Correction”, attesting that the repairs have been made, in order to have the violations dismissed, said a DOB spokesperson.

The DOB also lists three open (no compliance recorded) Environmental Control Board (ECB) violations at the shelter since 2010. Two of those violations fault the shelter for “failure to maintain building code” in regards to the elevators.

The most recent ECB violation, filed on January 23, 2012, claims there are “wires coming out” in the elevators in addition to the floor indicators being “inoperable.”

The ECB violations reveal numerous mechanical and cosmetic problems with the elevators, such as “cover controller falling from ceiling” and “worn brake pads” as well as “failing to file an architect/engineer report” dating back to January 2010. No compliance has been recorded for any of the ECB violations.

Although a DHS spokesperson acknowledged the rash of recent elevator problems at Auburn, the city-run agency claims there’s at least one officer present on each floor to patrol the hallways and call up the elevator cars when the buttons malfunction.

Shelter resident Janelle Jackson, however, says those guards are nowhere to be seen when she needs them.

Jackson, 28, says she has no choice but to carry her double stroller and three children down four flights of stairs because “the lady [officer] on my floor always disappears” when she needs to call up the elevator. Her complaints to social workers and case managers inside the shelter have yielded no results, she added.

The elevators are a microcosm of the poor living conditions and safety hazards inside the shelter, said Georgianna Glose, PhD and executive director of Fort Greene’s Strategic Neighborhood Action Plan (SNAP), which has heard numerous complaints from shelter residents.

Documented lead paint hazards, water leaks, rotten food, gnats in the showers, mold in the hallways and inadequate smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are just some of the conditions that residents are forced to live with on a daily basis, according to inspections completed by the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“The living conditions are atrocious, and the DHS knows that,” Dr. Glose said. “We all know that, and we’re trying to bring changes inside for the residents. Sometimes it feels like we’re pulling teeth, but we have to keep fighting.”

Many residents at the shelter say the elevator issues are exacerbated by what Dr. Glose calls an “environment of silence” created by the DHS Police – the law enforcement agency that patrols the shelter – to intimidate residents and keep them from voicing their concerns.

If residents speak up and bring their complaints to DHS officers inside the building, “then we get written up for complaining,” Jackson said. “People are scared to speak, and when they do, their voices are never heard.”

DHS Police officers are considered “peace officers” because they don’t normally carry guns. They do, however, have the authority to make arrests without a warrant, issue criminal court summonses and use deadly physical force when necessary, according to a spokesperson at the neighborhood’s 88th Precinct, who called them a “tremendous help” in combating neighborhood crime.

But residents complain that some DHS officers create an atmosphere of fear in the shelter.

“They try to put the fear into people,” said Lisa Ayala, who lives on the fourth floor with her 7-year-old daughter, Marisol.

Both she and Niemah Lasco – who lives with her husband, Drew, and 5-year-old daughter, Raquel, on the sixth floor — said their daughters have been bullied and harassed and brought to tears on multiple occasions by guards. Both women said the guards were “being mean just to be mean.

Those who do speak out against the guards are harassed in the hallways and become the victims of unwarranted room inspections, she explained.

“If you complain, they’re going to make your life a living hell,” said Ms. Lasco, who majors in social services at Brooklyn College and holds two part-time jobs. “I’m flabbergasted by the way they treat us – it’s not right.”

Most residents try to avoid the DHS Police officers altogether on Saturday nights, said Ms. Lasco, when the guards congregate in the halls, “get rowdy and bring their liquor and weed or whatever into the building.”

“Saturday night is just a free for all,” Ms. Lasco said. “The guards are allowed to just hang out and be loud in the hallways. They chill in their own little group and you know you can’t approach any of them if they’re being too loud or obnoxious. It’s just better for most people to be quiet and keep the peace. I can’t blame them.”

The DHS declined to comment on any knowledge of an “environment of silence” or guards bringing drugs and alcohol into the shelter.

Dr. Glose, however, said SNAP’s Auburn Independence Monitoring Committee documented numerous resident concerns about DHS police – as well as vermin infestation, lack of adequate heat, expired frozen meals, and other issues – and presented them to DHS commissioner Seth Diamond at several meetings held at SNAP headquarters on Myrtle Avenue.

“The DHS has been very reluctant to realize they have these problems going on in the first place, let alone act on them properly,” Dr. Glose said. “We have constantly invited DHS to hear out the complaints of their residents, but after a few times, they realized they had no legal obligation to be here and they stopped showing up. That was that.”

In 2011, control of the monitoring committee was transferred to the health, environment and social services committee of Community Board 2 because Dr. Glose said she thought CB2 would “have more pull and influence” when trying to set up meetings with DHS commissioner Seth Diamond.

Despite the setbacks, Dr. Glose admitted that she and her SNAP colleagues were recently successful in pressing the DHS to launch an investigation about a case manager at the shelter who allegedly “reeked of alcohol” while he was working. The worker was promptly fired, Dr. Glose said, a minor victory in a major war for the 250-plus individuals living in the shelter. The DHS declined to comment.

While SNAP and CB2 have worked together to force the DHS to make some changes, such as the installation of new windows to improve heating conditions and opening up 100 spots for residents’ children in four local daycares, larger issue lie ahead, such as the renovation of bathrooms and overhauling the ever-faulty elevator system, Dr. Glose said.

Patrick Markee, policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless, points to more than a decade of unsafe and unclean conditions at the city-run shelter as a major factor behind the tense relationship between residents and DHS guards at Auburn, one of eight homeless shelters in Fort Greene and one of the largest family shelters in New York City.

The DHS’ daily census report on May 22 shows a total of 48,765 homeless shelter residents throughout New York City. More than 20,000 of those homeless shelter residents are children.

“These residents having to put up with these problems on an everyday basis takes time away from the real point of being in the shelter – trying to get back on your feet and finding affordable housing,” he said.