In a city struggling with large-scale economic issues, officials may have more to worry about than just the economy. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli revealed on Feb. 16 that the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) overlooked the certification of Hudson River Housing’s Webster House in Poughkeepsie and five other homeless shelters, allowed the certification of 27 operating shelters to expire and did not perform any of 152 inspections on-time. In response to the poor oversight, DiNapoli’s government accountability audit urged the OTDA to improve its certification and inspection of temporary shelters for the homeless.
Director of Organizational and Community Development of Hudson River Housing Elizabeth Celaya clarified, “Even without a state license, on any given night and regardless of temperature, Webster House safely and compassionately houses anywhere from 50 to 70 homeless guests.” According to state regulations, any facility that provides overnight shelter for 20 or more adults requires state certification and inspections. Webster House, with its operational capacity of 60 adults, should have state certification. DiNapoli categorizes Webster House with five other shelters that he found to be in the same situation. The smallest operates in Newburgh, with an average capacity of 21 adults, while the largest operates in Manhattan with a capacity of 851 adults.
The size and range of its constituency is a major factor for the significant decline in the quality of oversight by the OTDA. DiNapoli explained, “The [OTDA] seeks to meet critical transitional housing needs of the State’s homeless population—estimated at more than 80,000” (New York State Office of the State Comptroller, “Oversight of Homeless Shelters,” 02.16.16).
He continued, “The [OTDA] has delegated the direct oversight of uncertified shelters to Local Districts.” When it introduced local administration into the chain of oversight, the OTDA also transferred the crucial responsibility of annual inspections, which include financial analysis of shelters, enforcement of residential regulations, employee qualification checks and examinations of transition programs to permanent housing. At Webster House, for example, case-managers identify guests who frequently visit the shelter and recommend to them a transitional program that provides permanent housing. A typical annual inspection by the OTDA would evaluate the efficacy of this program (Hudson River Housing, “Programs and Services,” 02.16.16).
Celaya explained that local administration performs regular inspections of Webster House. According to Celaya, “The site is regularly inspected by the Health Department and Fire Department, and we are audited semi-annually by the County Comptroller’s Office, which also includes on-site inspections. We have consistently earned good ratings on these audits, which are reviewed closely by all county directors, and which are posted publicly for comment”.
DiNapoli’s audit was the first to conclude that communication between the shelters and local administrations, as well as local administrations and OTDA, lacked evidence of appropriate and substantial documentation. Referring to the broken chain of communication, Celaya noted, “Hudson River Housing is in the process of becoming certified. The requirement to be certified or licensed had never been brought to our attention before last week”.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo concurred that a gap has opened up between the state’s regulatory agencies and its community-based initiatives. He commented, “The state has to do a better job, a more aggressive job of enforcing its oversight” (New York State, “Rush Transcript: Governor Cuomo Appears on NY1 to Discuss Initiative to Strengthen State’s Anti-Discrimination Efforts,” 02.16.16).
The governor’s stance raises concerns for advocates among Vassar students. Habitat for Humanity Volunteer Daniel Gutowski ’16 commented, “I know that Cuomo has been very aggressive on homelessness in trying to make these programs more efficient and in-line with rules and regulations. My concern would be that, in doing so, are we able to meet demand in times of extreme cold? Are we able to improve upon health and safety standards while also increasing permanent capacity? Are we considering longer term solutions to mental health issues, poverty and homelessness?”
The organization draws much of its support from a combination of property income, grants and private donations. The 2014 annual financial report indicates that property income accounted for 31.3 percent of its budget and that private donation accounted for 6.3 percent of its budget. Hudson River Housing’s website acknowledges, “Hudson River Housing relies on the generosity of individuals in our community, like you, who believe in our mission and in the power to make a difference in the lives of others” (Hudson River Housing, “How You Can Help,” 02.16.16).
VSA Vice President for Activities Calvin Lamothe ’17 reflected on Jewett House’s donation to Hudson River Housing through CommunityWorks. He wrote in an emailed statement, “While it is not part of the Houses’ duties to raise money for charity, I do believe that it is important for Vassar students and student orgs to support the local community in some way, as Vassar is such a large (and sometimes imposing) part of the Poughkeepsie community.”
Hudson River Housing remains confident in the face of institutional barriers raised by the poor oversight of OTDA. Celaya reflected, “Many players—from government to foundations to churches and other voluntary organizations to Hudson River Housing staff—have come together to ensure a thoughtful response to homelessness.”