VICTORY over “Cluster Site” Shelters – but what now?

Shelter residents protest outside the 57th Street home of a rich cluster site slumlord – August 2015

On January 4th, the de Blasio administration announced that it would be ending the “cluster site” shelter program.

This was welcome news to our members, who have been fighting this program for years.

“The cluster homeless shelter system is broken and represents the worst combination of expensive housing, bad conditions and poor access to services that homeless families need,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Importantly, cluster shelters take badly needed low-rent apartments off the market.”

Our work organizing cluster site residents to force the city to abandon this dangerous model was covered in the Daily News, the Observer, VICE NEWS, DNAinfo, the Mott Haven Herald, and more. With the support of PTH housing campaign leaders, cluster site residents fought back when the Department of Homeless Services gave them 24 hours and two garbage bags to move out – and they won. That battle was the subject of this harrowing short documentary. Many of those families were moved to permanent housing – but most, like the thousands of other families in cluster site shelters, are still stuck in limbo.

“There’s no accountability,” said housing organizer Ryan Hickey of homeless rights organization Picture the Homeless. “The landlords aren’t under contract. And yet there’s still nothing coming out of the de Blasio administration for permanent housing. These buildings used to be, by and large, rent-stabilized apartments. A lot of these families could afford that full rent-stabilized rent. If they can’t, they should be subsidized by the massive amounts the city is paying these landlords.”

Rallying shelter residents at a cluster site facility, demanding permanent housing - June 2015
Rallying shelter residents at a cluster site facility, demanding permanent housing – June 2015

We also held two town hall meetings over the past year and a half, along with our community development allies Banana Kelly, where we brought together policy makers and electeds and low-income tenants and cluster site shelter residents to demand an end to this program.

If you’ve got a strong stomach, check out these photos of disgusting conditions in cluster site shelters – smuggled out by our members who risked being “logged out” and having to start all over again for exposing these!

So we’re happy to hear that the program would be abandoned, but there’s lots that’s extremely worrying in the administration’s language surrounding the phase-out. For one thing, three years is a long time, given how many people are stuck in these places and what kind of hell they’re dealing with on a daily basis.

“The goal is laudable and in large part what we wanted,” said PTH housing campaign leader Scott Andrew Hutchins. “But they’re talking about the buildings becoming market rate once rehabbed, which won’t help . And they’re saying families will be moved into other shelters, and says nothing about them living in the apartments once they are rehabbed. Finally, withholding rent for non-compliance is insufficient. The buildings need to be confiscated and their license to rent property revoked.”

“I feel like this is a good move,” said PTH member Donna Morgan. “But a three year waiting period? And they don’t find you a place – you have to go to another shelter? We’ve been fighting this fight for two years. They need to help me out of the system NOW.”

Protesting next-day evictions and atrocious conditions at a cluster site shelter at 941 Intervale, Bronx NY. – August 2014

“People are starting to hear what we’ve been saying, about the money wasted,” said PTH member Charmel Lucas. “But it’s not enough. They’re still not talking about permanent housing.”

Perhaps most worrying is the fact that, according to the Mayor’s press release, the plan is to transition to “a new model” that “includes affordable housing, flexible shelter space and community space in the same building.” And while this sounds great in theory, when we met with Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli back in February she shared that they were working on a mixed-use model in which shelter units effectively subsidize low-income housing units in the same building – this will mean that instead of eradicating the extremely expensive shelter-industrial complex, it will become even more important to the city, and even harder to disrupt the fundamental dynamics of the housing market – which is what we need, if we’re going to actually address the homelessness crisis.

Homeless people know how to do this. We have a better plan. We collaborated with nonprofit housing developers to create the Gaining Ground Pilot Project, which uses the community land trust model to save taxpayers money at the same time as it develops housing, incubates small businesses, creates jobs, and slows down displacement from gentrification.

These are the solutions the mayor should be investing in. We’re currently working with two different deputy mayors’ offices to help bridge the vast bureaucratic gulf between homelessness and housing, but City Hall won’t budge until we build broad support for these commonsense ideas among the general public – people like you.

Every big victory creates a lot more work. If we don’t push harder now, the cluster site program will be replaced by some other Band-Aid solution instead of the big-picture change that’s needed. But we’re ready for the challenge.