New City Council Bill Could Prevent Action to Address Hostile Shelter Environments

The legislation raises concerns that it could exacerbate the issue most unhoused have with the system — negative treatment they receive from security personnel

A man walks toward the entrance for the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Kips Bay. The facility is one of the largest single-adult shelters throughout the city, servicing up to 850 men each night. New York, NY. Thursday, Mar. 10, 2022. Danielle Dawson for NY City Lens.

The New York City Council is currently deliberating a new bill that is focused on a persistent issue in the homeless shelter environment: use of force by staff, such as security guards and peace officers. However, it does not tackle it in a way that advocates find beneficial to support shelter residents.

The bill, Int. No. 0039-2022, would prohibit the Commissioner of Homeless Services from implementing a policy that prevents peace officers and security guards from using non-deadly physical force for self defense in their role.

City Council Minority Leader Joseph Borelli, along with Councilmembers David Carr and Kalman Yeger, introduced the legislation on Feb. 24 — three days after Mayor Adams’ “Subway Safety Plan” went into effect, targeting the issue of sheltering in the transit system.

Advocates for the unhoused argue this bill’s approach makes little sense considering that mistreatment at the hands of staff is one of the biggest issues with the current shelter environment. 

“What we need is for Council members to focus on securing access to affordable permanent housing for homeless and other vulnerable New Yorkers, so we can reduce the need for shelter services,” said Joshua Goldfein, staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project. 

The bill’s sponsors could not be reached for comment regarding the bill, after multiple phone calls and emails.

New York Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan last month to remove chronically street homeless people from the subway. Critics of the plan regard the efforts as a renewal of a historically ineffective “shelter-first” approach to addressing homelessness. New York, NY. Thursday, Mar. 10, 2022. Danielle Dawson for NY City Lens.

Most shelters employ either security guards or peace officers contracted through the Department of Homeless Services. Peace officers differ from police officers, as they do not have the same level of authority and are limited to specially assigned duties under New York State law. Unlike the six-month program to become a full-fledged police officer, peace officers are only required to go through 99 hours of training at a minimum, as mandated by the state. Many advocates argue this is not sufficient to adequately address the needs of the clientele in shelters. 

“It’s almost never appropriate for force to be used in interactions with staff and interactions with shelter residents,” said Goldfein. “It should only be in the most serious incidents, where there’s no choice but for somebody to resort to the use of force to prevent something from happening. But those [peace officers and security] who are present, for the most part, are not trained to do that.”

Many people spend years in shelters waiting for housing, either through one of the city’s voucher programs or supportive housing. During that time, they are in facilities that have less than ideal conditions, in part because most congregate shelters were not designed for long-term living. 

For most unhoused New Yorkers, shelters are not a place where they feel safe or in control, due to things like the environment itself and negative staff interactions.

Noticeable distress is present outside the 30th Street Men’s Shelter. As the city cracks down on bedding down in the subway, the conditions of shelter facilities like these are coming under renewed scrutiny. New York, NY. Thursday, Mar. 10, 2022. Danielle Dawson for NY City Lens.

“[Peace officers and security] got a job to do and they’re needed, but they need to go through a lot more training,” said Alphonso Svyille, an advocate for the unhoused. Syville had been in and out of shelters since 2010, before obtaining his apartment last year. “You know they’re right there when you first come in. They call us bums, tell us to go get an apartment, they degrade us. That’s not part of their job description.”

Syville sued the city for use of excessive force following an incident that occurred in 2019 while he was living at the Jack Ryan Residence, a 200-bed shelter in Chelsea for single adult men with mental health service needs. 

He was denied entry to the facility after he told staff that he was unable to put his belongings through a metal detector, due to a lower back issue for which he was seeking surgical treatment. According to Syville’s recounting and court documents, the Department of Social Services peace officers present proceeded to arrest him, placing him in a headlock to take him to the floor where he was handcuffed. Syville said that he was forcefully lifted by the officers using his dreads, before he was taken downstairs to the DHS office onsite.

The city settled Syville’s lawsuit for $10,000, according to court records.

This kind of treatment is a common complaint among those who are currently in the shelter system — verbal and physical mistreatment contributes to feelings of discomfort with the environment, leading many to opt for bedding down on the streets.

Despite the anecdotal evidence from those in the system, the number of cases reported by the city relating to “serious violent incidents,” which is used to describe physical altercations among residents and those involving staff, is quite low, though it has steadily increased over the last few years.

In 2021, the city reported 2.5 incidents per 1,000 residents in the single adult shelter system, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. However, advocates say that there are likely more altercations that go unreported by the city.

The number of residents arrested in shelters has also nearly doubled since last year, with 320 made between Oct. and Dec. of last year compared to 166 from the same period the year before.

This increase is in part due to the ending of COVID-19 programs that decreased the population of people in congregate shelter environments, including the “de-densification” initiative which used vacant hotels as shelters in order to lessen the spread of the virus among the unhoused.

“People need to feel safe and they need to be safe while they are in shelter,” Goldfein said. “The problem has been that the kind of law enforcement presence and response in shelters has resulted in too many people feeling intimidated. Criminalizing people's behavior is not the way to do that.”

The bill was referred to the Committee on General Welfare, however, no hearing on it has been scheduled. While the likelihood that it will be passed is uncertain, advocates stress that this is not the kind of reform needed to address issues within the homeless services system.

“The city has to move away from the current model of shelter facilities that resemble prisons,” Shams DaBaron, an advocate for the homeless known as “Da Homeless Hero.” “We need to push for the mandating of a more humane and holistic environment with services on site. These places should not be warehouses for human beings, but serve as a pathway to permanent and supportive housing.”