Mayor’s plans for shelter safety draws mixed reviews

By Bill Parry

Two state senators, who have both criticized the homeless shelter for families at the former Pan American hotel in Elmhurst, had vastly different reactions to the program Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday to improve safety at the city’s shelters.

The NYPD will immediately begin retraining all Department of Homeless Services security staff and send an NYPD management team to DHS to develop an action plan to upgrade security at all shelter facilities, restore a domestic violence program for family shelters, and create an extensive reporting system for incidents that occur in shelters.

The reforms are a response to data on violence in shelters developed as part of the 90-day review of homeless services ordered by the mayor, officials said. While state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) applauded the new safety measures, state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) eviscerated the move.

“I am very happy with Mayor de Blasio’s plan to improve safety in our city’s homeless shelters,” Stavisky said. “Since the Pan American shelter opened, I have encouraged more communication between the NYPD, the Elmhurst community and shelter staff members—something I feel is vital in maintaining a stable and safe facility for families. I am especially happy the domestic violence program in DHS shelters is being brought back.

“In the last year or so, the 110th Precinct reported sending officers to address domestic disputes at the Pan American seven times a month, on average. That is unacceptable and makes for a stressful environment for the hundreds of children residing there. If these families are to overcome the tremendous obstacle that is homelessness, we must provide a safe space for them to do so.”

Avella, who led several rallies at the Pan American hotel opposing a permanent contract for the shelter, which was finally approved on a fourth attempt in last month, offered a scathing rebuke of the mayor’s plan.

“Ask the experts and advocacy groups about their thoughts on de Blasio’s action combating homelessness and they’ll tell you the same: Too little, too late,” Avella said. “It’s the hallmark of reactionary politics. Not doing anything until conditions spiral out of control and public outcry forces your hand. The playbook is predictable: superficial actions, postured press releases and a policy more concerned with downplaying the state of affairs than uplifting them.”

The mayor’s reforms were announced a day after a blistering report from NY1 based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Law that detailed violent and critical incidents that were reported in all city shelters in 2015. The statistics showed 416 reports of domestic abuse in addition to 153 assaults that resulted in arrest and 90 reported sexual assaults, rapes or attempted rapes.

As a result thousands of homeless chose life on the streets because of the violent reputations of the shelters, according to Avella.

“Having the NYPD train DHS security doesn’t help eliminate that perception,” he said. “It is a half measure when what’s desperately needed is a doubling down on shelter security.”

Avella offered a suggestion in light of the recent decision by the NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. that gives officers discretion on petty crimes arrests.

“If the city is no longer policing petty crimes with arrests, forego DHS security and redirect NYPD to a new shelter beat,” he said.

The de Blasio administration said the NYPD review will bring an expert perspective on how best to upgrade a security system and provide the safest conditions for shelter residents, staff and security officers.

“This administration has increased spending for security by 35 percent since taking office, which has led to increased security staff and tools, including X-ray machines, magnetometers at our shelters,” spokeswoman Ishanee Parikh said. “No one is disputing that more needs to be done, and the NYPD is the best choice to assess our security at all shelters and make plans to enhance them.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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