Answers about shelter slow to come

CB8 members unsatisfied with city's lack of candor over new homeless shelter

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For weeks, neighbors hoped to get answers from city officials about the proposed men’s shelter at 6661 Broadway.

After deciding not to show up when they were first invited, a contingent of officials from the city’s social services department joined the recent Community Board 8 land use committee meeting. That’s where committee chair Charles Moerdler took the agency’s deputy commissioner, Erin Drinkwater, to task.

The first note of contention? The city provided answers to many of the written questions the community board had sent it regarding the specifics of the North Riverdale shelter that is expected to house up to 130 single men. The problem? Those answers arrived just minutes before the meeting started.

“This was an error,” Drinkwater said, apologizing. “I’m finding out what’s happening with my staff, because these were supposed to be sent.”

Among the issues Moerdler focused on was the organization the city tasked to run the shelter — African American Planning Commission Inc. — and what has been some negative recent reporting on its operations. Earlier this year, The New York Times investigated into social service providers who held city contracts, including AAPCI. The paper shared that chief executive Matthew Okebiyi had employed his brother Raymond as the non-profit’s chief financial officer.

In addition, another family member reportedly sat on the organization’s board of directors, suggesting a familiarity among those involved in the organization that might make some on the outside take a second look.

But that wasn’t exactly a topic Drinkwater had much to share. When asked about her agency’s policy on nepotism, Drinkwater simply told Moerdler DSS follows rules set by the New York City Procurement Policy Board.

She also had little to say about the overall siting process — why this particular property just south of the Yonkers city line was chosen for a shelter. That’s because she said it wasn’t DSS making that decision.

“The site was brought to us by AAPCI as part of their response to the open-ended” request for proposals the agency issued, Drinkwater said. “They’re required to demonstrate site control.”

But it was no accident this particular shelter ended up within the confines of CB8, Drinkwater said. “This is a community board that currently does not have any shelters to serve single adults.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to address homelessness is to ensure high-quality shelters inside every community board across the city, Drinkwater said. This helps keep many of its sheltered residents close to neighborhoods they call home, while attempting to spread out these services across the city and not just cluster them in certain parts.

Yet unlike other parts of the city, this shelter site near West 262nd Street isn’t close to typical city services like transportation, hospitals, or even the nearest police precinct. Another DSS facility, 5731 Broadway, is not only within walking distance of a couple of 1 train stations for the families that live there, but it’s also right next to the 50th Precinct.

“If you’d look for site selection near an ambulance center, near a subway station, near a hospital — if you had looked, rather than having the person who wants the contract do your looking for you — the fox in the chicken coop — you will come up with a very different result,” Moerdler told Drinkwater. “That’s the concern the people here have.”

But if CB8 wanted to be so involved in site selection, Drinkwater said, why didn’t it or local elected officials respond to those very specific questions as part of an annual site survey DSS sends.

“Unfortunately, Community Board 8 provided no response to those letters that were sent,” Drinkwater said. “Our elected officials did not provide responses in any letters that were sent.”

Moerdler disputed that claim, although he didn’t provide evidence of CB8 responding to the survey otherwise, but added he spoke personally with Drinkwater’s boss, DSS commissioner Steve Banks, about other site alternatives back when 5731 Broadway was still being worked out. Moerdler, however, didn’t share what specific sites he had suggested to Banks to build a shelter.

Beyond where the shelter will be, Drinkwater also outlined what the facility would offer when it opens in 2023 including on-site social services, case management and housing support. There also would be round-the-clock security, as well as provided transportation for the men who would live there.

But that’s not enough for Councilman Eric Dinowitz. One reason he opposes the shelter is because of how hard it is to get answers for questions he asked DSS months ago. Sure, Drinkwater and Banks have talked with him, but have yet to provide his office with the details he’s sought.

“We’ve also been in touch with the comptroller’s office to say we don’t know enough about this contract,” Dinowitz said.

“We don’t know enough about the service provider. There’s a lot that we don’t know.”

All of that, the councilman said, demonstrates an unwillingness to be transparent.

“It feels like DSS is working against us,” Dinowitz said. “There is no other way to frame it than that.”

CB8 chair Laura Spalter — who has long come out in opposition against any homeless shelter proposals in this part of the Bronx — questioned AAPCI’s relationship with the site’s developer, Court Square Realty. She revealed the 6661 Broadway was selling for $4.4 million — a figure she said was $1 million to $2 million more than the asking price for similar properties in the area, although she didn’t cite any specific comparison study she based that on.

“We had worked with several owners in the neighborhood, several developers, and they brought several sites to our attention,” said Okebiyi, AAPCI’s chief executive. “We presented those sites to (the city’s homeless services department) as part of the RFP process, including letters of site control from various owners, and the asking price. Based on that and the suitability of the site, it was determined that this particular site was an appropriate site for us.”

After an intense back-and-forth with Moerdler, Okebiyi agreed to submit his organization’s research to CB8 this week, while Drinkwater committed to come back and speak with the committee after the new year.

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