Improved housing for some people living with a mental illness


NYAPRS Note: This article highlights just a fraction of the complexity of finding fair and safe housing as a NYC resident facing poverty and/or a disability.  A lack of housing is not just substandard investments in state subsidized or furnished residences; people living with consistent financial stress often have no option but to live in conditions that exacerbate illness, mental health problems, and trauma. Official reorganizations to these housing environments can do little more at times than shuffle the deck and make way for more people in need of affordable rent. How to put an end to the revolving door in a city with no better housing options for all?

 

New York City Starts Moving Tenants From ‘Three-Quarter’ Homes, but Others Are Left Behind

New York Times; Kim Barker, 8/2/2015

The Sleep Inn in Brooklyn is newly built, featuring rooms with tasteful flower pictures, mini-refrigerators and fresh towels. Many of its first patrons have never stayed in such a nice place. One said he felt as if he was in the sitcom “The Jeffersons,” “movin’ on up,” as the show’s theme song says. Another said it felt like the Trump Plaza.

They are hardly typical hotel guests. On public assistance or federal disability, many struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some are mentally ill; others, simply homeless. The city moved them to the hotel to relieve overcrowding at so-called three-quarter homes, as part of its response to an investigation by The New York Times published in May.

The unregulated dwellings, seen as somewhere between regulated halfway houses and actual homes, crammed up to eight people in a room and often had rodents and blocked fire exits. So far, a new city task force has moved more than 200 people out of the overcrowded homes, many to hotels. For the lucky, this was like winning the lottery.

“It reminded me of my grandson’s first Christmas,” said William White, 59, who shared a room with seven other men at his three-quarter house. “I’m under the tree looking for Santa Claus.”

But even as the 90 men and women now living at the Sleep Inn in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood talk about their new home with huge grins, the fact that it is temporary underscores the challenge for the city in resolving the three-quarter-housing issue. It hopes to find permanent housing for these residents soon, but the monthly $215 housing allowance set by the state for people on public assistance — which covers the rent for many three-quarter-house residents — is too low to pay for much of anything.

While moving some tenants, the city left behind others, saying the homes were no longer overcrowded. But some of those remaining said they still lived four and six people to a room, with bedbugs and squalor. Some said they were still being forced to go to specific substance-abuse providers for treatment, even though that is illegal. They mourned the missed opportunity.

“There’s no ability for me to get back on that train,” said Wayne Deas, 54, who gave up his hotel slot because he had a knee replacement and could not pack quickly enough. He also thought the city would be coming back to his Brooklyn house to move out other tenants.

Another man, from a home on Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn, said the city had inspected his two-story home but moved nobody, despite 28 people living there.

Other homes quickly replaced the tenants they had lost. A man with schizoaffective disorder was recently moved into a three-quarter house run by a company called Miracle House — after the city task force removed others from that house. “I went two days without sleeping,” said the man, who wished not to be named because he has nowhere else to live. “There are bedbugs and roaches.”

Steven Banks, the commissioner of the administration and a key member of the task force, said the city was trying to address one problem at a time.

“We’ve inherited a mess,” Mr. Banks said. “But nonetheless, there are solutions that can be implemented, and we’re pursuing those.”

Yet the fallout from the crackdown also shows how some operators are trying to evade scrutiny. There is no way to identify all three-quarter homes, which open and close regularly. Advocates estimate there are hundreds. So far, the city has inspected 64, after singling out dwellings receiving housing payments for 10 or more unrelated adults on public assistance. Because of this, many three-quarter-house operators are reducing the number of tenants on public assistance, and instead recruiting tenants on disability who pay their rent in cash, making the homes more difficult to track.

One tenant of a three-quarter home run by J.N.S. Homes on Ashford Street in Brooklyn said in an interview last month that the house had only five or six residents on public assistance and had not been inspected. Another man, who said he pays $565 a month from his disability check to share a room with three other men, said that his three-quarter home on Watkins Street in Brooklyn also had not been inspected. The men did not want to be named because they feared being evicted.

The city plans to spend $5 million to inspect three-quarter homes, repair problems and move people out. In addition, it will pay an unknown amount to help place people in permanent housing by covering the difference between their housing allowance and their actual rent, up to $1,200 a month. To help tenants navigate options, they will be matched with case managers, Mr. Banks said.

Problems with three-quarter houses have built up for decades, exacerbated by the housing crisis and the policies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who pushed to reduce shelter rolls. Even though the homes violate building codes, they now fill a crucial housing gap for people who have nowhere else to go, often coming out of substance-abuse treatment or prison. State parole officers and city drug court judges sometimes require people to live in three-quarter houses.

Because the homes are effectively unregulated, unscrupulous providers have multiplied. Some require their tenants to go to specific outpatient substance-abuse providers for treatment, raising questions about potential kickbacks from Medicaid payments.

The investigation by The Times focused on homes run by a man named Yury Baumblit, long known for requiring tenants to attend treatment groups at providers of his choosing. Tenants and former employees said Mr. Baumblit was paid kickbacks for every visit, although Mr. Baumblit denied this.

The city’s task force has inspected two of the three homes run by Mr. Baumblit in Brooklyn. Tenants and witnesses said Mr. Baumblit yelled that tenants should not leave and even videotaped them. At one house, a task force member called the police after Mr. Baumblit refused to stop videotaping. Intimidated, some tenants decided to stay.

Last month, Mr. Baumblit, 64, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to two felonies connected to insurance fraud, said that he planned to retire.

“I’m very sick,” he said, adding that his doctor had told him to move to Arizona but he did not have the money. (This year, he put his house near Brighton Beach on sale for $3.5 million.) “I’ll be dead soon,” he said. “Within six months, I need to stop the work.”

Mr. Banks said the task force would continue to monitor the inspected homes, plus look for new ones. The city was also meeting with advocates to identify other homes.

“Obviously there’s hundreds and hundreds more,” said Amy Blumsack, of Neighbors Together, which works with three-quarter-house tenants.

Patterns with certain substance-abuse providers emerged in interviews. Clients of homes bearing the name It’s a Better Life at Living said they were forced to go to outpatient treatment at North Crown Heights Family Outreach Center, and nowhere else. Clients of homes run by Miracle House say they were sent to ACI Rehab in Manhattan.

Officials from It’s a Better Life at Living, Miracle House and North Crown Heights denied any such exclusive relationships. So did a public relations executive hired by ACI Rehab.

Another set of homes was run through six interlinked companies, with names like Green Hill Management Corporation and Smadar L.L.C., which share post office boxes and management. Tenants at these homes said they were forced to go to treatment at New York Service Network, which has courted trouble in the past for recruiting the bulk of its clients from homes run by Mr. Baumblit. Last year, it faced the revocation of its state operating certificate.

Tenants said they had to bring cards back from New York Service Network proving they had attended outpatient groups. A former employee for one of the Green Hill companies, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was worried about retaliation, said the people running the homes were paid $8 for each client outpatient group visit.

“That program didn’t help me at all,” said a former tenant, Luis Toledo, 43. “But we had to go.”

No one from the program returned calls last week. Anthony Cirillo, who manages the homes for the Green Hill companies, said the program stopped accepting clients from his homes on Thursday.

He said he was never paid any money for outpatient visits and that he allowed tenants to go elsewhere. Mr. Cirillo said it upset him when the city task force moved 70 tenants out.

“It broke my heart,” he said. “They think they’re going somewhere good, but I know what they’re going back to. I’m sure people have relapsed already.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/03/nyregion/new-york-city-starts-moving-tenants-from-three-quarter-homes-but-others-are-left-behind.html

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