It may be hard to believe that Michael Jordan was born in the imposing, 10-storey brick building at 39 Auburn Place in Brooklyn 48 years ago. The building, which was once Cumberland Hospital, has no celebratory indication of its link to the basketball legend.
Instead, there is a grimy plaque under a dull grey arch stating that the 59-year-old building is now the ‘Auburn Family Reception Center’. It houses homeless people.
But the Fort Greene shelter has become a legend of sorts. Neighborhood organizations, advocacy groups for the homeless and seven interviewed residents say that it is infamous as one of the worst shelters for homeless families in the city.
Auburn’s reputation grows from long-standing complaints of poor heating, unpalatable food and bad guards at the shelter, including unconfirmed complaints by four women of some guards asking for sexual favors from residents.
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services said that they have received no reports of sexual charges and would take immediate action if it did.
“Auburn has always been a difficult place—it has a reputation of being not a good place to be sent to,” says Dr. Georgianna Glose, executive director of the Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership, a community advocacy organization.
SNAP has been monitoring the complaints of Auburn residents for nearly five years, and has been actively chasing DHS to provide better conditions at the shelter. More than 100 families reside in the city-run shelter, a small slice of the nearly 8500 families currently using New York City’s municipal shelter facilities for the homeless.
The heating issues at Auburn have been the subject of much worry in the past. The heating system at Auburn is shared with the nearby Cumberland Diagnostic Center and as a result, shelter residents have complained about not having a dedicated heating system of their own.
DHS had a capital budget item to replace the drafty windows as well as the heating system at Auburn a few years back. Although new windows got installed, the heating system was never replaced after the budget got rescinded. While replacing the windows has certainly helped, the partial fix is not enough, says Dr. Glose.
“The heating appears to still be an issue,” says Rob Perris, District Manager of Brooklyn’s Community Board 2, echoing Dr. Glose’s sentiment. “At this time, DHS is essentially saying the replacement of the windows has solved the problem, and if there’s a continuance of problems in individual units, they’ll move the people out of these rooms and into someplace else where it is warmer. But that seems very much a stop-gap kind of response.”
M, (all names of Auburn residents in this article have been withheld by request), has been living at the Auburn shelter for almost a year with her daughter. She admits that the heat has gotten better at the shelter with the arrival of the new windows, but agrees that the heat ‘needs to be a little bit more.’
M, however, wholeheartedly agrees with the issue of unpalatable food that is usually served at the shelter. At a Thanksgiving lunch thrown by the SNAP office, she seems exhilarated seeing the food that is served, and packs some for her daughter as well. “We don’t really like the food at Auburn. They need to change that,” she says.
J. N. and her daughter N. N., Auburn residents since February, shake their heads angrily when describing the food at Auburn. “The food, forget it, you don’t want to know. Like, a month ago, there were maggots in the food,” J. N. says. “Maggots,” she repeats, pounding her cane on the ground furiously.
“If we could get a camera in there, the first thing I would capture would be the kitchen, because it’s so disgusting,” J. N. says. She says that they have been served old or expired food many times, a statement that has been repeated by six other residents interviewed for this article.
Then there is the question of how the food arrives. Since it is cooked at another location, it usually arrives cold at the shelter and families have to use a microwave to heat it up. However, there is only one microwave for the 100-plus families to use.
“What is terribly disturbing is that the residents have one microwave… but every administrator in that building has their own private microwave,” says Dr. Glose.
The community board along with SNAP had brokered a donation of an additional microwave to Auburn, but Perris called the process an extremely harrowing one. “You wouldn’t believe the kind of hoops we had to jump through to get them to accept it,” he says. And then shortly afterwards, the first one blew up, and so they are back to one again, says Dr. Glose.
Dr. Glose says that another common complaint is regarding the inappropriate behavior of the guards at the shelter. “The attitude of the guards towards the residents is abysmal, it’s horrible. We’ve been after the DHS to train the guards and to keep them under supervision. They say that they are adequately trained—but that still hasn’t happened,” she says.
“Prisoners, that’s what they treat us like. We’re not convicts, we’re only homeless!” says M. W., who lives in the shelter with his wife and children. Fingers were pointed at the DHS police in the shelter, who were accused of being rude and playing favorites.
“It’s not the security guards, it’s the DHS police,” says N. N. “They think they are the police. They play favorites in there. And it’s obvious. There’ll be certain people they won’t check or they don’t care. And that’s not how it supposed to be.”
A few residents have also accused guards of asking for ‘favors’ in exchange for relaxation of the rules. T. M., a young woman who has been living in the shelter for about a month, accuses the guards, both male and female, of not doing their jobs properly.
“The girls, they come in and sleep all day. The boys they come, they sleep and they want to have sex with you, and if you don’t want to have sex with them, they act all crazy with you,” says T. M., with two of her friends nodding their heads in agreement.
When asked to comment on these allegations, Heather Janik, press secretary at DHS, replied saying there had been no reports or evidence to indicate that the charges alleged by the residents took place at the Auburn residence. “Homeless Services takes all criminal allegations very seriously and were such a complaint to be made to the Agency, immediate and appropriate steps to address the situation would be taken,” says Janik.
Although Janik urges any resident with information about such incidents to report them, chances of Auburn residents actually doing that seem pretty slim.
When asked why they haven’t tried complaining to the shelter officials, T. M. says, “When you complain, they’re going to treat you dirty, and they’re going to f**k you over.” This was the worry of almost all residents interviewed for this article—complaining was not an option as they were afraid of being treated worse than they are now, or being sent to a far worse shelter scenario.
“There are a lot of people who would like to stand up and talk to someone. But they’re afraid. They’re going to find out it was us and they’re going to retaliate on us,” says J. N.
N. N. tries to explain the strife between the guards and the residents. “The workers like to complain about how we all have nasty attitudes and we don’t want to comply with anything. But it’s because of the way they act towards us,” she says. “It’s the whole ‘get respect, give respect’ thing. If you’re going to be nasty with us, we’re not going to want to sit there and be polite to you.”
Despite the resounding number of complaints, there were a few residents who put in a good word for the shelter. Z. N., a young mother with a baby son, did not have any problems with heat, the food or the guards and seemed particularly happy about ‘parties that were organized in the shelter for the holidays.’ Another young mother, S. R., said that while she doesn’t have problems with the heat or the guards, she, however, doesn’t eat any of the food served at the shelter. “The food’s spoiled, you see,” she explains, while holding her young son.
Since entry to the Auburn shelter is allowed only to the residents, assessing resident complaints and inspecting shelter facilities have proved to be difficult, say community activists. “They [DHS] point to privacy issues [when we ask for an inspection], and those are certainly important,” says Perris. “But it seems that they use that as a wall to hide behind, so that no one can see the facility, or see it fully.”
Although state inspections are periodically done at the shelter, residents say they are not much of a help.
“Every time somebody’s coming to visit, they cover everything up. That’s how they do it,” says J. N. “And then it goes right back to being the same thing. We already got that—we know when someone’s coming in now, because that’s when they start painting a little bit, telling us to do your room this way, that way…”
Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy and service organization, says that although shelters that are run by DHS tend to have poorer conditions than those run by private contractors, Auburn has been considered particularly bad for some time.
“Auburn is probably one of the family shelters we’ve received the most complaints about. It’s unconscionable that the DHS hasn’t done what it needs to do to address the issues there. It’s not even a question right now about the severity of the problems, and it’s been documented by multiple independent sources,” says Markee. “The city itself has acknowledged the problem—they just are not fixing it.”
Dr. Glose says that the rise in the number of homeless people may be the reason why the city seems to be overlooking the issues at the Auburn shelter. But she says that doesn’t excuse the low standards of the shelter, since the DHS are rigorous in their scrutiny of shelters run by non-profits.
“If there was one thing wrong, they’d shut them down. And this doesn’t happen to their own shelter. And that’s an issue,” says Dr. Glose.
J. N. looks forlorn when asked if she expects change at the Auburn shelter. “I want to get out of here. As long as we are not here; that’s all that matters,” she says. “People would rather be on the streets than be here.”
For related stories see: Next Step Shelter Uses Punitive Measures
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