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NY must act urgently to improve homeless shelters

NY must act urgently to improve homeless shelters

Comptroller's report highlights horrible conditions faced by state's vulnerable population

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring that all homeless people in the state stay in shelters when the temperature outside dropped below freezing, even if police had to bring them in against their will.

But despite how cold it got outside, a lot of homeless people opted to take their chances with Mother Nature rather than go into a shelter.

One major reason cited was crime.

The other reason was spotlighted in a scathing report issued earlier this week by the state Comptroller's Office. It addressed the condition of 39 of the nearly 160 homeless shelters operated by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

The 18-page report is available online.

During the surprise inspections undertaken between April and August of last year, the comptroller's office "found squalid, unacceptable conditions, the most egregious of which pose obvious risks to health and safety," including "evidence of rodent and vermin infestations at 16 shelters; fire safety issues at 15 shelters, including expired fire extinguisher inspections and fire panels operating in 'trouble warning' mode; and mold growth in residents’ rooms at eight shelters."

In general, most the shelters that were inspected — none in our area — would found to be in generally poor condition and lacking basic standards for cleanliness and security.

The comptroller also found that many shelters didn't have enough showers or toilets to accommodate the large number of people they serve.

In photos that accompany the report, you can see toys sitting in a shower area covered in black mold, garbage piled up in a children's play area, holes in ceilings, heavily soiled mattresses, duct tape over holes in walls to keep out rats, and other issues that are not only violate state health code, but basic human decency.

Imagine if someone you knew or loved was given the choice of either living in those conditions or freezing in the streets.

What was most disturbing in the report, if "most disturbing" can be ranked, was the dismissive attitude demonstrated by some of the shelter operators and landlords to the comptroller's findings and the unwillingness of some to address previous violations or even provide a plan for corrective action.

Even before the report was issued, state and city of New York officials had been waging a political battle over the conditions faced by the state’s homeless — an estimated 80,000 people.

Gov. Cuomo pledged in his state of the state message in January to provide millions of dollars to improve conditions for the homeless, as has New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The state's homeless shelters cost taxpayers at least $1 billion a year — money for which we're clearing not getting the best bang for our buck.

The $2.6 billion pledged over the next 15 years to create more housing for New York City's homeless will be helpful in the long-run. But what about now?

Understanding that homelessness is a complex human problem with no easy answers, it's still no excuse for our state allowing people to live in the conditions spotlighted in the comptroller's report due to negligence, indifference and lack of aggressive oversight.

In addition to addressing the long-term root causes of homelessness, the state must make it a priority address current conditions in homeless shelters that directly affect these individuals on a daily basis.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that "poverty is the worst form of violence."

It's time for New York to end the violence against our most vulnerable citizens.

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