Organizing for Better Conditions at Auburn Shelter

This winter’s record cold has been especially difficult for the hundreds of residents of the Auburn Family Residence in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The heat has been sporadic at best, the food is served frozen or rotted, and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has increased the pressure on residents to leave the shelter system. DHS also recently cut all funding for Advantage, one of the last open housing-voucher programs. Fort Greene Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership (SNAP), a community service and action agency on nearby Myrtle Avenue, has been organizing with shelter residents and the Fort Greene community to demand better conditions and services.

Auburn, one of the city’s largest shelters, opened in 1985. The 10-story building, formerly a hospital, stands between the Whitman and Ingersoll housing projects. It has a reputation as one of the worst shelters due to its bad conditions, disciplinary environment, and lack of services. It is one of only a handful of family facilities directly operated by DHS, as most are privately operated. Late last year, DHS began transferring single women into the shelter. That makes it the only city shelter for both families and single people. Auburn’s census currently includes nearly 75 families and more than 50 single women.

Auburn became popularly known in 2009 when staff bullied one of its residents, Martha Gonzalez, and demanded that she pay more than 60 percent of her income as rent to stay in the shelter. Gonzalez worked with Legal Aid and others to eventually overturn the city’s shelter-for-rent policy, but a host of other problems has continued for Auburn residents.

In recent years Auburn has functioned as a “Next Step” shelter, a facility for residents who DHS has deemed “difficult” and who therefore need intensified pressure to leave the shelters. Next Step clients are systematically treated with less respect and more surveillance than other residents are. Auburn is no longer a Next Step facility, but the pressure to leave remains. This is part of the Bloomberg administration’s policy, which views homelessness largely as the fault of individual deviancy, not a lack of living-wage jobs and a dearth of affordable housing.

SNAP has been working with residents at the shelter nearly a decade ago, and began organizing consistently in 2008. First, the group works to build relationships with residents. It runs an open-access computer lab providing services like resume help, financial counseling, computer-literacy courses, and case help. It also conducts weekly outreach in front of the shelter, which DHS security sought unsuccessfully to stop. SNAP fills gaps in services and living-needs and brings residents together to advocate and organize as an approach to bettering immediate conditions.

Long-term neighborhood residents respond with anger to the unjust treatment of the residents. SNAP also organized the Auburn Independent Monitoring Committee, a committee made up of local elected officials, concerned community members and Auburn residents, to keep folks in the loop about Auburn, to examine new approaches to advocate for and organize with residents, and to develop strategies to hold DHS accountable. Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 has taken an active role, as have elected officials such as City Councilmember Letitia James, Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, and state Senator Hakim Jeffries, in demanding DHS change things at Auburn.

The city’s response has been predictable. DHS has responded to organizing with bullying and information blackouts. Its most generous gesture to SNAP and Auburn residents has been to offer meetings with Commissioner Seth Diamond and other officials. These meetings are largely futile exercises in the theater of power. DHS crowds the meetings with staff whose physical presence dwarfs SNAP staff and Auburn residents, then officials verbally attack and disrespect residents, in an effort to send an intimidating message throughout the shelter about standing up to the city. Because shelter residents have almost no control over what happens to them in the DHS system, bureaucrats use their power to scare residents out of organizing as a unified body.

DHS been significantly more responsive to negative press and politicians’ demands. Unfortunately, much of the response to politicians is for show and rarely results in tangible achievements. Individual cases may receive individual help, but systemic conditions and issues continue to be ignored.

SNAP and Auburn residents have been attempting to get DHS to provide reasonable heating to residents for years, as every winter residents complain that their rooms are terribly cold. Auburn’s heat comes from a boiler in the basement of an adjacent building, and not enough reaches many rooms, particularly those on the far sides.

The city has danced around this issue. In 2009, as part of a larger asset-management effort, DHS replaced hundreds of faulty windows. Residents reported to SNAP that they were still freezing. In 2008 DHS announced plans to overhaul the heating system, but it now says there is no room for another boiler and no money to put one in. Most recently, DHS has argued that the heat is adequate. However, a FOIL request showed that 14 families changed rooms because their old rooms didn’t have enough heat in November and December last year, before the winter’s coldest months.

SNAP organized drives with Community Board 2 and the Fort Greene Association to give Auburn residents blankets and coats. The blankets are taken within minutes, and over 100 coats have been distributed. Each time they have been offered them, residents describe their rooms as freezing and unlivable.
In 2009, DHS eliminated the housing-specialist position, the only position dedicated to helping residents get into long-term housing. This task has been dumped onto case managers who are already overloaded. Staff have pushed residents to agree to side deals or punished them for “noncompliance” for refusing to sign leases for apartments they never got to see or were unacceptable. Community members have demanded DHS hire a housing specialist.

While the Advantage voucher program is a known failure—the subsidy was limited to two years, it covered significantly lower rent levels than other programs, and was plagued with bureaucratic inefficiencies, DHS has closed it to people who don’t already have apartments. (It is trying to eliminate Advantage for all tenants, but that is being fought in the courts.) This leaves only supportive housing and HRA shelter allowances as the options for getting out of the shelter system—or somehow, miraculously finding an affordable apartment on the private market.

In March, however, community pressure won a small but important victory for Auburn residents. DHS accepted a second microwave oven for the shelter, donated by Community Board 2.

Craig Hughes is a community organizer with Fort Greene SNAP. Claire Cuno is a community-organizing intern.