NEW YORK — Patrice Joseph believed she was singled out when she complained about cigarette smoke and plumbing problems at the homeless shelter where she and her teenage son and daughter lived in Jamaica, Queens.
Within days last month, the family was moved to a shelter in the Bronx. Joseph, who had two jobs, said she lost a position at a Queens pharmaceutical manufacturing company because she was often late for work or absent.
“This affects our day to day more than people imagine,” Joseph, 38, said. At her request, she was then moved to a third shelter, in Briarwood, Queens, she said.
More than 130,000 people stay in the city’s sprawling shelter system annually. Placements are based on what is available, and the city says it must sometimes move people to protect safety and health. But for years, many shelter residents have complained about being moved for seemingly no reason, while being given little notice or a chance to appeal.
New numbers seem to back up their concerns.
Out of more than 24,000 transfer requests between 2014 and 2018, almost 17,000 were “administrative,” a term that is supposed to be used for emergencies, according to Safety Net Activists, an organization seeking better treatment of low-income people that received the numbers from the city’s public advocate’s office. The organization released the numbers Thursday.
Advocates for homeless people have long argued the city has been overusing administrative transfers as emergencies to skirt a policy that requires shelter residents to receive 48 hours’ notice and the right to appeal if transfers are involuntary.
Only 12 of the 24,000 transfers were listed as involuntary.
“It sort of confirmed to us the experience of everyone,” said Helen Strom, a community organizer with Safety Net Activists. “Sometimes, people are just given a MetroCard and told to carry their belongings in a trash bag.”
Sending people from shelter to shelter — including between boroughs — runs counter to the city’s goal of providing stability to people who are homeless. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Steven Banks, the commissioner of social services, have a five-year plan to open 90 new shelters, with the goal of placing people in their neighborhoods and close to anchors such as schools and extended family.
Banks said most transfers occur in an effort to improve conditions for the residents and to meet the needs of a shelter system responsible for thousands of people each night. “The vast majority of our staff are making hard calls every hour of every day,” he said.
Banks added that client records were confidential, so he could not comment on why a specific individual was moved.
The city has had difficulty getting an accurate picture of the reasons for all transfers because the database that tracks them is outdated and contains inaccurate or incomplete entries, said Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services.
At a City Council hearing in December, Banks said he could not immediately provide the council with transfer data.
The city plans to spend $13 million to overhaul the database. But people living in shelters say the overhaul should start with the transfers themselves, which sometimes feel arbitrary, retaliatory or carried out with indifference.
Last year, a bundle of legislation aimed at accountability and transparency in shelter transfers was introduced in the City Council and could go to a vote as early as this summer.
One bill would require that shelter residents be given the specific reasons for a nonemergency transfer, in addition to 48 hours’ notice. Another would require the city to post signs inside shelters explaining the appeal process. A third would require the city to publicly report the number of people transferred with 72 hours’ notice or less and to provide the reasons.
McGinn said the data provided to the Safety Net Activists was raw, was incomplete and included transfer requests that were never carried out.
He provided The New York Times with data showing more than 37,000 completed transfers between 2014 and 2018. Analyzing the type of transfers was difficult since, for example, employees did not complete paperwork more than a third of the time, and the rest were all called “administrative,” suggesting a problem in the system of documentation.
Dejana Yard, 26, said she successfully fought an administrative transfer last year after staff at a shelter in Brooklyn tried to move her out. Yard, who said she has anxiety, had permission to have a dog as emotional support; her 9-year-old daughter, who also has mental health problems, had a cat. Yard said she believed a dispute about the pets with staff members led them to try to move her.
“Two hours later, I was served with transfer papers,” she said. “It’s like one, two, three, bam, you’re out of here.”
She declined to sign the papers and reached out to the Legal Aid Society, which resolved the matter. Yard and her three children remained in the shelter, along with their cat, Anastasia, and dog, Bella, until they moved into an apartment.
Some shelter residents said some transfers may make sense on paper, but do not work in reality.
Benny Masondo, 26, and his fiancee, Laura Cummings, reached out to the Legal Aid Society this month. The couple and Masondo’s 13-year-old sister entered the shelter system about two years ago after he lost a fight with the New York City Housing Authority to stay in an apartment in Harlem that was leased to a late relative.
The family was first placed in a shelter in the Bronx. That shelter was closed under a city plan to eliminate so-called cluster apartments, which are private apartments used as shelter units. A year later, they were placed in another cluster shelter in Harlem, and Masondo said he was grateful because it put him closer to his doctor in lower Manhattan.
Masondo, who has epilepsy, said he signed a request for an apartment in subsidized housing for people with chronic illnesses. He said that document was used to transfer his family to another shelter to accommodate his medical condition.
The new shelter had air conditioning, which the couple believed the city thought would help Masondo’s condition. But the air conditioner was initially broken, and the shelter unit was a studio, meaning the small family no longer had any privacy. It also lacked a refrigerator with a freezer and meant a longer train ride to Masondo’s doctor and his sister’s school.
“The system really looks at us as a number,” Cummings, 22, said.
Masondo’s 13-year-old sister, who asked that her name not be disclosed because of the stigma of homelessness at her school, was recently honored as the top student in her seventh-grade class. She participates in several after-school activities, including the debate team.
“When I had a room, I could sit and paint,” the girl said. “I don’t like moving because I’ve been moving my whole life. I just want to move somewhere nice.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.