Stringer audit finds unsafe conditions for infants at city homeless shelters, including one Staten Island site

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — An audit from the office of Comptroller Scott Stringer released Monday found infants in some of the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters living in hazardous conditions.

Health and safety deficiencies at the 13 sampled facilities, one of which was on Staten Island, included exposed electrical outlets, mold and mildew, vermin infestations, broken or missing window guards, and unsafe cribs, according to the report from the comptroller’s office, based on a 2019 audit.

“As a parent, I find the conditions we uncovered shameful, distressing and unacceptable,’’ Stringer said. “Our young children are the most vulnerable among us; they rely completely on us, as adults, to protect and care for them. Our investigation into infant safety in homeless shelters found that the city has utterly failed in its responsibility.”

The audit found three deficiencies related to infant safety — a cluttered crib, sharp edges and repair necessities — in a unit at the Staten Island Family Center in Graniteville on Villa Avenue, according to the report.

Stinger’s office also inspected nine facilities in the Bronx, four in Brooklyn, four in Manhattan, and two in Queens, according to the report.

His office found health and safety deficiencies at 13 shelters they visited and 92% of the 91 units they inspected, including 32 units with four or more safety concerns in 11 shelters. Stringer notes that approximately 50 infants die each year across the five boroughs from preventable, sleep-related injuries.

The audit also found no apparent consequences for shelters found to be in violation. Five of the 13 shelters in the audit sample remained in business with the city despite poor performance evaluations from DHS.

In response to their findings, Stringer’s office issued 10 recommendations to the DHS, including for the inspected shelters to address the deficient conditions, to play a prescribed safe sleep instructional video for all families with infants, and to establish and enforce consequences for noncompliance with infant safety policies.

“Families experiencing homelessness enter the shelter system seeking safety and stability in their time of need, and we must not allow a child’s first days and months to be spent in an environment that poses a direct threat to their health and wellbeing,” Stringer said. “I urge the city to immediately correct this unacceptable state of affairs and adopt the recommendations outlined in this report to protect the young lives in shelter care.”

According to a media release from Stringer’s office, DHS “generally agreed” with nine of the recommendations, but contended that it was already in compliance with three of them.

DHS officials, in their own statement, expressed concern about the audit’s process, noting the exclusion of their staff from the site visits and the delay in providing DHS staff with the site visit observations. The delay, they say, impeded the agency’s ability to take immediate action to remedy deficiencies and put families’ safety at risk.

Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for DHS, said the department’s highest priority is the health and safety of the people it serves, and he pointed to its efforts on issues like infant safety, along with the health of new and expecting mothers. Their efforts involve inter-agency partnerships with the city’s Department of Health, McGinn said.

He added that “despite the sensationalism of this report,” the department’s efforts over the past few years had cut infant deaths by more than half, and that there had been none related to safe sleep concerns so far in fiscal year 2021.

“The death of even one infant is an awful tragedy — and one death too many,” McGinn said. “The audit appears to have deliberately overlooked and omitted these efforts, the host of life-saving strategies we’ve implemented, the resulting data, and really any mitigating factor that would’ve changed the preconceived narrative here, which only serves to further stigmatize shelter, poverty and the experience of homelessness.”

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