City accuses state of ‘political media hit’ in latest homelessness fight
City Hall is accusing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration of recklessly leaking a false report of a gang rape in a homeless shelter to a tabloid, in what a city commissioner described as a “political media hit” designed to make the city look bad.
That charge — laid out in a letter sent by Human Resources Administration commissioner Steve Banks to Sam Roberts, commissioner of the state’s office of Temporary Disability and Assistance — represents another extraordinary escalation in the public battle between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio over the city’s homelessness problems.
Two weeks ago, after a woman and two of her very young children were murdered in a hotel being used as a temporary shelter, the Cuomo administration ordered the city to beef up its security at shelters, hours after the de Blasio administration had already publicly announced plans to do so.
City Hall was angry, and Banks responded in a fiery missive.
This weekend, the fight went further.
On Friday, Roberts wrote a letter to Banks saying that an OTDA inspector who inspected the Bellevue shelter for homeless adult men in Manhattan heard a story from a security guard about a gang rape that had happened there. Roberts wrote a letter to City Hall, demanding to know why the incident hadn’t been reported and why the state hadn’t been informed. Just after the letter was sent, the New York Post published an article about the incident.
At City Hall’s direction, the NYPD investigated and found no evidence that the rape occurred.
In a two-page letter sent Monday, Banks blasted the Cuomo administration’s actions as irresponsible and potentially criminal.
“This political media hit resulted in the predictable screaming tabloid headline 'Cuomo demands probe into alleged ‘gang rape’ at the Bellevue Men’s shelter,’” Banks wrote.
New York state law prohibits making “gratuitous reports to law enforcement,” in circumstances where the false report would result in “public alarm,” Banks wrote.
Further, the false report could scare homeless people living on the streets out of coming into shelter for help, undermining both the city and state’s efforts to get homeless individuals off the street.
“We are advising the outreach teams that your allegations are false. But the damage has already been done,” Banks wrote.
Banks is overseeing reforms of the city’s homeless services program, through a 90-day review that will end in March of 2016. Those efforts “could be a watershed moment in addressing the need to prevent and alleviate homelessness,” Banks wrote.
“We are taking ownership of an issue that has built up over many years of failures at the state and city level,” Banks wrote.
“Rather than take ownership of the problem and working with us, you continue to blame us for the failures of the past, including your own,” he continued.
“If you want to keep writing letters with false allegations so they can be released to the media, we will continue to respond,” Banks wrote. “But this is not helping homeless children and adults in New York City. We hope you will reconsider your course of conduct.”
The state’s response to Banks carried no hint of reconsideration.
"Consistent with state law and pursuant to regulations the state issued in January, shelters are required to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the residents under their care,” said OTDA spokeswoman Kristi Berner in a response.
“Those expectations were verbally communicated to city officials — which has seen three violent incidents in their shelters within the last month — and then memorialized in writing. We expect every locality to continue to adhere to the standards put into place to protect the most vulnerable among us, moving forward," Berner said.
In a follow-up statement, Berner pointed to recent audits which she said "showed the shelters to be wholly unsafe and mismanaged," as well as to recent "unprecedented" violence, which together highlight "the city’s failure to provide adequate security at its own facilities."
The statement continued: "The city condemns themselves by now asserting there was no attack, which can only mean their security official is not credible or is incompetent. It is also ironic that the city protests that OTDA informed the press, when in fact, today a New York Times reporter was provided the city’s letter before OTDA had even received it. Bottom line is the mismanagement of the shelter system, which has been acknowledged by the NYC Department of Investigations, NYC Comptroller, and top NYC officials, must be corrected and it is OTDA’s legal, constitutional, and ethical obligation to ensure that happens."
Read the full letter here: http://politi.co/1RXS92d
This story has been updated with additional comment from OTDA.