Most families rejected from homeless shelters did not get a full required review of their housing histories before being deemed ineligible, a new audit from City Comptroller Brad Lander finds — including one who’d applied 38 times.

In all, the Department of Homeless Services tossed 42% of 46,200 family applications between January 2019 and mid-March 2020, the audit found, in a process that begins at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) intake center on East 151st Street in The Bronx. 

THE CITY reported last week that rejections have since swelled, with three in four applications disqualified.

The comptroller’s office completed the audit in 2021, under Lander’s predecessor, Scott Stringer. In a sample pool of 50 pre-pandemic cases, the Department of Homeless Services declared 33 ineligible due to “non-cooperation” and “did not adequately attempt to assist” 21 of them with efforts to obtain information about where they lived previously, a crucial part of the application.

Those 21 families averaged more than 15 applications each, the audit found, and the majority were ultimately deemed eligible. Of all the applications DHS received during the audit period, 68% were from people who had already been rejected and tried again.

“There is a significant risk that families were delayed or denied temporary housing assistance for which they may have been eligible,” the audit stated noting also that “In some cases, DHS conducted no investigations before deeming the applicant families ineligible for non-cooperation.

Said Lander in a statement provided to THE CITY: “Families seeking shelter should not have to face homelessness and be subjected to a revolving door of denials due to the failure of PATH intake personnel to run an online search.”

Comptroller Brad Lander speaks at a Working Families Party rally in Zuccotti Park in support of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ gubernatorial campaign, Feb. 9, 2022. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The audit followed a May 2019 request to Stringer for a probe from Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker who is now CEO of Win, a homeless shelter provider and service operator. Quinn reported then that nearly half the families in her shelters had been turned away at least once, and called the application process a “demoralizing, brutal experience.”

A spokesperson for the city Department of Social Services and DHS, Ian Martin, responded to the audit with a statement to THE CITY.

“Thousands of families applied for and received shelter during the pre-pandemic time period in question, but this report focuses on an extremely small number of cases with outlying circumstances, where individuals were determined not eligible for shelter and also had a significant number of reapplications,” he wrote. 

He added: “Every day, at DSS-DHS, we provide shelter, services, and supports to thousands of families experiencing homelessness, as we help them to get back on their feet — and we remain committed to providing that safety net no matter what and continuing our efforts to strengthen it.

No Help

Unlike single adults seeking shelter, families must prove they have nowhere else to stay, under a 2008 court decision ensuring their right to shelter.

DHS requires families to detail where they have lived for the past two years on their application,  along with contact information for people who can confirm their housing situation and that they have no other housing alternatives. It’s an arduous process that’s especially difficult for some without a conventional lease, are street homeless or live doubled up with friends or family. 

The audit found that DHS in many cases did not help families with the process. 

Among the 21 rejected cases where auditors deemed the assistance inadequate, in only three did DHS produce evidence that its staff had used a public records search to help complete applicants’ housing history. In another eight cases, DHS made no effort to document their eligibility, according to the report.

The comptroller’s office urged DHS to help applicants find more names of contacts who can help verify housing histories — only to get pushback from the homeless services agency, the audit says.

DHS defended its practice in its official response to the audit: “It is neither practical nor advisable for DHS to reach out to find contacts that applicants did not list on the Temporary Housing Application. Reaching out to such contacts could violate the family’s privacy and, in some cases, put the families in danger.”

Lander’s office noted that DHS could have at least sought applicants’ consent to contact unlisted individuals but did not.

Among 249 applications filed by the 21 families, the audit found, DHS failed to investigate 151 addresses. In most of those cases, DHS responded, families had not provided specific contact information for references.

The audit concluded that DHS “lacks adequate controls over critical aspects of its investigations,” finding that the agency didn’t ensure that workers complied with policies, procedures or state directives required to verify housing history before finding that a family was ineligible. 

Pleading to Adams

Quinn says she is “not surprised” by the audit’s “troubling” findings.

“The timing has worked out actually because now we’re not at the end of the de Blasio administration when not a lot of listening was going on, but at the beginning of the Adams administration where there’s a willingness to look at past practices” and what needs to be changed, she told THE CITY. 

Christine Quinn, who heads the family homeless services organization Win, speaks at a Brooklyn Borough Hall event for incoming deputy mayors, Dec. 20, 2021. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Advocates for the homeless say the audit confirms trends they’ve been noticing for years.

“Families should be believed when they say they are homeless and show up at the city’s doorstep for help, and not have to go through an investigation to prove they need help,” said Craig Hughes, a senior social worker at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project. 

“The idea that families are showing up for shelter because it’s some sort of luxury is based on age-old racist and classist myths about homeless and poor people, which should have never guided policy to begin with.”

Jacquelyn Simone, a policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said the audit’s findings highlight that DHS workers — whose title is “fraud investigator” — are overly focused on rooting out abuses, “as opposed to a shift for the city to help people gather documentation.” 

In its formal response to the audit, DHS committed to update any outdated agency guidelines and train its workers, but vigorously defended its practices and pointed to state directives that guide its work.

“DHS already investigates all applicant families’ housing histories and options in accordance with guidelines and procedures,” the agency’s reply reads.