Since the start of the pandemic, 1,700 inmates released from city jails and state prisons have stayed in hotel rooms at taxpayers’ expense, including more than 200 who have been checked in for more than a year, according to new data obtained by THE CITY.
THE CITY previously reported on the dramatic expansion of the program run by Exodus Transitional Community, including at a Fresh Meadows, Queens, hotel where a former inmate alleged she was sexually assaulted by an Exodus employee. THE CITY also found that the security firm hired by Exodus operated without the required state license.
Now, Queens elected officials are demanding that Mayor Eric Adams pull the plug on Exodus, which has run the hotel-release program since 2020 and which recently scored a new $40 million deal.
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, Assemblymember Nily Rozic and Councilmember Linda Lee — all Democrats — wrote to Adams Monday demanding that he reevaluate the effort, which began in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID.
“It has been nearly two years now, COVID-19 rates are at the lowest they have been since last summer and these disturbing reports by THE CITY make it imperative that the contract be terminated immediately,” they wrote.
Last week, two years after the program started, there were still 800 former inmates staying in six hotels scattered across the city, and the mayor’s office could not say how much money has been spent to date on hotel rooms alone.
And though city officials said the hotel program would end once the state of emergency was over, Adams aims to keep it going, even as it’s no longer designated as pandemic related.
The Queens officials pointed to an August 2020 letter to them from Elizabeth Glazer, then-director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, who wrote, speaking of the Wyndham hotel in Fresh Meadows: “There are no future plans for use of this hotel beyond the COVID-19 response.”
Speaking with THE CITY Tuesday, Rozic stated, “Our understanding is the housing situation was always intended to be temporary and always contingent on there being a pandemic. Because there’s no metric, they’ve been able to extend and extend no matter how many times we ask them to provide us with an end date.”
Rozic noted that “this state of emergency narrative is what the city hid behind for the hotel to be used,” and added: “We’re ending all sorts of other [pandemic-related] protocols and for one reason or another this one hasn’t ended.”
Where Is the Money Coming From?
THE CITY found that the initial COVID contract with the non-profit Exodus Transitional Community to run the program expired in December, but Mayor Eric Adams awarded a second contract in January as a way of “keeping 800 people from flooding the homeless system,” according to mayoral spokesperson Jonah Allon.
That decision contrasts with an effort that began nine months ago in the de Blasio administration to begin moving homeless shelter residents out of hotels where they’d been placed during the pandemic back into shelters as part of the effort to re-open the city.
The new contract is no longer a pandemic-related expense, so it’s now unlikely to be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With about $40.9 million expected to be expended going forward, the program will now be the sole responsibility of New York City taxpayers.
Under the original contract worked out by the de Blasio administration, the city paid Exodus for job training and counseling and for ultimately moving some ex-inmates out of hotels into transitional housing. That contract quickly rose from $835,000 to $55 million in just 16 months. Adding on the second contract, the program is set to cost in excess of $96 million, not counting the cost of hotel rooms in 2020 and last year.
City Hall says 500 ex-inmates in the program have been placed in jobs and 250 have been put into transitional housing. They couldn’t provide an account of how much was spent on hotel bills through last year.
But for the 224 former inmates who’ve stayed in the hotels for more than a year, the hotel bill alone now tops an estimated $16.3 million, based on the estimated $200-per-night-per-lodger cost the city expected to pay. Another 179 ex-inmates who’ve stayed in hotels for between six and 11 months have racked up at least another $6.5 million in hotel bills.
Under the new contract with Exodus, inked in January, the hotel bills are included, which City Hall estimates will come to $19 million through June.
Last week, city Comptroller Brad Lander declined to register that contract with Exodus, sending it back to Adams because of the revelations uncovered by THE CITY documenting that the security firm Exodus relied on at three of its six hotels did not have a state watch guard license as required by law.
On Friday Adams spokesperson Allon said the mayor’s office has “been in regular communication with the comptroller’s office, and are responding to all of their questions regarding this contract in a thorough, expeditious manner.”
The first contract with Exodus is also the subject of ongoing probes by the city Department of Investigation, the Queens district attorney and the state attorney general. Those investigations center on the use of the unlicensed security guard firm.
And Adams ordered a “comprehensive review” of all emergency COVID-related contracts following THE CITY’s reports. Some $4.1 billion in pandemic-related contracts were not subject to oversight by the comptroller.
Asked what justifies continuing the program under a no-bid “emergency” contract now that it’s no longer under the pandemic umbrella, Allon stated, “The administration is committed to ensuring that the nearly 800 people currently returning from incarceration utilizing emergency reentry hotels receive critical services that keep them from entering our homeless shelters or ending up on the streets.”
As of Tuesday, the mayor’s office had resubmitted the contract for registration. If Lander signs off on it, it’s set to expire June 30.
Asked if that will be the end of this program, Allon replied, “The city is currently exploring options following the end of the current contract.”